This story, first published in spring 2011, is the winner of a CASE regional award for best magazine feature.
Like many men, Stuart Aitken thought he knew what it meant to be a father until he became one.
In 1990, the SDSU geography professor and first-time dad was researching his National Science Foundation-funded book “Family Fantasies and Community Space.” The narrative followed several dozen couples for four years, tracking how the birth of a first child altered their relationships, and how their environments fostered particular forms of childrearing.
Then unexpectedly, Aitken’s research took on a personal dimension. As he explored how childbearing changes family relationships, he was having serious misgivings about those changes in his own life.
“I do not know exactly why I became uneasy with my feelings about family life and my role as a father and husband, but I do know when. It was sometime between the birth of my first and second child, and it was after we found a home in which to raise our growing family.”
Another man might have buried his disquiet and moved on. But as a practitioner of human or social geography—the study of humanity’s impact on the world and the geographic contexts of social inequity—Aitken dug deeper to locate the root of his apprehension. He realized he was dissatisfied with society’s notion of fathering as a poor cousin to the serious business of mothering. At a deep emotional level, Aitken decided, mothering and fathering are not opposites, but fundamentally different behaviors.
In search of characters
From that embryonic notion, his book “The Awkward Spaces of Fathering” was born. Over the next 15 years, Aitken systematically examined how different men father and how different communities support fathering. He went in search of “characters” for the book, contacting several local Alcoholics Anonymous groups and a chapter of the ManKind Project, a global nonprofit that aims to “create a safer world by growing better men.”
He also joined a group of fathers who met on Saturday mornings at a local restaurant. At first they swapped anecdotes and parenting tips, but over weeks and months the group began to reveal intimate stories about themselves and their family lives.
In time, Aitken zeroed in on more than a dozen fathers whose stories raised issues of equity and heroism, and assigned each one an alias to protect his privacy. There was Buddy, a young man for whom fatherhood was both an accident and an inevitability; Andy, a father negotiating the bureaucratic quagmire of adoption; Rex, whose search for a better place to raise his kids was complicated by his battle with alcoholism; Stan, for whom home was everything; and Quixote, son of a migrant worker whose self- chosen moniker represented his fathering journey as a combination of tilting at windmills and tilting at the image of his own father.
Human geographers like Aitken mine both the science and the emotions of the world around us.
The emotional self
Aitken also decided early on to include his personal experiences in the book. “I’m not the type of academic who can withdraw from the research. I talk about fathering my children and about my own father, who was always working. I’m very much a part of the story.”
“The Awkward Spaces of Fathering” does read like a story, despite its solid grounding in years of research. Aitken’s preference for combining qualitative and quantitative data is indicative of a larger movement within academia that acknowledges emotions as an important indicator of who we are.
“Neuroscientists are doing amazing work on the relevance and importance of emotions,” Aitken said. “Statistics can’t capture this kind of information. Our emotional understanding of the world creates a support system for our decisions that is often far superior to our cognitive abilities.”
Human geographers like Aitken mine both the science and the emotions of the world around us. Their research considers the spatial relationships between people and the geographical context of human interaction, such as where people socialize and converse. In human geography, the scientific concepts of method and analysis work in tandem with the technique of storytelling to produce research that is powerful, nuanced and ultimately science-based.
Research as poetry
Aitken said the task of telling his characters’ stories was at once the most enjoyable and the most challenging component of “The Awkward Spaces of Fathering.”
He recalled one of many conversations with the character “Quixote,” a Mexican migrant laborer who crossed the border as a youth with his traditional, machismo father. “He sobbed as he told me about trying to make peace with his dying father. And I started crying, thinking about my father, who I never got to make peace with. These are the kinds of powerful emotions that I had to convey in the book.”
In an attempt to stay true to the emotional as well as the factual content of the stories, Aitken employs a genre he calls ethnopoetry. Not for him the grey columns of text synonymous with published research. Instead, he worked to convey the gestures and facial expressions of the men who had become his friends.
“I wanted to get at the embodied power that resides within the words. It is about the language of looks, twitches, grimaces, tears, laughter.”
Here, Aitken captures and presents an emotional realization in “Buddy’s” fathering journey:
Totally unready to be a father,
I had not held down any steady job,
Thought I knew everything,
no experience with children,
never even held a baby,
no desire to be a father
at the time.
The hidden story
As Aitken looked outside his community for further insight into fathering, he found stories to reinforce the emotional under pinnings of “The Awkward Spaces of Fathering.”
Surveys tell us great things, but they don’t help us understand what fathers are.
In one chapter of the book, he examines the life of British Prime Minister William Ewert Gladstone as an example of a “hidden story of fathering.” While Gladstone’s extraordinary public career and spirited rivalry with Benjamin Disraeli are well-documented, biographers generally downplay the year he left politics to care for his terminally ill infant daughter.
“It is an important comment on how men are constructed as public figures and how fathering as an emotional work is often ignored when we talk about men’s lives,” Aitken said. “If you want to understand fathering you can’t survey how many hours someone spends at home, at work, doing this or that task. You need to understand the emotional foundation for their actions. Surveys tell us great things, but they don’t help us understand what fathers are.”
A way forward
“The Awkward Spaces of Fathering” broaches the complicated issue of a man’s connection to his children by weaving together the global themes of fatherhood as an institution with the practice of fathering as a daily task. The book offers no neat conclusions about parenting, but it does suggest a way forward for fathers seeking stronger emotional ties to their families.
Aitken’s research found the most successful fathers were tightly connected to a community—be it the physical community of a neighborhood or the human community of a church or even an alcoholic recovery group.
“Our society has a destructive tendency to put the burden of parental success directly on an individual,” Aitken said. “What I do in the book is talk about parenting as a collaborative effort, not only between a mother and a father, but also between families and their communities.”
In the years since he began work on “The Awkward Spaces of Fathering,” Aitken’s own children have become adults. His son is now 21; his daughter, 18. The close bond he has with both children “astonishes” him in its stark contrast to the relationship with his own father.
One of Aitken’s current works-in-progress—a departure from the subject of fathering—will expand his lengthy vitae in the field of children’s geographies. He is also co-author with SDSU colleagues Fernando Bosco, Thomas Herman and Kate Swanson of a forthcoming book examining how children revolutionize thought and practice by reimagining the boundaries and events of their daily lives.
The study of children, youth and families in the context of their environments is a hot topic among social scientists, and SDSU’s human geographers are international leaders in the field. In recognition of their prowess, the estate of June Burnett, which funded some of Aitken’s work on children’s geographies in the 1980s, will endow a chair in the Department of Geography for a distinguished professorship in the study of children, youth, families and communities.
Michael James Mahin contributed to this story.
Disclaimer: The interviews included in the above video were conducted by SDSU Marketing and Communications and were not part of Stuart Aitken's research or book.