If there was ever a stereotype more negative, more degrading, and raised more eyebrows, it’s probably the one surrounding men bearing the title of “stay-at-home-dad.” In the eighties, “Mr. Moms” were made rather famous by Michael Keaton’s portrayal of just that. His character highlighted all the reasons men usually don’t want to be a Mr. Mom: The whole reason Keaton becomes one is because he loses his job at a car manufacturing company and is beat out by his wife who lands a job in an advertising company quicker then he can find another position. He fights to gain respect from her new jerk-face boss who picks her up for a business trip in a suit and a limo while Keaton struggles to control the vacuum, the plumber, the baby, the laundry…and his temper. The new roles he and his wife play are clearly unnatural and they start to bicker, resent, and envy one another.
Of course we’ve come a long way from the Mr. Mom of the eighties. Now many men are choosing to stay at home not because they “failed” and lost their jobs, but simply because the woman is earning more and when a couple makes the decision that they would like one parent home full-time with their children, the natural choice for who is going to kick the 8 to 5 is obviously the one earning less. Yet, there’s still something a little strange about it: call it lingering prejudice, ok, or call it entrenched, disgusting stereotypes–but whatever you want to call it, the uncomfortable aura the title “stay-at-home-dad” conjures up has to be acknowledged and investigated.
In a recent episode of HGTV’s hit show Love it or List it, where a real estate agent tries to get the featured family to move and “list it,” while a designer tries to re-do their current home and make them stay and “love it,” the couple featured was a working mum and a stay at home dad who ran a daycare business out of the home. Just watching them interact was a bit off-putting. The mum was cold and very business-like calculating. She openly admitted she needed space away from her husband and all of the kid’s toy paraphernalia he had for his business, and quickly became irritated by his needs. At the same time, her husband was really rather whiny, yet quickly caved to her demands and was anything but masculine. Now of course they had issues that all can’t be blamed or perhaps none can be blamed on their obvious role reversals. If the roles had been reversed (the dad the cold, distant parent, working away from home, the mom the stay-at-home whiny pushover), I still would have been uncomfortable, labeled him a jerk and her probably a sad, trampled woman. Yet, is it strange of me to wonder if his whiny, seeming personal insecurities did not in some deep, perhaps subconscious way, stem from his position in their family as, well, the stay-at-home dad? And was her cold, distant air simply part of her (unfortunate) personality? Or, did it spawn from her disrespect for a husband who wasn’t exactly exemplifying very many, um, masculine attributes?
Clay Parker, a stay-at-home dad, recently wrote an article for “Lean In” –the site I mentioned last month in It’s Just Natural— defending his role as something contrary to all the negative stereotypes. In the article, he tackles many of the battles stay-at-home-dads have to face (a list much longer than their female counterparts). He makes some good points in his piece: The way he writes about being an involved father figure makes it a role of strength (as it should be) instead of weakness, and further, he highlights that the role of a stay at home parent (male or female) is an enormous contribution to the family unit and shouldn’t be a position ever to feel degraded about. Good points, yes? The title of his article “Stay-at-Home-Dads: We are Leading Men,” followed by the tagline, “forget the rubbish that men should always be ‘heads of household,'” however, begins a juxtaposition of ideas that never quite work themselves out in his piece: He is in essence saying that the idea men should be leaders, heads of households, primary bread-winners etc. is an outdated, inconsequential notion: “rubbish.” Yet, his primary argument in support of his role is convincing himself–and other Mr. Moms–that they are still “leading men.” I’m already confused. He says that he has “come to view [his] role as a ‘stay-at-home-dad” as a kind of ‘Best Supporting Actor’ role, absolutely essential to our story.” He then whips out his number one piece of evidence (from Wikipedia might I add) to help him come to terms with his role, saying that he doesn’t mind being a supporting actor because on Wikipedia it says “that there is sometimes controversy over whether a particular performance should be nominated in the Best Actor/Actresses or Best Supporting Actor/Actress category.” Ah ha! I smell jealousy of that #1 spot. His masculinity is showing! Stop that! Though he seems to want to be okay with being the one stepping down from the leader of his household, he attempts to twist every shred of evidence he can to make himself feel as if he still is…I wonder if it’s because it’s just…more…natural?
It’s quickly obvious that he knows his role is rather unnatural and the nontraditional reversal of roles is less than ideal. In fact, interestingly enough, he lumps his unusual household makeup with his “daughter’s neighborhood friends” who has “two moms.” He says that those moms “love and nurture [their son] as fiercely as any other set of parents.” Yet, he knows there is something unnatural, something less than ideal about his own situation as well as the boy with the two moms because, he follows his defense of non-traditionalism by saying that he has “no doubt that children lacking either a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ presence in their home find-and are found by-such role models in either a broader family context or the world at large.” In essence, in the middle of his defense of gender role reversal and nontraditional, same-sex parents, he is admitting that the ideal family is one in which children grow up with strong masculine and feminine role models. And, for those who don’t have them (when dads are at home, mums are away, or two moms/dads are in charge) they must look outside the home to meet this essential need.
So what? So what if the home is less than ideal and children must seek these “ideal” role models outside of the home? Clay Parker says the process of how one gets to the end goal of parenthood (“to raise happy, healthy children who will someday move in the world autonomously and with confidence”) doesn’t really matter…it’s the end result. But, processes do matter. In fact, most end results are a direct reflection of the process it took to get there. Processes are so important in fact, many can be patented. And if companies protect their processes so carefully in order to make the perfect end result every time, I’m not really sure why we are trying to change the way we’re raising children and gambling with the results of an altered process. Ideals aren’t always attainable, but it really does matter who’s in the lead of a family. Simply hoping the little ones will happen across them elsewhere is a process I wouldn’t like to toy with.
– <3 A.