Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Dad vs. Mr. Mom
Something strange – you might even call it “queer,” a term to which I shall return – happened two weeks ago. The day started ordinarily enough. I came home and Shelly went to work. I took Liko to a café for lunch and then we strollered to the Noe Courts playground. It was about 12:30 PM on a Monday.
Suddenly, at the playground gates, we stepped into a parallel universe where the laws of gender bent and vanished (cue Twilight Zone theme): Liko and I found ourselves surrounded by…men. Three men playing with three toddlers. No women in sight. What the hell?
One dad left, but another arrived. At one PM, it was still only dads and kids.
Naturally, we compared notes. All four of us agreed that this situation was, in our collective experience, unprecedented. It emerged that one of us was a full-time stay-at-home dad but looking for a job; two of us had quit careers to take care of our kids but still, out of necessity, worked part-time as freelancers; the fourth was ABD on a Ph.D. All four of our wives worked more hours than we did. For the ABD, this was his second time around; he had a two-year-old and a seven-year-old. “There are definitely more dads on the playgrounds now than there were five years ago,” he said.
At about 1:30 PM, the first mom arrived with her baby. Liko and I went home for a nap.
This incident raises the question: how many of us – and by “us” I mean men who are the primary caregivers to their children — are out there? The 2004 census says that there are 147,000 stay-at-home-dads – that’s at home, all day, every workday, with the kids. That’s about 1.7 percent of all U.S. parents who are taking care of children, which is, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, pathetic.
But recently I’ve started to wonder, is that number misleading?
I’m not one of those full-time SAHDs (hate that acronym), by the way. I work part-time. In most contemporary families, the primary caregiver, mom or dad, works at least part of the time – but we don’t how many men have powered down careers to stay home as much as possible with their kids. I’ve seen non-sourced estimates as high as two million, but even half of that number is significant. Why don’t we hear more about it? Despite a handful of trend stories about “New Fatherhood,” the at-home dad is largely invisible in the media and in most people’s minds – perhaps deservedly so.
Despite the doubling in the number of stay-at-home dads from 1995-2004, by almost every other measure – housework, making child support payments, etc. – men in aggregate are not pulling their weight with domestic labor. “American women put in additional five hours a week in housework once they are married, while marriage doesn’t significantly effect the number of hours a man does,” writes Ashley Merryman. “American women do 70-80 percent of the total domestic work – regardless of their employment status.” And so forth – I don’t think I need to beat this dead horse. We all know it’s true. So 147,000 men stay home with their kids? So what? Those guys are freaks. (I’m kidding, dads. Actually, I'm not. You are freaks. Don't be afraid. Fly your freak flag!) Part of the reason why I’m reluctant to jump on the whole stay-at-home bandwagon is that I understand how such choices are driven more by economic necessity than a parent’s individual desires. Lots of dads - 56 percent, according to one poll -- would like to stay home with their kids. So would a lot of moms. We’ll need to change the way the economy operates before we can change family life in any kind of positive way.
Perhaps – and I really am just speculating – the SAHD “trend” is just another symptom of the bifurcation of America into blue states and red states, urban centers of social progressivism vs. suburban and exurban redoubts of reaction. Are proliferating stay-at-home dads a bunch of affluent, latte-drinking, BMW-driving metrosexuals who wouldn’t know how to fix a water heater or shoot a deer if their lives depended on it? Are Red State dads all patriarchal deadbeats who couldn’t wash a dish or change a diaper if their lives depended on it? Part of the answer is probably locked in the census; someday I’ll have time to research it (just by looking at the geographical concentration of SAHDs and then superimposing distribution of income and education – seems like somebody’s probably already done this).
The dads-at-home I know in Noe Valley do, in fact, tend to be highly educated, cultural-creative, espresso-loving guys: an archeologist, a Web developer, a writer, a private gourmet chef. One is a former teacher who now sells real estate because that offers more time to be with his son. Most are white; one is Asian; one is mixed race, predominantly black. None are as vain as metrosexuals are supposed to be; it’s hard to preen when all your shirts have baby-drool spots on the shoulder. But yes, these are all comparatively privileged men who have ended up on the right side of the information economy, educated and creative. They have options. Staying at home with their kids is almost, from this perspective, a status symbol.
But all that might just reflect the class and demographic character of my neighborhood. (Also: we are all straight. On the other side of Castro, I do encounter a small number of gay dads.) Nationally, I suspect stay-at-home dads are quite a bit more diverse. In fact, according to a Spike TV survey – I have no idea how reliable this survey is – majority of stay-at-home-dads are black. Many stay-at-home-dads are simply unemployed and looking for a job, and according to data, many of those men are actually not doing their share of housework.
What about the ones who voluntarily father full-time or most of the time, and take primary responsibility for running homes? In addition to meeting more at-home dads in my neighborhood, I’ve recently spent quite a lot of time lurking on online forums and blogs for dads-at-home, absorbing who these guys are and how they think about their work as fathers. A couple of qualities strike me.
First, no one is complaining. No one particularly worries about being invisible, ignored, whatever. Most – not all, but most – are doing what they want to do, and they’re happy doing it. “None of us at home fathers go into it in order to be some sort of social role model,” writes “Tragula” in response to one of my blog entries. “So, no, we don’t deserve medals. At least not for that. If anything the correct response from people would be a completely neutral one. But we do have to put up with some shit from the less enlightened crowd, and face some additional obstacles in a mom-centric world. For that a pat on the back once in a while can be nice, but is not required.” Exactly.
Second, they are alienated. Dads-at-home know they’re outsiders. “I soon learned that the stay-at-home dad is not included in the social network of stay-at-home moms who typically have playgroups,” writes a fellow named Bill Dow. “When you are at the playground with 10 other mothers, it's easy to feel like a fish out of water.” It doesn’t matter how progressive you feel yourself to be (and many of these guys, BTW, are not at all politically progressive) or how much you love being with your kids, you’re still a man in concentric worlds of women and children. You stand out and you stand outside the circle, listening to conversations you can’t participate in. You know you’re hurting your career prospects. You know that many men look down on your choice, or at least wonder if your choice means you can’t hold down a real job.
And yes, as the contents of "Daddy Dialectic" testify, all that does sometimes make me anxious. But mostly, I don’t care. I’m glad to be an outsider. In online SAHD circles, Mr. Mom is supposed to be an offensive term, but I find it fitting. When I’m taking care of Liko, I don’t feel like I’m “fathering” him. In my mind – and this is just the thought I was raised with, not the one I want to have – a father goes to work and comes home in the evening. "Fathering" is playing ball, patting on the back, putting food on the table. An honorable role.
A mother, meanwhile, is home changing diapers and cleaning baby food off the floor and kissing skinned knees. That's also honorable and often honored. That’s what I do. So I feel like by staying home with him, I’m “mothering” Liko. I’m a mom, or at least, that’s my role. In many respects, a man out in the middle of the afternoon with his toddler, who is known to neighbors and neighborhood shop clerks and waitresses as a “Mr. Mom,” is a man in drag, and queer in the most political sense of the term. Why shouldn’t I be proud to be a Mr. Mom? I hope someday “Dad” and “Mom” will be interchangeable with regard to childcare, but we ain’t there yet. For now, I’m happy to be queer.
To end where I started: there are indeed more and more of us queer dads on the playground, or so it seems. Good. Despite all the social ambiguities, I'm glad. Now here's the really interesting question: what effect will our choices have on the next generation? Hopefully, Liko won't see "fathering" the way I do. To him (hopefully; things can change) a dad will be somebody who cooks, does dishes, and takes care of him. Hopefully, he'll have company. Hopefully. We can always hope.