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.


Elizabeth said...

Interesting post. As a working mom (whose husband is home with the kids), I worry that your definition of "mom" implies that working moms -- whether the kids are in day care or with dad -- aren't "real moms."

Anonymous said...

Ha ha. I've done the four dads alone at a playground routine over here in NYC. Except we mostly ignored each other. East coast reserve I suppose.

I agree that economics is driving the SAHD cultural evolution. But I've been surprised by how often who stays home is really the parent who wants it more. People will often position themselves economically based on their goals, rather than the other way around. It becomes a chicken/egg thing.

I agree with you about Mr. Mom. I refuse to be sensitive about silly stuff like that. And I think the Queer metaphor is perfect. It has often crossed my mind that there are many parallels. Such as coming out to your folks, and being "proud" of your choices.

Good blog so far, with very honest writing.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Elizabeth: I take your worry seriously; my point might be useful in one context and completely misguided in another. Are working moms "Ms. Dads"? Ugh. Sounds awful, politically and aesthetically, although I'll need to think more about why that should be the case. As far as men go, the whole queer/Mr. Mom thing is useful because it's gets beyond binary gender (nosediving dangerously close to grad school here! must...pull... up!) and establishes some continuity/solidarity with anyone who is living outside of gender roles that have been deemed essential to biology. But if you take the same standard and apply it to working moms, it stops being liberating.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I think you misconstruing the subtle irony with which Jeremy is owning the label Mr. Mom.

Even very progressive minded people like yourself can get trapped in the traditional gender paradigm. When there is no such thing as a "real mom" or a "real dad". Mom is just a word we use for female parent. Anyone who associates the word mom with nurturing is a little bit sexist. What better way to poke fun of them than to mocking use the traditional labels.

I like that Ms. Dad thing. I sometimes remind my wife that she needs to position herself in the workplace as a dad, and not with the other working moms. Who, truth be told, often don't take their jobs as seriously. Many of them don't have to, because they can quit whenever they like and just do freelance without worrying about the repercussions.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I wrote a bit more about the topic on my blog.

By the way, my guess is that the 2 million figure comes from a somewhat out of date Census report called "My daddy takes care of me," which found that fathers were the primary caretakers for 1.9 million preschool children.


Anonymous said...

Excuse me, Stephen? I know many working moms. None of them can afford not to take their jobs seriously.

Have you looked at the economy in the last five years? Husbands/fathers are just as likely as wives/mothers to get the lay off ax. Do you know anything about the divorce rate and who's long term income is more likely to nosedive? Both drop initially, men's tends to recover more quickly.

PARENTS take care of their children. Moms and Dads. This Mr. Mom/Ms. Dad terminology is not amusing or acceptable. Mr Mom was not funny when it came out and is less so now. Fathers who take care of their children are not moms. Mom does not equate to the nurturer. Elizabeth is right in her concern.

mark said...

J -- i have some comments, but no time. just wanted to wish you a happy 57th birthday or whatever it is.


Anonymous said...

I only said AS seriously.

And I was only speaking from my own personal experience on that, clearly. My wife works as a book designer, and her female colleagues usually have spouses in much more lucrative fields. The moms are usually more ambivalent than the dads about working in the first place. It's also a profession that lends itself well to freelance, provided a spouse has the health insurance covered.

Very often a second income in publishing barely covers the cost of childcare in an expensive place like NYC. Which is even more disincentive for them to work.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

It was a number-crunching analysis of income vs. childcare that caused us to conclude that it wouldn't pay for both of us to work full-time. Our exact arrangement emerged from the realization that I could make almost as much money as a part-time freelancer. It was, however, very hard to leave the security of a full-time job with benefits -- not to mention the well-defined role of full-time working dad.

Helen, I think we all agree that it's parents who take care of children. But you might be ignoring the degree to which caregiving is defined popularly as something done by moms and the alienation this breeds among stay at home dads -- for example, the magazine "Parenting", and all similar magazines, are transparently directed toward moms.

On her own blog, Elizabeth writes: "I write here a fair amount about what I call 'reverse traditional families' -- families with working mothers and at-home fathers.  One of the strains on women in these families is that we rarely give ourselves mothering credit for being breadwinners.  We often beat ourselves up for the things that we don't do, without giving ourselves corresponding brownie points for the things we do.  Maybe we should stop worrying about whether we're good enough mothers, and decide that we're damned good fathers."

This statement provoked a fascinating discussion thread on Elizabeth's blog: http://www.halfchangedworld.com/2006/04/parenting_and_m.html. Check it out.

Anonymous said...

i've been a damn good mother for 22 years. I have almost always been the full time with benitfits parent. Only for 2 years was I the full time back in school for the 2nd degree parent.

I am not a damn good father. That would be my husband who stayed home with our infant son and his 3 year old sister. Eighteen years ago.

You children need to wake up.

The terminology you use can knock us backwards.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I moderate comments, and I hesitated before allowing Helen H.'s comment, above, to be posted. This dialogue obviously touched a nerve with her; I'm concerned that it could degenerate into a flame war. To anyone listening who might want to respond, I urge restraint, civility, and thoughtfulness.

However, I decided to post it, as evidence of the degree of discomfort and uncertainty that permeates issues of gender identity, especially across generations, class, culture, and geography (is that everything? not by a long shot). Life in genderbending San Francisco gives rise to expectations and identities that might seem completely alien to those outside it (e.g., people in SF really are mystified as to why gay marriage is a big deal); likewise, as difficult as things are now, I won't even pretend to understand what it was like to embrace noncomformist family roles one, two, three, four decades ago -- well, I can try. That's all any of us can do.

Anonymous said...

I noticed the lag. The tone was intintionally chosen to illistrate the importance of the terms we use. Clearly, you noticed when it was blatent and hit squarely.

Anonymous said...

It is ironic that the first written instance I saw of the notion that Jeremy writes about -- that he is "mothering" Liko -- was from an unlikely quarter: Some "fathers' rights" group I saw rallying somewhere years ago. One of the allegedly aggrieved fathers held a sign that said "mother is a verb." Now there's an interesting notion, and one that comports with what our esteemed blog author is saying. But of course it's enormously culturally specific. What tasks or roles or responsibilities are assigned to mothers vs to fathers depends on time, place, culture, class, economics, the whole ball of wax. And even varies from family to family. In my own family, my father did a much greater share of what were considered mothering tasks, and my mother pursued a high-powered career at a time when women were still fairly absent in her field. Neither was a stay-at-home parent and both worked full time (or more), all made possible by the upper-middle class ability to afford ample childcare. It certainly shaped my own perception of fathering, and mothering, into what were once nontraditional but are now commonplace forms. Ironically, I think that the shift towards men doing more (note I say more, but not enough, since all evidence points to men still not doing their share) -- more parenting, more cleaning, more cooking, more childcare has been driven by economic necessity than by some sea-change in how Americans view gender roles and family responsibility. It is simply no longer possible for most families to survive on one income, so more women have had to enter the workforce. Now, thanks to the women's movement, they are able to, but thanks to 20+ years of Republican policies and consolidation of wealth and income, they have had to -- quite a catch-22. So men in straight households have kinda had no choice but to adjust and do more. So perhaps necessity is the "mother" of not just invention but of social change as well.

Mom101 said...

Thanks for pointing me the way here (however indirectly--and humbly) and yes, it's a very interesting and thoughtful discussion which I appreciate.

I suppose it should be possible for us each to appreciate both the masculine and feminine in ourselves without changing our labels. Biologically I understand that women are traditionally the nurturers and men, the hunter/gatherers. But to call any stay at home parent "the mom," by default that makes the working parent the dad. I don't want to be the dad! And my partner doesn't want to be the mom. He too uses the term Mr. Mom at times, but with a certain level of self-deprecation, and generally when he's feeling a bit insecure about his position. The only way to overcome that is to start making it okay to stay home, whoever you are.

And to Stephen's comment, I tend to allign myself with the all the working parents in the workplace. In ways I'm more like the men in that if I don't work, we starve. In ways I'm more like the women in that I often feel shitty for coming home every night after the baby's asleep. I'm glad to have the full spectrum with whom to commiserate--and grab margaritas after at tough week at the office.

Anonymous said...

I find it amazing you've ran into other fathers taking intest in their kids life at all. I live in Indiana and I've been a stay at home dad for 5 years. I had a florishing Medical marketing degree paying me a very healthy six figures a year. My wife came in one day and I could tell by the look on her face, she was pregnant. She told me she wanted to be a stay at home mom and I agreed 100%.

After 6 months she couldn't handle the loss of identity anymore. So, she asked me if I'd stay home for a year or so until our youngest was old enough to go to daycare. I agreed and she picked up a job as a nurse paying less but equal money. Two kids later, for a total of three kids, I'm still here.

I find most people in my community consider me "unemployed" and don't consider what I do to be anything more than me being lazy. I've been told by many people that I'm trying to be a "mom" and they denote the fact that I must be a homosexual. I find that the most amusing. Because I cook, clean, love my children, take them to get culture, cloth shop, grocery shop and be a good husband, I must be gay... However they wrap that around thier head, how knows.

Now, after going on really close to 6 years of doing this, I'm getting stir crazy. I wanted to get a job, but my wife is like a 50's husband. I'm not allowed to get a job until my "job is done here" meaning my youngest hits 1st grade (5 more years). at any rate, I found your blog interesting and its awesome to see other men in a somewhat similar situation.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Thanks for stopping by, Chad. This is a great comment.