Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mr. Mom Revisited

I had never seen Mr. Mom, the 1983 film that marked the screen debut of the stay-at-home dad. Long-time readers (both of you!) might recall that I have never had a problem with the term "Mr. Mom," which many stay-at-home dads see as a knock on their masculinity. Nonetheless, the arguments against the film seemed likely to have a grain of truth: Hollywood depictions of caregiving dads tend to be problematic at best, hostile at worst.

But there I was, grinding away at my book, when I realized that I had to see Mr. Mom. I'm writing an entire book about stay-at-home dads; I couldn't not see the first movie devoted to the subject. So I went out and finally rented the thing.

Here's the premise: Jack Butler, played by Michael Keaton, is a Detroit assembly-line engineer who loses his job in a wave of corporate downsizing. His wife returns to work in the advertising industry, after eight years of taking care of their three children.

Before I go on, some historical perspective. Had this film been made in the 1930s, Mr. Mom would have been a tear-jerking melodrama: Jack would have sunk into alcoholism and domestic violence while his wife endured the humiliation of employment. Men of that period would not merely lose a job; they lost their very identity. Chronically un- or underemployed men did not turn their energies to the care and rearing of children and maintenance of a home, even as their wives took jobs; instead, they built walls around themselves.

“He loves kids and plays with them all the time, except when he’s out of work,” testified one mother in the 1920s. “Then he won’t play with them, but just says all the time, ‘Don’t bother me, don’t bother me.’ And of course the kids don’t understand why he’s different.” In his 1994 book Fatherhood in America, historian Robert L. Griswold provides example after example of early 20th century fathers who were utterly destroyed by unemployment. These fathers may as well have died or abandoned their families, as many did.

Back to Mr. Mom, which was made at the height of the Reagan recession--I actually lived in Michigan at the time, where the movie takes place, and many people there called it a depression. In real life, thousands of auto-industry employees like Jack were being thrown out of work. But unlike most men during the Great Depression, Jack turns his energies to taking care of kids and house.

The stay-at-home dads of today often resent the Mr. Mom caricature of a bumbling dad-at-home, but I found the film to be much more complex than this stereotype suggests. Jack certainly does struggle with the tasks of being a househusband--his clumsy efforts to cook, clean, and change diapers are milked for slapstick comedy. But as the film goes on, Jack and his wife both grow into their new roles--they even help each other along, trading advice and support in crucial moments, drawing on their respective experiences--and by the end, Jack is a very competent and confident homemaker and his wife is a successful advertising executive.

The real significance of Mr. Mom lies in the fact that it tries to teach guys how to behave when faced with domestic responsibilities: the film preaches that family men must embrace, not run away from, housework and childcare when those tasks fall to them. When their identities as breadwinners are destroyed by economic change, argues Mr. Mom, family men must build new identities as homemakers. Moreover, it argues that men ought to support their wives economic power and career aspiration—-especially since life-long male employment was no longer guaranteed and a middle-class lifestyle was no longer affordable on one income. In this way necessities are turned into virtues, as they almost always are.

Mr. Mom was marketed as a light comedy, but in retrospect, it marks a cultural watershed: the stay-at-home dad was now a part of the landscape—-as a real option, not just as the butt of a joke. In a 1990 Time magazine poll, 48 percent of men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four claimed that they would consider staying at home with their children. When my mother and father were born, such a question could not even have been asked. When I was born, it could only be raised in jest. By the 1980s, however, the definition of fatherhood as breadwinning, secure for a century, was suddenly on the ropes. Mr. Mom reflects that and the anxieties that come with it--but crucially, it also suggests that there might be something better around the corner, a new idea of fatherhood that embraces both breadwinning and caregiving.

I liked the movie. I don't think it's something that stay-at-home dads should feel ashamed of.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ideal vs. Reality

My essay on the ideal and reality of Christian Right parenting is up at Public Eye.

Also worth a look: The American Prospect's special report on "the case for early investment in our kids." You have to be a subscriber to get many of the articles, but some are available for free.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sunday School for Atheists?

We have a running discussion here at Daddy Dialectic about how to raise moral kids without religion.

This week, Time magazine tells us that there are Sunday schools for the children of atheists:

An estimated 14% of Americans profess to have no religion, and among 18-to-25-year-olds, the proportion rises to 20%, according to the Institute for Humanist Studies. The lives of these young people would be much easier, adult nonbelievers say, if they learned at an early age how to respond to the God-fearing majority in the U.S. "It's important for kids not to look weird," says Peter Bishop, who leads the preteen class at the Humanist center in Palo Alto. Others say the weekly instruction supports their position that it's O.K. to not believe in God and gives them a place to reinforce the morals and values they want their children to have.

The pioneering Palo Alto program began three years ago, and like-minded communities in Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., and Portland, Ore., plan to start similar classes next spring. The growing movement of institutions for kids in atheist families also includes Camp Quest, a group of sleep-away summer camps in five states plus Ontario, and the Carl Sagan Academy in Tampa, Fla., the country's first Humanism-influenced public charter school, which opened with 55 kids in the fall of 2005. Bri Kneisley, who sent her son Damian, 10, to Camp Quest Ohio this past summer, welcomes the sense of community these new choices offer him: "He's a child of atheist parents, and he's not the only one in the world."

I don't have much to say about this, beyond pointing out that such institutions are not new: free-thinking children's camps go back to the 19th century, and perhaps earlier. In America, one usually sees them spring into existence when religious fanaticism seems about to overwhelm society.