Stay-at-Home Dads Encounter the Problem Without a Name

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“…resentment builds up after a few years and suddenly the [man] is working really, really hard and thinks the [wife] is sitting around with [her] feet up, and the [woman] has seen [her] career fold and [her] ego is mush."

-- Expert

“There is the sense that I'm not putting in a full day…I did feel quite isolated and resentment did build up between my [husband] and I. [He] envied me spending so much time with the kids and I envied [his] freedom when [he] went off to work.”

-- Parent

It could be something right out of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. You remember -- the book that shook the world and introduced readers to “the problem that has no name” shared by the educated, middle-class housewives of Freidan’s Smith College cohort. Twenty years later, just when we thought Friedan and her second-wave feminist sisters had freed us, the anti-feminist backlash came along and slapped us all silly. These days, complaints like the ones quoted above are only whispered in mother’s groups for shame…unless they are proclaimed loudly on Mommy Blogs and predictably attacked by the mainstream press as whiny or unmotherly or even neurotic.

We’re not allowed to admit it anymore: that being “merely” the main caregiver of young children is a thankless task that can stress a marriage to the breaking point and wreak havoc on self-esteem. We’re supposed to find it a natural joy, perhaps the most fulfilling thing we could ever do, because, after all, we’re women.

Well then, what happens when a man does it?

Dad and Kids

In fact, the quote at the top of this post has been gender-reversed. All those brackets should read as the opposite sex. It was taken from this article at the Guardian, but it might have come from any number of places in the popular media that have started to identify a “trend” of fathers staying home with their children, while mothers work for the family income.

The press has discovered the “invisibility” of stay-at-home fathers and is making hay of same. Never mind that Betty Friedan already told us all about this, now it is real, now it is a problem, because now it is happening to men.

That’s annoying in the same way that it’s annoying that a mom who writes about potty training is uninteresting and narcissistic while a dad who does the same is a revolutionary. But setting annoyance aside, I welcome this newfound interest in the plight of the stay-at-home parent.

If it takes men doing “women’s work” for women’s work to get some attention and respect, I’m all for it.

Because in the end, it’s the same work. It’s perhaps the most important work that happens in our society -- the slow, arduous, often boring and sometimes bitingly painful work of civilizing the next generation. Maybe once a critical mass of dads are doing it, the government will decide it needs some real support like social security credit or better federally mandated family leave policies or enlarged WIC-like programs (“Parents, Infants and Children” anyone?).

Bring on the daddy blogs that whine about having nowhere to wear nice clothes anymore, about unappreciative spouses who load the dishwasher all wrong, and that celebrate the cutting of teeth and pee in a potty, rather than a bed.

Bored of watching Dora? Fighting plunging self-esteem? Lost your cobwebby resume under a pile of laundry? Welcome to the club, boys!

One man in the Guardian article complains that he wasn’t invited round to tea by the other moms. Tempted as I am to mock his complaint, what I think we moms really ought to do is pour him a glass of chardonnay and invite him to pull up a chair.

However it is bemoaned as a result of economic crisis (when women make more money than men that’s a sure sign of crisis, right?), more dads spending more time with the wee littles is an overall win for families. Kids will learn that men can wipe noses and that women can wear suits. Some men will get to do something they have secretly yearned to do for generations, without too much cultural rebuke. Some women will make a narrow escape from something they have secretly dreaded, without having to forgo the joys of parenthood.

It might be a little difficult for all of us along the way to the New Golden Age of respect for homemaking. But sometimes, progress hurts. I for one would like to thank Betty Friedan for getting the ball rolling all those years ago. In spite of the backlash (and its seemingly endless election-year aftershocks), our culture will never quite be the same -- in a good way.

 

Shannon writes about family at Peter's Cross Station and about writing at Muse of Fire.

Photo Credit: benreichelt.

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