“In all the families in which the fathers stayed at home with the children, two findings emerged across the board. First, the children, when tested, showed signs of accelerated intellectual development without any harm to the important sexual identification that develops during the first years of life. Second, all the families endured criticism about the arrangement they chose – from grandparents, employers, friends and even from the other parents in the playground.”
I’ve had the opportunity to befriend a few guys through the years who have decided to radically alter their career to play a greater role in bringing up their kids.
That sentence is written in such a long winded way because the phrase “Stay at Home Dad” is not really accurate in a lot of ways. It doesn’t reflect the complexity of the decision these guys have made, or the range of solutions they have found to make it work.
Some guys put their career on hold, or give it up. But, they seldom, if ever, go into a totally “domestic” mode. Often they will freelance, work part-time, change career, start their own business, go into consulting, return to academic study, etc. Through all those various avatars, the key point is that they are men who are earning less than their partners, maybe seeing more of the kids and interfacing more with the daily parenting responsibilities.
Oh, and they are social outcasts.
It’s been my experience that guys in this category usually love their role in the family life. They find it very rewarding. Sure they are occasionaly prone to questioning their decision, but seldom do they regret it. Usually they feel confident about looking back to this stage of life with fondness, especially at the chance to spend so much time with their kids in their younger years.
But, they are typically very, very histant to talk about how their decision to be a male primary caregiver is seen by friends, family, or society at large. It’s not just a feeling of being odd or different, but something much harsher. The sense of being judged as morally suspect.
“The prejudice that the families encountered is best demonstrated in the story of one father, whom the author calls Amos King, who gets a knock on the door after his wife, a nurse, leaves for work. With his 4-month-old son in his arms, Mr. King opens the door and finds a police officer and a social worker. They are responding to a report that a man is ”keeping” a young child in the apartment. The investigative duo are not satisfied until Mr. King shows them his son’s birth certificate and baptismal record. SUCH condemnation, Dr. Pruett says, is the price for being involved in a pioneering effort, an effort that society is going to have to understand and make accommodation for if men are to realize their full potential.”
I suspect every father who spends a decent amount of time with their kids (especially during “office” hours) has had that experience – the stare that implies you are some kind of predator. I’ve certainly spoken to a number of men who won’t volunteer for kids’ related activites, especially with smaller kids, because of the fear of being labelled.
In coming years I expect we will see more and more stories like this one, where a guy was banned from taking his kid to a playgroup, simply because he was a man. As a male primary carer you simply have to accept that your kid will have fewer opportunities to play in this hyper-regulated “playdate” age.
The deep irony is that this suspicion of men in caring roles undermines the goals of feminism itself. Men being more involved as carers doesn’t just provide opportunites for them to realise their potential and for kids to flourish, it also provides greater scope for women to have more career options.
“Hewlett is at pains to point out that when the high-earner is female, a supportive spouse is rare. But some high-achieving women do manage to swap and some of their men spend all their time looking after the home. Juliet Blanch, head of international dispute resolution at McDermott Will & Emery, an American law firm, has a family that she sees only on weekday mornings before she catches the train from Surrey into her London office. When we speak, she is looking at a schedule that has her away for three of the next six weekends, leaving her husband John, a former lawyer, in sole charge of their son and two daughters. “So you see,” she explains, “he really does have to deal with this as if he was a single dad.”"
In “A Woman’s Place Is In The Boardroom” the authors point out that a supportive partner is a crucial for many high acheiving women. This might not mean a steretypical solution where one works and one doesn’t. But, it will usually mean that the guy is willing to adapt to a greater parenting role than has “traditionally” been the case and may, at a minimum, have to become the “go-to” person for parenting and school issues. Very often, this will imply a negotiation where one partner is willing to forgo the conventional “path to sucess” self-definitions and think in less structured and more flexible ways about their vocation.
“David Hewison, senior couple psychoanalytic psychotherapist at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships in north London, thinks couples hide their anxieties. Even when the swap works, each partner “tries not to let the side down” when the subject comes up, he says. “And it’s hard to talk about, which suggests that the stereotypes still run very strongly.”
Perhaps this is something that feels quite different from one context and culture to another. When we lived in London, it felt a lot less problematic than it does here in Hong Kong. Maybe that was down to being less of an “ex-pat,” or maybe it really was a different working culture – being around academics, creatives and the self-employed more than around bankers and bankers and bankers.
“A full-time father may attract curiosity verging on suspicion, because he clashes with our expectations. But this very curiosity, Hewison suggests, gives a father privileges denied to most mothers. As rarities, these men have value and interest, and therefore status. “It’s an adventure, a bit of a holiday for them, it’s not like a kind of life sentence. Also, you get a lot of attention from women, which is nice.”"
Yes, but, sadly, it is not always positive attention.