Parenting

06.28.13

Fatherhood, Manhood, and Having It All

Stay-at-home fathers get a lot of subtle mockery slung their way. Conor P. Williams on why we need to change our views of masculinity and praise caretaker dads.

She was smiling as she shook her head at my crying daughter, but her tone was pure sneer: "Does Mom know that Dad has you out in this heat?"

Then she looked at me. "It's too hot for an infant to be outside today."

It was hot. Probably 85 degrees in the sun. I involuntarily put my hand to my daughter's head as I took stock of my critic.

The contrast between our appearances was stark. She was free of children. She was dressed like she’d just come from the office, with a leather bag slung over one shoulder of a dark, formal suit, and an iPhone in her hand. Enormous sunglasses obscured much of her face—but not her condescension.

Me? I had groceries in one hand, the stroller (containing my squirrely, 40 pound son) in the other, and my daughter in a baby carrier on my chest. Like usual, I was covered in a panoply of fluids. My shorts were drenched from chasing my son through the nearby park's water fountains. My threadbare, lavender "Relay Against Domestic Violence" shirt carried (at least): sweat mingled with sunscreen, infant spitup, breast milk, and a few particularly unsavory ingredients from a diaper change gone wrong. I was almost certainly sporting some applesauce. Or yogurt. Or cottage cheese.

In other words, I’d been keeping two young kids safe, fed, and (relatively) clean for the last eight hours. I was too tired, too dazed, and too hot for an appropriately cutting response. "Someone had to buy the groceries—my wife’s working,” I muttered.

As a dad who is also the primary caretaker for my two-year-old son and three-month-old daughter, I get a lot of unsolicited performance reviews. Even in my liberal Beltway enclave, dads like me face pretty constant, emasculating ridicule for putting fatherhood above career. Most definitions of masculinity can accommodate shirts soaked with sweat, blood, or ambiguous grime ... but not applesauce. Very few of history’s notable men counted competent diaper changes among their primary talents. Manhood is decidedly not the province of those who spend their days reading children’s books in various pitches of falsetto.

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In pop culture, stay-at-home dads are often portrayed as incompetent bumblers.

Is this as it should be? No. That’s why I think of myself as a “new” man, as someone whose version of masculinity includes shouldering the bulk of our family’s childcare. My son weighs more than most cannonballs, and he moves nearly as quickly—it takes a real man to shelter the house (and his sister) from these artillery-grade payload specs.

I'm a tough guy—even when wearing a Björn. I can handle childless friends joking that I spend my week conducting “Daddy Day Care,” even though I wrote the second half of my dissertation and successfully defended my PhD while holding our family’s child care reins. I can take it when an (unemployed) neighbor asks why I’m home on weekdays and refuses “raising my kids” as a suitable answer. I can shrug off an old boss warning me that my wife and I would soon find that switching the traditional parenting roles was “sure to fail.” I can survive colleagues insisting that I should have devoted myself to a steady writing career after winning the Washington Post’s “Next Great Pundit” competition a few years ago. I can (gleefully) accept being outearned by my wife. And so on and so forth.

Nonetheless, even the toughest caretaker dad has to find public debates over gender and work-life balance unsatisfying. As a dad walking the fatherhood walk, I find it frustratingly incomplete to hear that men need to make room for women to find better balance between work and life. Please don’t get me wrong: they do. They absolutely do. However, while women ought to have more family flexibility and better professional opportunities from entry-level jobs to the boardroom, that's only half of the equation.

Improved professional opportunities for women won’t happen in a vacuum. If men are part of the problem, they must also be part of the solution. Professional flexibility for women rests upon a more flexible view of masculinity.

People frequently tell me that I'm lucky to have a hardworking wife who lets me stay home with the kids—and I am. But again, that’s only half of the equation. Only our parents have noted that she’s just as lucky to have a husband who willingly carries the parenting load.

There are lots of ways to support caretaker dads—and thus make things easier for working moms:

• Employers should take a cue from mine—The New America Foundation—and offer parents flexible work schedules that allow them to find a sustainable work-life balance.

• Employers should offer better, more flexible maternity leave policies that expand paternity leave and allow parents to share their paid time off after the birth of a child. Also: employers should insist that dads take the leave they’re entitled to.

• We should expand public child care and preschool options that support parents’ return to work.

Also: the next time you meet a dad who’s supporting his partner’s career by standing in the diapering breach, clap him on the back and say, “You, my friend, are the man.” And mean it. Parenting is powerfully emotional, personal work. It's stressful enough without judgmental pinpricks from other adults. Want to open the boardroom doors for women? Encourage—heck, praise—dads who stay home with their children.

Compared to most dads, I'm holding a winning hand: I live in one of the most liberal, highly educated cities in the United States; my employer allows me to work a flexible schedule; I have two masters degrees and a Ph.D.; and switching the traditional parenting roles works for my marriage. If I’m catching flak for raising my kids, unluckier dads are doomed.

Conor P. Williams has a Ph.D. in Government. His postdoctoral work focuses on spoken-word exegesis of Dr. Seuss’s more obscure works. He works as a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @conorpwilliams.