Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Tao of the Stay-At-Home Dad

I remember being asked while I was an undergraduate student what I saw myself doing after graduation. At the time, my peers at Baruch and in the Honors College overall were expressing their lofty dreams of saving the world, of traveling to the most distant corners of the globe and helping those in need, and of transforming society; they weren't simply going to be journalists, options traders, and lawyers, but the best damn ones around--ones that would make a difference! When I responded to the question I spoke honestly from my heart--I wanted to be a teacher. "Ah, academia is a wonderful vocation!" was the response. "No, no," I said. "I want to teach high school. Math or English." The horror on my inquisitor's face was evident and a poor attempt was made at hiding it. "Yes...well...surely you could consider teaching at the university level as well?" I was sitting in a room with someone who just said she wanted to be a mathematician who would then go on to a career in medicine with the hopes of curing cancer and a journalist who wanted to bring the plights of obscure African and Asian nations to the attention of the global collective. I saw I had a losing battle ahead of me so I simply nodded.

If there is a stigma attached to being "just a teacher," then I cannot imagine how to quantify that which is attached to being someone who "just raises their kids." I've overheard professional women on the subway or other locations in New York discussing female friends who are out on maternity leave and who have decided not to come back to work. The disdain and disgust on these women's faces as they spoke of their friends belied perhaps their own insecurities at what, only a few decades ago, was considered the norm. Many of my friends growing up in a small middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn had a parent staying home with them, usually their mother. Almost all of them had grandmothers who had no vocation but instead dedicated themselves to the rearing of their children (often numbering upwards of eight or more).

Though I understand the efforts made by women's liberation movements over the past forty years to earn parity for women in the workplace, I still have a hard time understanding why women are often the harshest critics of other females who opt to stay at home in lieu of earning a paid salary. How does fulfilling a role that expands across cultures throughout the world and extends back to our earliest roots demean a woman in any way? It is ironic because being a stay-at-home mom is often as difficult if not more so than working in an office or performing some other job--minus the pay of course. So is that it? Is it simply the act of earning money that validates a woman's worth? If a stay-at-home mom makes and sells crafts or runs an ebay business from home while taking care of her children, would that make it acceptable that she is staying at home? What if she doesn't consider herself an entrepreneur or a saleswoman but truly a stay-at-home mom who makes money on the side? Would that still net the rolling of eyes by these other so-called professionals?

Then we get to the stay-at-home Dad. What could possibly be the Tao of such an individual? I believe that there is a stigma attached to being a stay-at-home Dad that precedes even that of the stay-at-home Mom. How many of us born in the 80s living in New York had a father who raised us while our mother worked full-time? My guess would be very few, if any. How many had a grandfather who did that? My guess would be none (a favorable estimate, at best). In America, there have always been certain stereotypes associated with each gender: Men are the hunters, Women the gatherers; Men sweat and toil in the fields and factories, Women nurture children and take care of the home. The very softness associated with maternal things is rarely attributed to men without some sort of judgmental undertone lurking.

While the points enumerated above are generally applicable to a stereotypical, historical America, there ARE still many backwards-thinking people who exist today. It's quite telling that, arguably the most-used online thesaurus has these synonyms listed for "Homemaker" (the genderless term that applies to either a stay-at-home Mom or Dad): family manager, home economist, home engineer, lady of the house, mistress of the house, wife and mother. That's three politically correct (and thus meaningless) terms and three terms indicating a feminine role.

I believe that part of the problem is a lack of exposure for the stay-at-home Dad in popular American culture. Think about it--in how many situations can you recall seeing a father being portrayed as a stay-at-home Dad either on television or in the movies? Two movies that come to mind are "Mr. Mom" with Michael Keaton and "Daddy Day Care." Neither movie portrays the fathers as capable, masculine, parental figures. The former perpetuates the emasculating stereotype associated with the stay-at-home Dad (Dad as "Mom") and the latter features the fathers as being out of work (and thus failures) and inept and unconventional in their parenting methods (again deriding the male-as-nurturer role). Television is even worse. I would bet a great deal that the first stay-at-home Dad that most people would think of if asked on the street is Danny Tanner from Full House. Is the estrogen-infused, aw-shucks Danny Tanner representative of the bulk of men who choose to stay at home? I doubt it! (You wouldn't see an Uncle Jesse-type character as the star of such a sitcom!) Then you have Tony Danza and Scott Baio representing male nannies in "Who's The Boss?" and "Charles In Charge" respectively. Tony Danza's character maintains a high level of masculinity that is balanced by his nurturing ways but his strength is subverted by the imposing feminine strengths of his benefactor and her mother. Scott Baio's character is played by Scott Baio...enough said.

What then are the characteristics of the modern man who elects to stay at home? I will outline and explore my perspective on the reasons men elect to stay at home in 2010, the profile of such a man, and what the transition from the 1950s version of America to our current 21st Century flavor means for the definition of a "traditional family" in our great nation.