Their new commercial for Peanut Butter Cheerios features a no-nonsense pep talk from our hero, “Dad”, who shows us active parenthood at its best. He moves smoothly through the house, cheering his grade-school son’s scary mask and complimenting his teenaged daughter on her “great profile pic,” while regaling us with rapid-fire tips on “how to dad.” Nothing about this father says “bumbler.”
What does Hero Dad do for a living? It’s unclear. His wife makes the briefest of appearances, breezing by in her power suit as he hands her some coffee. Dad shows no signs of heading for the office, but his monologue does mention that dads, in their awesomeness, “do work work and homework,” meaning they help with schoolwork and… what? Is he, too, gainfully employed? Or could he be thinking of home repair and those defrosting chicken thighs? Anyhow, there’s room for speculation.
More and more fathers nowadays are staying at home with their kids, but Americans are still dubious about this phenomenon. Conservatives as a rule are delighted to embrace the warm, nurturing figure of the stay-at-home mom. Dads, by contrast, are expected to build careers and bring home the bacon.
Maybe it’s time for that to change. I’m going to suggest some ways we can legitimize the at-home dad, without pretending men and women are interchangeable. Do you bristle at the image of an aproned dad holding a feather duster? Then lose the apron, and give him a power drill.
Breaking News: Kids Need Dads
Both mothers and fathers play a critical role in childrearing. For the child, having both parents in his life is far more important than the question of who makes the bread and who bakes it.
I am not going to argue that men and women, or moms and dads, are interchangeable. Nor am I a soldier for domestic (or workplace) “equal rights.” Equality has its place, but within the family it needs to be about more than fair shares. If you’re a parent, the kids’ needs take priority over your personal dreams and ambitions. Sometimes that means that women who want to work are needed at home, or that men have to keep the bills paid when they’d much rather be with their kids. Welcome to parenthood.
For many families, the traditional breadwinner-caretaker division of labor is a great recipe for financial stability and good parenting. Working dads do show heightened interest nowadays in family flexibility, but absent rigorous efforts at social engineering, I suspect that male breadwinners will continue to outnumber female breadwinners in intact American families. There’s no reason to see that as a problem, if the involved parties don’t think it is.
The American workforce is changing, however, and men as a group have lost their edge on earning power. Less-educated men in particular have seen their wages diminish over the past several decades, and men who aren’t able to secure steady employment frequently end up losing out on more than money. It turns out that marriage and fatherhood are good for men, too, and men who struggle to secure steady employment are less likely to get married, less likely to stay married, and less likely to build solid relationships with their children. Everyone loses from this kind of instability.
Some suggest that the best solution is to double down on the 1950s model, drilling boys in the importance of becoming good providers, and urging girls to see full-time domesticity as their proper vocation. If the boys were more committed, and the girls less competitive, perhaps everything would work out? Looking to the female side of that implicit bargain, I don’t think it’s an argument conservatives can win. (Whether they should try anyway is a question for another time.) On the male side of the equation, we should appreciate that female competition is not the only, or even the primary, challenge for would-be breadwinners. America’s labor market has changed a lot since the days of “Father Knows Best,” and we may need to tweak our family model to mirror those realities.
That doesn’t mean that we should ask men to stop being manly. Quite the contrary! Millions of American men are aimlessly drifting, and millions of American families are sorely in need of a stabilizing paternal presence. You don’t need a doctorate in sociology to put this equation together. Young males need to man up. In order for that to happen, though, we may need to uncouple our ideas about manhood from a labor market that can’t support them.
The Decline of the Breadwinner Job
Breadwinning fathers need secure jobs. In the 1950s those were plentiful, thanks to large, heavily regulated companies like Ford or General Mills. Back then you didn’t need a college degree to secure steady wages and lifetime benefits. A middle-of-the-road performance was probably enough to keep you comfortably employed, even if it didn’t get you a corner office.
Now the private sector is more competitive, and a merely adequate performance may not cut it. Even clever and capable people often need to spend years shifting jobs and building credentials before they can really secure their earning power, and shifts in the economy can leave once-employable people scrambling to figure out what they can do. Men who lack degrees and specialized skills have an especially difficult time finding steady work, and often have a difficult time adjusting to modern office culture. Finally, the painful reality is that unemployed people get steadily less employable the longer they’re out of work.
Conservatives and liberals can argue all day about chicken-and-egg questions of whether the jobs left the men, or whether the men abdicated their posts. (Or perhaps they were shooed out by scornful women with too-high expectations for their mates?) In truth, there were many factors that contributed to the problem, but I had to summarize in a few sentences, I would put it thusly: the workforce changed, and the working class lacked the resources, cultural stability, and flexibility to change with it. Entitlements, unions, and fixed-benefit packages had become central pillars of the lower-middle-class lifestyle. Unfortunately, that arrangement was less sustainable than its liberal champions hoped. Buffeted simultaneously by eroding cultural mores and a more-dynamic-but-less-stable labor market, things fell apart.
Liberals like Nicholas Kristof would like us to pick up the pieces of that older union-and-entitlement-oriented model, and try to glue it back together. Conservatives have a natural antipathy towards propping up things that don’t work. But we should acknowledge the strength of Kristof’s challenge. Collapsing working-class families need help to stop the bleeding. Over time, the market may help us find a new equilibrium, but in the meanwhile, we need to offer something more than speeches about the value of rugged individualism.
It’s hard to get established nowadays, and many men find it difficult to adapt themselves to modern office culture. But a man who has trouble finding steady employment should still be able to live a satisfying and meaningful life. His best chance to do that is by offering service to the people who do unquestionably need him: his kids.
Don’t Call Me Mr. Mom
So what if the chips do fall in such a way that it makes more sense for some moms to work while dads stay at home? Should we see this as the man’s failure? Or perhaps it’s just a heavy cross some fathers have to bear?
It’s not my place to tell people how they need to feel about their lives. But I will say this. I had some worries and doubts as I shifted from a competitive career track to a more family-oriented lifestyle. But as I reflected on these matters, I realized that it was actually kind of silly to attach so much importance to the mere fact of having a contractual relationship with an employer. There’s so much more to life than that. When I say “so much more,” I’m of course thinking about family, but not only about family. It’s reasonable to want meaningful projects beyond baby care, and opportunities for personal development. But these don’t always have to be found in the context of a traditional nine-to-five job. I’m confident these insights can be applied to men as well as women.
Are men suited to be full-time caregivers? It’s hard to answer that question completely in the abstract, but some of them certainly do a great job. I grant that women have an edge when it comes to infant care, but baby days pass quickly. Children are lucky to have a parent regularly caring for them, regardless of which one. And from the men’s standpoint, we should recognize that the homemakers of today (or, if you prefer, “primary caregivers”) look very different from 1950s housewives. The sky is really the limit in terms of what they can learn and do.
“Accomplished housewife” is taking on new dimensions in the modern world, in part because the Internet does so much to facilitate efforts to learn (and even sell) new things. Many formerly working mothers realized they were spending most of their salary on day care, take-out meals, and auto maintenance, when they’d rather put those office hours into watching their kids grow up. It was liberating for them to realize that setting their own goals and schedules could be far more satisfying than marching to a corporate drum. They revived the old arts of sewing, cooking, and canning, but also learned all manner of other skills, from leather-working to animal husbandry.
Presently, the DIY-homemaking trend does have a distinctly feminine cast. I don’t expect men to get excited about booties or adorable holiday cupcakes. But do-it-yourselfing isn’t just a girl thing. There are all kinds of manly skills and talents that could be developed in the context of at-home fatherhood. Build things! Make furniture, hard drives, home decks, stereo systems… the list could go on and on. Take older children hunting, fishing, or bird-watching! There are zillions of kid-friendly activities dads can do as well or better than moms. Become a master chef! If you think cooking is a girly way to spend your time, turn on the TV. Who is manlier: Gordon Ramsey or Michael Scott?
At-home dads don’t need to be 1950s housewives with beards. Providing childcare can be compatible with cultivating many areas of expertise (some of which, by the way, can involve earning money). If it helps, let’s banish that whole “housewife” association by calling at-home dads something more masculine, like “homesteaders” or “all-trades men.” They’re men who can do everything: putting in drywall in the morning, smoking a brisket for dinner, and then shooting hoops with the kids in the driveway while delicious meaty aromas make the whole neighborhood envious. Of course, some might fit other molds: the gentleman scholar, the painter of landscapes, the keeper of sports blogs. All of these can be completely masculine, and totally compatible with homework help and serving up cheese sandwiches at lunchtime.
Rethinking Manly Respectability
At the present time, less-educated men are more likely to become at-home dads, which is fine. But this correlation may be influencing Americans’ tendency to see this arrangement as sub-optimal, or a source of fatherly failure. That’s unfortunate, because that perception will likely deter others from assuming a similar role, even in cases where that arrangement would be optimal for the family.
My anecdotal experience suggests men actually have an easier time embracing the at-home role if they already have significant education or work experience. Less-educated conservative men often see the at-home role as more of a bitter pill. I suspect this reflects something about our manly ideas of status. Better-educated men have less to prove, and see more potential for earning secondary incomes through writing or editing or teaching part-time. Less-educated men feel a stronger need to establish their respectability and role in the family through regular employment. That, in turn, can leave women feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between stabilizing their family’s finances or their husband’s (or children’s father’s) sense of self-worth.
We shouldn’t sneer at men’s yearning for social status, as though it were purely a product of personal vanity. It’s healthy and natural for a father to desire the kind of social stature that can ensure his family’s respectability. But should punching a clock be a necessary prerequisite? Why is a salary so fundamental to manhood? Wouldn’t it be a healthy thing if at least some men gave less attention to employers, and more to the work of building healthy families, neighborhoods, churches, and male-friendly civic organizations? Couldn’t that be a source of proper manly pride?
Kids need their fathers, and men are much better off if they have meaningful relationships with their kids. Let’s find a way to make this work. Maybe we can start by realizing that family life is about much more than who brings home the bacon.