At-Home Dads Then and Now: Still Not a Babysitter

At-Home Dads Then and Now: Still Not a Babysitter

When my first son was born, his mother and I were lucky enough that we could juggle our schedules and avoid putting him in daycare. I hadn’t thought much about the role of fathers before becoming a father, but I was soon to learn the full extent of social prejudice towards dads. I think the most common complaint for nurturing fathers everywhere, whether they stay home with their children or not, is being referred to as a babysitter (for example, see here. When out and about, people would often attempt to compliment me with a cheery, “Oh, it is so nice to see dads out babysitting.” Depending on my mood, I would sometimes challenge them by asking, “Have you ever seen any moms out babysitting?” When in a less surly mood, I would say, “I’m not babysitting; these are my children!” Over the years, fathers have generally become much more involved in childcare, but too many people still diminish their role to babysitting.

In the office where I worked at the time my son was a baby, we had a dry-erase board to show where people were when out of the office. When female coworkers were out with

By whatsthatpicture from Hanwell, London, UK [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
their children, someone would write on the board “sick daughter” or something similar. When my son was sick, I would return to find a notice proclaiming I was out “babysitting.” It didn’t seem like such a problem at first. I would just chuckle and explain that if I had a babysitter, I wouldn’t have to miss work. I would also note that babysitters get paid for their efforts, but fathering my child provided no financial rewards at all. I was trying to raise awareness of the importance of fathering, but I generally only succeeded in raising a chuckle.

I also noticed that when I went to a doctor’s visit with his mother, the doctor and nurses would speak to her even when I was closest or even when I was actually holding my son. It was clear that the mother was the default parent and the father, no matter how involved, could only provide auxiliary services. It was around this time that I read The Nurturing Father by Kyle Pruett. Since its publication, this book has faced some criticism but remains a groundbreaking and relevant work in fatherhood research. The book explored many facets of fathering, but the only message I saw was that fathers can do everything mothers can do, and it made me want to stay home with my son (rather, sons, as we were soon expecting our second child).

I was able to quit my job and stay home full time. My life was a mélange of celebration and condemnation. Many people would congratulate me on being in touch with my “feminine” side. Others would offer an indirect criticism with a loaded questions such as, “How does your wife feel about you staying home full time?” Or, sometimes men would say, “Oh, I wish my wife would let me do that!” I resented the implication that I was “not working,” and I further resented the implication that I was somehow taking on something easier than what my wife was doing. Any mention of this was generally met with, “Well, now you know what women have faced for centuries!” Women (and nurturing men) have suffered from bias and disrespect for centuries, but I don’t think at-home dads are the ones most in need of consciousness raising experiences.

On the other hand, I was quite lucky. I found several playgroups that welcomed me with enthusiastically open arms. I was often the only dad to be found, but I did meet a couple of other at-home dads. For the most part, the women in the group treated me like any other parent, but occasionally I had awkward conversations. One mom once asked me whether I fed my children. Given that they were strong and healthy, I thought the answer was obvious, but I guess she was asking whether someone else was feeding them for me. When I told her I did, indeed, feed my children, she replied, “With hot food?” Nope, we dads just give them cereal and cookies, of course. I let her know I cooked for my children and moved on. Fortunately, she was the exception to the rule of open and inviting moms who were happy to share childcare tips and horror stories. Other men in the eighties weren’t so lucky. A few men sued mothers-only groups for access to parenting support. All parents struggle with the pressure of parenting, and finding others for support is essential.

Dads are generally expected to be extremely proud when their sons follow in their career footsteps, and I am proud that my younger son now has children of his own and stays home to care for them. Some things have changed in the intervening years, but people still ask him whether he is “babysitting” from time to time. More fathers stay home full time now (or at least take the role of primary caregiver), so it attracts less attention. The biggest difference I notice when out with my grandchildren, though, is that almost all men’s rooms now have changing stations. Gone are the days of having to choose between changing a diaper on the floor of a public restroom or a more sanitary location in full view of the general public.

I don’t really think anyone would be surprised now to learn my son knows how to turn on the stove, but there biases against men involved with children persist in some areas. Men are still mocked for their ignorance of food, as can be seen here. Moms remain the default experts on nutrition, soothing, and health. Too many people believe that only moms know how to care for children, as seen here. Dads are recognized more for playing with their children and encouraging them to be joyful and competitive.

Life will be easier for moms and dads when the denigration of childcare ends and everyone who cares for our next generation, whether mom, dad, or an early childhood teacher, is respected and valued for their contribution to creating the next generation of nurturers, leaders, inventors, and parents. We’re doing much better, but we can aim higher still.

Why men don’t speak out against sexism and misogyny

When we feel ashamed or judged, we have several possible ways of responding. One IMG_0516method of dealing with shame is to defend yourself vigorously, to deny anything is wrong, and to attack those who might think differently. We can imagine the loud protests of Hamlet’s mother, though perhaps Hamlet’s attack on his mother is equally revealing. A second method, which is my preferred method, is to try to suppress it, hide it, and pretend it does not exist, and I think I have plenty of company with millions of people struggling with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and a myriad of shortcomings. This kind of shame destroys you from the inside out. The third and most difficult method of dealing with shame is to acknowledge it, confront it, and try to resolve it in some way. When we meet individuals who can do this, we admire them, praise them, and exalt them, which is as it should be. Think of a former member of the KKK who becomes a civil rights leader, for example.

In the aftermath of Elliot Rodgers’ mass killing, pundits, analysts, feminists, psychologists, and just about everyone else has jumped to understand and explain what may cause someone to want to kill with such intensity and drive. It appears that Rodgers dealt with feelings of deep shame and inadequacy because he felt he failed as a man because he couldn’t convince women to have sex with him. Many men, even those who have had their share of sexual encounters, share his shame, but fewer question the assumptions that create that shame. Men are expected to be on a constant mission to prove themselves through sexual conquests, and most men internalize this to one degree or another in the same way that women internalize attitudes toward body image.

It isn’t surprising, then, that many men reacted defensively to discussions of sexist attitudes and their dire consequences. Who is going to say, “I see now that I’ve bought into a dangerous belief system. I see that my way of thinking leads to mass murder.”? Not many, which might explain the emotional and unrelated defenses of Glenn Beck, Seth Rogen, and all the men who reacted negatively to #yesallwomen. Beck went on a long tirade against the idea that sexual assault and harassment is prevalent and suggested that people are calling normal, consensual sex rape. Rogen responded to Ann Hornaday’s critique of media that depicts women as trophies by tweeting, ““How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”

These men want to make clear that they are not part of the problem. They recognize that their attitudes and maybe even their actions are now being criticized as part of the problem, and they are saying, “Hey, don’t point the finger at me.” They may also realize they have internalized the values that oppress and torture men. We may want to respond to #yesallwomen with #notallmen, but the fact is that all men, at least in my culture, are familiar with the beliefs and attitudes that shame men for “purity” and women for “sexual prowess.” We feel it deep in our bones, and it makes us uncomfortable.

In the next wave, many women wonder why more “enlightened” men don’t speak up and stand with them. To be fair, many men have shown the courage to do this, but doing so requires us all to look inside and examine what we may prefer to hide and suppress. You don’t have to be a rapist or a murderer to recognize common feelings or assumptions you may have or may have once had, and it can create a kind of soul-burning shame.

Few tasks in life are as difficult as confronting our own shame. The attitudes and beliefs that define us as men and women touch us at the core of our being. A thoughtful, honest, complex, and courageous discussion of how to liberate and protect men and women will be lengthy and arduous, but a better world is possible.

PS: And let’s have a discussion about access to guns as well.

For more on shame, see the work of Brené Brown.


Performing masculinity and grief: A death of my own

When I was fifteen years old, my 25-year-old uncle died in a fire

While some older adults had feared for his well being for some time, his death was sudden, unexpected, and extremely traumatic for me. In times of grief, we all experience mixed emotions, but I was overwhelmed by feelings of confusion and isolation.

In the days following his death, my time was spent among both close and distant relatives in the home of my grandparents. When people interacted with me at all, it was generally to tell me to give comfort to someone else (“Go hug your grandfather.” “Hold your grandmother’s hand.”). I did my best, and I got through it. I had been to funerals before, but this was the first time I was so close to the deceased and so aware of the judgments of the people attending the funeral and receptions at the home later. Someone, usually a woman, didn’t cry enough or dared to wear pants to a funeral. Someone else, usually a man, fell to pieces and couldn’t keep it together. Certain friends should not have dared to show their faces, and others had no excuse for not coming. Or so it was stated by the chorus of judgment and scorn.

I tried my best to assimilate funeral normativity, but it really didn’t make sense to me. Years later, I cried at my grandfather’s funeral. This seemed a reasonable to me, and I didn’t predict being judged for it. After the funeral, one of my relatives asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. She said, “I knew you must be some kind of sensitive artist or something.” So much for the freedom to openly grieve for a close relative at his funeral. Do women face this kind of judgment?

But men who do not express emotions openly aren’t free from judgment or consequences, either. Kenneth Doka, an expert of grief counseling, said in an interview, ‘We do a strange thing with grieving styles. I always say we disenfranchise instrumental grievers early in the process. “What’s wrong with this person? Why isn’t he crying?”’ The man who manages his grief by working through it with projects, helping others, and so on is ignored. The man who emotes openly is criticized. Doka points out that more emotive grievers are penalized later (Why isn’t she over it yet?).

My uncle’s funeral may be when I first developed my revulsion at smug hypocrisy and self-righteous pity. I can remember one aunt declaring, loudly, “Well, if his death had anything to do with drugs, I just don’t want to know about it. That is not what is important now.” And this may also be when I first became aware of paradox. If she believed what she said, she would not have said it, and if she said it, she obviously didn’t believe it. (And a lifelong love of philosophy is born.) Anyway, I also developed my own sense of righteous indignation toward people who couldn’t offer condolences without poking people with daggers in the process.

In my first experience with traumatic grief, the people I would normally turn to for emotional support were all overwhelmed emotionally and intellectually. I don’t blame or resent anyone for it, but I was alone with my grief and my first experiences with this kind of loss. Shortly thereafter, an acquaintance was killed in a motorcycle accident, and I just never took the continued existence of anyone for granted again. I also accepted grieving as a solitary activity.

The next traumatic loss I experienced was described in an earlier post. My niece and nephew drowned on Mother’s Day (May 10) in 1992. The single most striking feature of this grief experience for me is the memory of many friends, coworkers, and family members coming to me to express their condolences and sincere concern for the suffering and recovery of my ex-wife. People lamented that it must be extremely hard on my wife, and I was admonished to take good care of her, as her suffering must be immense. I tried to do those things, of course, as I tried to manage my own emotions and continue to care for my children (I was an at-home dad at the time) and maintain a functioning household.

During this time, I had thoughts that terrified me and flooded me with shame. I began daydreaming, almost longing, for the death of someone who would be important to no one but me. A death that would bring me the kind of comfort and concern that had been reserved for my ex-wife during what was certainly the most challenging and traumatic event of my life to that point. I was horrified to think that I could wish anyone dead. Of course, no one in the world is important only to me. Everyone I love is loved by others as well. Further, I wouldn’t trade any of my loved ones for “good grieving.” (I will add that one friend in particular stood by me and cared for me throughout.)

The true fantasy, of course, was that someone would step in to help me through my current grief, not that I wanted anyone to die. Still, these thoughts became pervasive and persistent enough to plague me with guilt and interfere even more with my recovery. What I really wanted was to receive the same support I was expected to give. I don’t really want to be the only person in the world being cared for; I just want a reciprocal arrangement. I don’t know whether every man feels the same way, but I know I’m not the only one.

Why is it that being a man is to be sentenced to a life bereft of emotional support? When women say they want to meet a sensitive man, they generally mean they want to meet a man who attends to their emotional needs, not a man who openly expresses his own emotional needs let alone a man openly expresses his emotional frailty.

I dream of a world where grief is not gendered and where masculinity is not marked by solitary sorrow.

The Personal is Political

For decades now, feminists have been telling us that what goes on in the private sphere affects the public sphere. The rallying cry of “The personal is political!” was heard by many. Some, such as Susan Okin, even predicted the problem this would cause for men. In order for women to enter the public sphere, men would have to enter the private sphere. If women were paid less and given less respect because their commitment to their jobs was diluted somewhat by family obligations, employers were likely to be even more harsh with fathers who wanted to be part of family life.

Though the warnings were unheeded, they were not unjustified. Katherine Reynolds Lewis has just published an article describing the struggles modern fathers face. It was assumed in the past that fathers would rather not take responsibility for changing diapers, taking sick kids to the doctor, and going to meet with teachers. This assumption turned out to be false. Fathers in the past were afraid that if they were more involved in the private sphere of home and family, they would be punished by their employers. Their fears have been realized. Fathers have been passed over for promotions and even fired after insisting on taking leave to be with their children.

Liberating women for equal pay will require liberating men as well. As society we should assume that all parents love their children and want to be with them to ensure their healthy development. Some fathers and mothers are not good parents to be sure, but rewarding rather than punishing those who are will benefit us all.