Although I really like the John Hughes movie “Mr. Mom”, I haven’t always liked being called “Mr. Mom” in my role as primary caregiver to my kids. But I think there is a sharp disconnect between the image people think they are evoking with the name, and the image that’s actually on offer in the film.
I think I’ve come around. Go ahead. Call me “Mr. Mom.” But make sure you know what you’re saying before you do.
In the movie, Michael Keaton loses his job, his wife (Teri Garr) goes to work full-time, and they perform a switcheroo of professional and domestic responsibilities. Then we, the audience, are presented with a systematic subversion of gender stereotypes and also this one funny scene with a chainsaw.
- Men are their jobs: After Keaton’s character is fired, he does go through this lost-soul period, drinking a lot in the middle of the day; growing a beard. However, like a dude should, he gets his act together and starts shaving.
- Men can’t parent: During the lost-soul period, Keaton’s character actually can’t parent. It is this early segment of the film that is probably most memorable, sticking in the collective unconscious: Men with kids are raucous, dirty, incompetent, lost, bumbling, and irresponsible. And that’s when they actually love the kids. However, Keaton’s character shaves, eventually. And once he shaves, he becomes a fully competent and realized parent. He faced a steep learning curve early on, as we all do when we start out as parents, but he gets through it, and comes out the other side clean-shaven.
- Men have beards: Well, like I said, he shaves it off.
A lot of stay-at-home dads hate being referred to as “Mr. Mom”, since it presumes that parenting is mom’s job, and dad is just filling in for a while, and doing so badly, but hey, at least he’s trying, right? Right? Oh, good job dad. Although Keaton’s “Mr. Mom” does return to the workforce in the end, and so the film can rightly be criticized for offering a kind of “dad as babysitter” storyline, he’s not actually incompetent. By the end of the film, he’s depicted as really, really good at being an at-home parent.
No one ever remembers this about “Mr. Mom”, but I think it’s important. The movie isn’t a depiction of a negative stereotype, it’s a hopeful essay about how men can excel at parenting. If there’s a stereotype in there that it celebrates, it’s of the highly competent stay-at-home dad.
So, although being addressed as “Mr. Mom” might not feel great, because it’s intended as a reference to the incompetent or babysitter aspects of the character, I’m happy to privately enjoy the label. Because I know it doesn’t mean what they think it means.
Also, I’m totally going to shave today.