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Are Stay-at-Home-Dads the New Masculine, Feminist Torchbearers?

stay-at-home-dadsI just read the most amazing opinion piece in The Guardian by Laurie Penny about “post-patriarchal masculinity” and the role of men in a time of growing civil unrest thanks to a slow economy. This idea of “men in crisis” is nothing new: Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men (2010) is all about men’s role in an economy that now seems to favor working women, and there has been, as Penny notes, “a fuss about this ‘crisis of masculinity’” since the era of Women’s Lib. (A conservative rallying cry: “Feminists! They took our jobs!”) (Thank you, South Park.)

There are so many incredible quotes in Penny’s piece that I can’t grab them all without just re-printing the whole thing here, but here are a few of my favorite sections, and then we’ll get to my thesis about stay-at-home-dads. (Brooklyn in the house! Literally. At home! What what?!)

… millions of young men are in distress, acting out violently or sinking into depression. Unfortunately, the only solution many … offer is not giving men and boys more power over their own lives, but restoring their traditional power over women, as “breadwinners” and “male providers”.

Nobody seems to have bothered to ask men and boys whether they actually want to be “breadwinners”, or whether female independence is really their biggest worry at a time when youth unemployment is more than 20%. Sadly, the debate is still focused on the evils of feminism, and on convincing men their real problem is that women are no longer forced to trade a lifetime of resentful sex for financial security ….

In the real world, not all men want to be “breadwinners”, just like not all men want to be violent, or to have power over women. What men do want, however, is to feel needed, and wanted, and useful, and loved. They aren’t alone in this it’s one of the most basic human instincts, and for too long we have been telling men and boys that the only way they can be useful is by bringing home money to a doting wife and kids, or possibly by dying in a war. It was an oppressive, constricting message 50 years ago, and it’s doubly oppressive now that society has moved on and even wars are being fought by robots who leave no widows behind.

Seriously, just go read Penny’s piece now and then come right back. It’s not long, but it packs an enormous punch. One of the most powerful, concise arguments I’ve ever read. A journalistic mic-drop, if you will.

Now, to my point about stay-at-home-dads being the new masculine, feminist torchbearers. Here’s the thing: I live in Brooklyn. In one of the most family-oriented neighborhoods in all of New York City. I am surrounded by baby-wearing dads every single day. When I first moved to this neighborhood two years ago, I’ll admit, I found it odd, seeing all these men walking around with babies strapped to their chests, many of them also accompanied by dogs. Two years later, not only am I used to this commonplace dad/dog combo, I find it the new masculine standard. If masculinity is about virility and virility is about the ability to pick up chicks and sow your seed, what’s more masculine than wearing your baby like a shield of honor and walking a dog at the same time? Nothing. Babies and dogs are total chick bait. If you can demonstrate that you’re kind to animals and small humans, you’re as hot as it gets. Then again, if you’re wearing a baby and walking a dog, chances are you’re probably also married. But still, isn’t it nice to know you’ve still got it? If the tables are turned and women are shouting “Hey baby!” at your baby, you know you’ve done something right.

So how did these Brooklyn-based dog dads get the chicks that helped them make the babies they now proudly wear? Were their wives or partners attracted to their ability to be a financial provider? Maybe. But most likely the women in their lives were drawn to winning personalities and an ability to be sensitive. Like Penny argues in the Guardian, “The big secret about the golden age of “male providers” is that it never existed. First, women have always worked. Second, and just as importantly, there have always been men who were too poor, too queer, too sensitive, too disabled, too compassionate or simply too clever to submit to whatever model of ‘masculinity’ society relied upon to keep its wars fought and its factories staffed.” She adds, “‘Traditional masculinity’, like ‘traditional femininity’, is a form of social control, and seeking to reassert that control is no answer to a generation of young men who are quietly drowning in a world that doesn’t seem to want them.”

Penny also asserts that “We still don’t have any positive models for post-patriarchal masculinity, and in this age of desperation and uncertainty, we need them more than ever.” That may be the case in Britain, but here in Brooklyn, those role models are all around us. One such dad is Brian Gresko, who stays at home with his now 4-year-old son while his wife works as an educator at a non-profit cultural institution. Over a chat I mentioned to Brian that my theory is (and always has been) that the world will work best when moms and dads both work part-time and parent together. I don’t necessarily mean part-time hours, but that they work in a way that makes sense for them both economically and domestically. Brian hit me back with, “Word!,” which ought to let you know how dope he is right there. (Fun personalities are so masculine.) Then continued:

The assumption that women belong in the home, or perform domestic tasks better, and that men belong at work, or are less adept at childcare and cleaning, is just that: an assumption. And a reductive, over-simple one at that. My wife is excellent at her job and loves working, and she also enjoys cooking and a certain amount of cleaning. I feel the same way. We don’t reverse gender roles — I’m not in charge of childcare and the domestic sphere while she works — rather, we divvy up tasks, sharing the responsibility on all fronts. This requires some communication and a certain amount of scheduling, but it results in my wife and I feeling fulfilled both personally as well as within our relationship and family roles. A good partnership doesn’t mean losing your sense of identity or subsuming your dreams and needs. Women and men, mothers and fathers, should be able to have a life inside and outside of the family. It’s the 21st century! Who would want a Stepford wife? Or husband?

Certainly no one I want to know, that’s for sure. But of course even the most progressive couples wading through pregnancy, waiting for their first child to be born might tweak about gender roles when it comes to childcare, since everything anyone learns about having babies they learn on the job. What is essential for couples to bear in mind when planning a family is that children are only small for a limited amount of time. Your child will eventually go to school, and that will free you up to be your own person again during those hours. Afterschool programs pick up the slack for parents who can’t get their kids until 6 pm. Pre-school programs allow personal space for parents with toddlers. Furthermore, even during your child’s infancy, parents don’t have to work-or-not-work and children don’t have to go to daycare full-time or spend the entire day at home. This black-and-white thinking is part of what keeps us locked in the old system of patriarchy and corporate rule. There are all kinds of flexible, outside-the-box arrangements that can be made to make a life worth living work. They’re unfortunately still not as easy to come up with as they should be for everyone, but they are far from impossible to create or find. This kind of work-life balance is what feminism is really about. It’s a better life for everyone.

This new wave of men who either dare to be home more for their children or who are forced into staying home for economic reasons are slowly realizing that the old definition of masculinity as the ability to be the “sole provider” is a myth that hurts them emotionally as much as it hurts women. The new masculine, well-rounded man is not feminine, but he certainly is feminist, even if he doesn’t know it. Trust me, fellas. Keep walking that dog and wearing that baby. It’s a good look. And hopefully it feels great, too.

Photo credit: iStock

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