Freaky Fortnight

Are Stay-at-Home Dads Less Manly?

Are stay-at-home dads less manly?

Susan didn’t mention an important part of Rob Spillman’s essay about how he and his wife switched breadwinning/caregiver roles each week. Whenever Spillman told one of his guy friends about his family arrangement, they begged him not to tell their own wives about it, so great was their terror of domestic life. What do men fear exactly? This notion was brought home to me yesterday when a teacher at Nick’s school began asking me questions about our experiment. “Do you feel emasculated?” he wondered.

At the moment, the two of us were the only men in a hallway full of baby sitters and moms. Emasculated is too strong a word. But I do feel as though I am swimming against the tide. I certainly come across other dads during the day. I’ve even met a grandpop who helps out as a regular “manny.” But we are the exceptions, like those albino squirrels you see on occasion. The nannies and mothers dominate the kid places, and they also have the right idea: They gather the children into little play groups and then referee any disputes from the benches. I’m the lone dad dealing with my two boys.

Yet when I imagine Susan permanently working at a job and me permanently manning the home front, I do feel emasculated. Reading The Daddy Shift in the quiet kid-free hours of the night, I seized on a quote from a Depression-era father: “When a man is at home all day he cannot possibly command as much respect as when he returns to the family for a few hours of concentrated conversation.” That was the model in my own childhood, with my lawyer-father arriving home for the evening news and family dinner with a consistency that still kind of astonishes me. Whenever Dad was present, everyone was on their best behavior. I realize that I’d like to radiate this same kind of paternal authority and confidence, one that derives from supporting the family.

To skip out on the breadwinning role is to be less of a man. Wait a second. Isn’t that one of those retrograde ideas I’m supposed to have discarded? I went to the bookshelf for Richard M. Huber’s The American Idea of Success and read the stark opening sentences: “In America, success has meant making money and translating it into status, or becoming famous. Success was not earned by being a loyal friend or good husband.” In Huber’s view, people would judge me as more successful if I wrote a best-selling book than if I raised two independent and thoughtful sons. Which is kind of screwed up, considering the amount of effort involved. I can see why women feel slighted when no one appreciates all of the hard character-forming work they do. It’s constant, like rechanneling a stream.

On the other side, men can’t stay home without questions being asked about their ambition and, also, their manliness. As a man, you are born in the pole position. Why concede any ground?

One good reason is that there is a lot to be said for quantity time over quality time. I taught Will about the wind yesterday, and now he makes a funny blowing face whenever a breeze kicks up. Usually, getting any information from Nick in the evening about his school day requires the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes:

“How was school today, Nick?”
“We went on the roof.” (That’s where the playground is.)
“Whose snack day was it today?”
“I don’t knooooow.”
“Can you tell me one thing that you did besides going on the roof?”
“Was anybody bad in school today?” (This usually works.)
“Can we stop talking now, Daddy?”

But yesterday, during our after-school Pirate Booty call, Nick narrated all of the drawings that he’s done this year: computer, dinosaur book, rocket ship, another computer, bats, a gun, the sky.

The other thing I will say in favor of home life is the constant, amazing change. Although working at Slate has moments of fevered unpredictability—what, MJ died?—there is a regularity to many aspects of the job. Here in the apartment, Will is desperately trying to learn how to walk—he grabs my hands at every opportunity and says, “Valk.” I think he might take his first steps by Friday. How is that for an unqualified success?