Stereotyping Dad: The Myth of the Stay-at-Home Superhero
When my son was born last year, I was excited to break what I thought was new ground as a working, stay-at-home dad. An entrepreneur and an actor, my schedule was far more flexible than my wife’s, and it seemed the clear choice throughout our “when-we-have-a-kid” talks that I would be the primary caregiver and work while our son napped. I’d run my businesses from home as I always had, go on auditions as usual, and just squeeze caring for our son in between. Piece of cake.
I was taking the stereotypical — and impossibly unfair — archetype of the working mom and amping it up, macho style: “In addition to food shopping, cooking and cleaning for our family, I’ll also care for and engage our child while running three business ventures and maintain an acting career. Sounds challenging. I like a challenge.” (said squintily. Like Eastwood). Without society telling me I ought to be able to do those things, I didn’t think I had anything to prove. This was just the thing I would do.
That the job was and is way harder than I imagined goes without saying. But who cares? New parents, whether working or not, have no idea what we’re getting into. What has set my personal social experiment apart, in ways I couldn’t have even imagined, is how my gender, just being the Dad, drastically changed the experience.
I quickly found that I had to do very little to be incredibly impressive. To begin with, I’m a novelty and a hero as I stand in the checkout line to buy milk in the middle of the day with a baby strapped to my chest. I receive constant comments from people, mostly women, about what a fantastic father I am. “Well, thank you! Yes, yes it’s very impressive that I can hold this baby AND purchase things at the same time. Thank you for noticing.” When I mentioned to one mother that I was “with” my son during the day, she commended me for not saying “babysit.”
Can you actually babysit your own child? When I would be on the phone with clients and they’d hear my son cry, they were invariably deferential and understanding in the extreme. Would a mother, I often ask myself, have gotten the same treatment? I was getting lovely praise, but it felt more like my XY chromosome status was being treated as “special needs”.
And that was the good side of the coin, much as it rubbed me the wrong way. The inevitable dark side of the coin had come earlier in our new family adventure. For if I was being showered with praise for doing the very simple, there must not be much expected of me.
When my wife was pregnant, we dutifully signed up for the appropriately empowering birth class in our enlightened, open-minded part of the city. The woman who ran it was lovely and knowledgeable. Until she had to speak to the husbands, that is. Our wives were showered with words of encouragement, speaking to their power and grace, their bodies’ natural wisdom.
We were spoken to as really well intentioned idiot children. Her main objective seemed to be that we stop being innately inept just long enough to give our wives some actual assistance in — not in raising our child, heaven forbid — but maybe washing a dish or rubbing their feet after a hard day. If it wasn’t a stretch, maybe we could also listen to their feelings. It was actually my wife who eventually spoke up in my/our defense, partly I think because I’d gone catatonic with rage by class 3, but I’d like to believe also partly because she loves me. Perhaps she even agreed with me.
So what’s it like to be a working, stay-at-home father? It’s a job like any other, one that requires balance to accomplish many different tasks. It’s a job like no other, where the pragmatic needs of business are weighed against the transcendent and sometimes poop-filled reality of raising a small human being. It’s one of the most centering experiences of my life, where my priorities are almost always crystal clear. And it’s a business nightmare, where I’m constantly bailing water from the ship as my son gleefully drills more holes in the hull.
I’ll never get enough work done. I’ll never spend enough time with my kid. And I love it.
I don’t expect stereotypes to disappear. So let’s yoke them to our cause. Men are inept parents. And we are super-heroes for getting it all done, especially when we also run the day-to-day of the home. And so are women, inept superheroes. Let’s clamber out from behind our pink and blue forts long enough to realize that the work is hard, but it’s the work that’s important. And whoever’s doing it deserves a little thumbs up. And a foot rub, if you can manage it.
We got the cute pic from Lori Alexander’s blog.