Fathering from home
CBC News Viewpoint | June 16, 2004 | More from Georgie Binks
Several years ago a male friend of mine quit his job as the president of a busy company to stay home with his kids. Missing out on special events in his children's lives was eating away at him. So he decided to trade the big salary and high status for mountains of laundry and driving to hockey practice. He's just one of a growing number of men who has chosen the "daddy track" — not necessarily for a lifetime, but for a couple of years anyway.
Years ago a stay-at-home dad was virtually unheard of. These days it's difficult to drop off kids in a playground and not see a couple of men chatting as they wave their children goodbye. According to Statistics Canada, the number of Canadian fathers taking parental leave increased from three per cent in 2000 to 10 per cent in 2001. In 1991 there were 88,000 fathers at home. By 2002 that number had jumped to 110,000. Carleton University professor Andrea Doucet, who is writing a book entitled Do Men Mother?, says it's difficult to estimate how many men are at home with their children. "They are not like the '50s stay-at-home mom who has given up work. A lot of these dads are taking a break, retraining, working from home. Perhaps the term "stay-at-home dad" needs to be deconstructed. Very few of them are giving up work forever," she says.
Doucet says men at home with the kids are usually thinking of what kind of a job they will tackle when they return to the workplace because men are judged as earners. As well, when they are caring for their children, they are often doing consulting work or a job from a home office. Doucet says a high number also end up renovating their houses. "I think fathers need a way to justify it to their peers and maintain a link with a masculine type of work. It gives them a sense of ease about being at home," she says.
Through her interviews Doucet has made some interesting discoveries that echo what my friend noticed during his time at home. She says men feel more scrutinized about their decision to stay home and that they are viewed as losers if they don't say they are doing something else as well as staying at home. My friend says when he first quit his job he was praised all round but over time he noticed he was being excluded, especially by other men.
He continues, "I got a lot of self-esteem out of my job when I was working. I remember closing a $4 million deal one day and how I felt about it. As well, people in the workplace who didn't even know me treated me like I was important. Now they see me as the guy who wears jeans."
So what kind of a guy stays home with his kids? Super-secure and confident? Not necessarily. My friend falls into the minority of men who are successful and have decided to chuck it all to stay home. Doucet says the broad majority of men she interviewed were always struggling with the decision and had usually chosen it because the couple needed child care and the woman made more money. Another group was single men who had their children full time or for extended periods on their own.
If it is a lonely world for the stay-at-home mother, it can be doubly that for the stay-at-home dad. While Michael Keaton was pictured playing poker for coupons with a group of attractive mothers in Mr. Mom, my friend tells me, "I don't socialize with the moms. And the other guys who stay at home look like the kind of guys who would stay at home." (Wait a minute — even stay-at-home dads diss stay-at-home dads.) When I enquire further about the kind of guy who would stay at home would be like, he mutters something about them being "herbal." While men may not call up each other for a coffee date, Doucet says more men are discovering networking opportunities through their children's sports.
Despite some disadvantages, there are huge benefits for men who stay at home. They glean insight into the 24-hour load women carry according to stay-at-home dad and writer John Hoffman. He says, "Men in the workplace tend not to feel it. Mothers who work outside the home carry it more than guys. It's in a woman's head. I carried the load about the domestic stuff, cooking, food and laundry, but she never lost the 24-hour load about her kids."
Doucet says, "When stay-at-home dads take on what we consider mothering, the way they do it depends on their partner and what their partner gives up and whether they move over. The woman's role is critical." And she says, "The spin-offs from that are enormous. You can never know what it is like to juggle all of these things, along with perhaps a difficult child, if you don't do it. Men can take on some of that load, but the only way is by being there and doing it."
Doucet says parental leave is something that has made it more acceptable for men to be home with their children and more men are discovering they aren't the only males at the playgroups.
Hoffman says when he told men he stayed at home they all said they wished they could do it but, "I was never sure how sincere they were. They often said they wished they had the guts to do it."
In Sweden there is something called a Daddy Month, allowing fathers to take a month with their children, but only fathers can take it. Maybe a Daddy Month is worth considering in Canada.
My friend says the payoffs of staying home with his children are different from those in the workplace, explaining, " When I was at work I would solve one problem, then another. At home there are certainly lots of problems but if a door falls off and I put it back on we're just back to square zero. The door was on yesterday so I really haven't accomplished anything." He measures his accomplishments in terms of the kids' lives — did they get to bed on time, did they get their homework done, are they happy?
Hoffman says the experience has been good for his relationship with his wife, explaining, "It's good for a marriage when each partner understands the other's perspective." And he continues, "I understand the experience of most mothers better than most men, because I have done it. I know what you think about, what you worry about, what you are in tune to. I know the mother's secret — how great it is to be intimately involved with a kid. It's a wonderful experience, something no one can take away from me."
I was pleased to read Georgie Binks's piece, "Fathering from home." I continue to enjoy your writing, Georgie. Thank you for continuing to craft thought-provoking articles - I think your work is very valuable. Which is why I'm alarmed by the distasteful response letter from a gentleman in Toronto who read this piece.(see below)
He writes, "The truth of the matter . . . is that there are guy things and there are girl things . . . . For tens of thousands of years men and women did what came naturally and assumed the roles they are designed for." This kind of thought is antiquated, alarming, and completely off-base.
Perhaps in our culture, men have been assuming the traditional 'breadwinner' role, while women have assumed the 'caretaker' role. FYI, buddy, this isn't pan-cultural. In some cultures, some men wear makeup, do all the shopping, and the women are the ones labouring outside the home.
In some cultures, the men knit and work textiles - work traditionally associated with women in our part of the world. Are you going to tell me that they're any less human than you are, and that your values are any better or should be more highly regarded than theirs?
I agree that parents should not foist their children off to be raised by strangers. However, in many cultures around the world, people work together to provide childcare to their young. Children spend time with aunts, uncles, grandparents, or friends of their parents.
If a father wants to be the one to stay home with his children, well then, more power to him. He can provide just as much love, care and support as their mother can and it's wonderful that he's willing to.
Before lashing out at the "leftists," who you feel "try and force artificial gender equity upon" you, I suggest you read up a little on human evolution and cross-cultural variation. There's a lot more in this world than our narrow Western view of how life should be.
Virginia McFarland, B.A. anthropology | Sudbury, Ontario
Thanks for writing such a fair, no nonsense piece. I've been at home and can truly say that the experience has been life-changing. My wife feels the same way.
There have been many ups and downs (I should have kept a log because I could probably write a book by now) but the thing that sticks with me is how little society values a parent staying at home, whether it's woman or man. The work is simply taken for granted, although people do tend to get taken aback when a man does it.
Another huge change, which I haven't really come across in articles, is changing in the "balance of power" at home. Make no mistake about it: power, whether overt or subtle, gravitates to the spouse who's bringing home the bacon, not to the one who cooks it.
I could go through a million examples of how this has impacted us, but suffice to say that, at this moment I'm typing this email, figuring on what time the kids are going to bathe, what needs to be done to tidy the house, what I can watch on TV later, and what I'll make for breakfast tomorrow, while awaiting a call from wife, who's out of town on business (typically, with mostly men), and that I'm very used to this.
Anyway, the dishwasher calls.
Mark L. Kemp
There seems to be a certain faction of society intent on portraying women and men as being interchangeable. These people, of which Ms Binks is one - seem to believe that it is desirable, wonderful even, for men to take on traditional women's roles and vice versa. They quote one or two anecdotal examples showing how natural and easy it is for women to become soldiers or men to become housewives and expect us all to oooo and ahhhh approvingly.
Well, sorry, I think it's all a big crock. I'm sure the circle in which Ms Binks travels is loaded with sensitive men seeking gender ambiguous roles in their relationships - after all she is a journalist and does work for the CBC to boot. It is hardly surprising that she would glorify degenderization rather than celebrate the obvious and many differences between the genders.
The truth of the matter, however, is that there are guy things and there are girl things. And maternal instincts and behaviors are a girl thing, not a guy thing. In fact, most men wouldn't be caught dead in a full time domestic role. And many women with young children would much rather be home with the kids than out pushing paper around a desk or hitting buttons on a keyboard.
All in all, we are creatures of instinct and habit. For tens of thousands of years men and women did what came naturally and assumed the roles they are designed for. Now, doing what comes naturally is seen as a crime. Hundreds of tax funded feminist groups and liberal media mouthpieces paint daily pictures of heroic women handing their 6 month old babies off to strangers so they can rejoin the boys in the corporate sandbox; while discounting and disregarding those who think that children need their mothers at home.
Well, regardless of how hard the leftists try and force artificial gender equity upon us, they cannot reprogram us genetically. Women will still seek men who provide security - i.e., men with money; and men will seek out a woman to be a sexual partner, mother and nurturer. Thus it has always been and always shall be. It is the crux of what we are as men and women. So get over it already.
Ron Laffin | Toronto