When strangers see a dad and his kids at the grocery store, library, park, or pool, they make a remark like, "Oh, you're babysitting today." My husband developed a standard response: "No, I'm being Dad." He was gracious, but it was puzzling and offensive to think caring for one's own children could be called babysitting.
Trevor was an at-home dad from the time our oldest was 9 months old to the day our youngest started kindergarten. We opted for this arrangement more than a decade ago, when at-home dads comprised 1.6 percent of all stay-at-home parents in the U.S. In 2011, that percentage had risen to 3.4 percent. That's 176,000 at-home dads raising more than 332,000 children.
While their ranks are growing, dads still make up a very small percentage of at-home parents. This exacerbates a problem many at-home parents face: loneliness. While women have groups, both formal and informal, to help them combat isolation and support one another, men find few companions who can relate to their everyday experiences. One father, quoted in Wall Street Journal, said "when he took his kids to public parks, 'moms would talk over me as if I was not even there.' "
My husband got the cold shoulder from moms at the park, but was fortunate to make friends with another at-home dad who lived a few houses away. They spent a lot of time together, working on home improvement projects while the girls played together. Some men have a harder time.
In addition to excluding them, it's ironic that women often show dads the same kind of—I suppose the right term is maternalistic—attitudes and behaviors our paternalistic brothers sometimes show in the workplace and elsewhere. We laugh over ironic images of men in domestic situations, like Porn for New Moms, mixing desire with mocking. Yes, they're funny, but only because of our assumptions about men. Would they be funny if they were pictures of women doing the same thing? Would we find them funny if they depicted hapless women in traditionally male roles? We patronize dads as they care for little ones, saying things like, "Isn't that cute?" and "Here, let me help you with that diaper." We fuss over them the same way powerful and insecure men might be tempted to fuss over women when they're changing tires or using slide rules.
As those condescending attitudes become less acceptable when aimed at us, we must drop them when they're turned the other way. Women had to fight to prove they could do what men had been doing for so long. Men shouldn't have to prove they can be skilled parents. This means more than just showing confidence that dads can do what moms can do—we need to affirm that it's okay (good!) for dads to be dads.
A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed a trend toward what the study's lead author calls "a masculinization of domestic tasks and routines." He compares this to the "feminization of the workplace in the past few decades" and describes an "alternative model of home life" built by at-home dads, with more emphasis on spending time outdoors, technology, and play. There's no such thing as Mr. Mom—children and families are healthiest and happiest with two parents who parent together but differently. And while women complain that a greater share of domestic responsibility still falls on our own shoulders and claim we want help, we have no right to insist that men do things our way.
When our kids were young, we wanted one parent at home if possible. Between the two of us, I was the one with a career that could support our family. My husband was eager for the opportunity to focus on parenting, so he stayed home during the day and worked a few hours a week in the evenings, while I worked full-time and spent my evenings and weekends investing in our family. Now, with our oldest only weeks away from the teenage years, we continue to see the benefits of that arrangement. Our girls are exceptionally close to their dad, he is well-positioned to challenge and guide them, and we truly function as partners in parenting.
It's compelling to consider at-home dads in light of Hanna Rosin's 2012 book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. In it, Rosin claims the long age of male superiority has come to an end. In a new world, dominated by knowledge and relationships rather than physical strength, women hold advantages they never have held before. Even the longstanding global preference for male children is fading, and in some places, reversing itself.
If this truly is the "end of men" and traditional masculinity is becoming less dominant—perhaps even less relevant—in our world, women face a brand-new opportunity for grace. This is true in all our interactions, and especially true in the domestic arena, where we have long held sway. Will we allow men to express themselves in the home, or will we turn the tables and shut them out, as some men historically have done to women outside that domestic sphere?
Instead of planning "mom's day out," let's expand our circles to include men who spend their days parenting. Let's smile in camaraderie, not condescension, when dads change diapers. We have an unprecedented opportunity to open doors for men, to extend their vision of their own capabilities. Let's choose to bless, not to curse.