I was sipping my morning coffee while reading an article about stay-at-home fathers from the Journal of Men’s Studies recently. Aundrea Snitker, a faculty member at Warner Pacific University, had conducted interviews with stay-at-home dads from across the United States, and the responses surprised and disappointed me.
The title of the article, “Not Mr. Mom: Navigating Discourses for Stay-at-Home Fathers,” points to a recurring conversation in the interviews. Snitker talked to dads about their feelings regarding being called “Mr. Mom,” and most of them distanced themselves from the label. One father explained:
I was confused. Why would men who engage in the nurturing work of full-time child care, a role traditionally associated with femininity, resist being feminized?
My time as a stay-at-home dad has taught me to embrace my nurturing side and other qualities traditionally associated with mothers. I expected other men in the role of stay-at-home father to be comfortable with the feminine, too. I had hoped that stay-at-home dads would provide a safe place to embrace feminine traits in our hypermasculine society. My disappointment turned from frustration to judgment. I looked down upon my gender with annoyance.
But a few days after finishing the article, I was reflecting on my first year as a stay-at-home father and remembered my response to my wife’s attempts to get me to wear a baby wrap. I rejected it several times, dismissing it as a mother’s clothing, not suited for a man. When I agreed to try it, I felt awkward with the long band of cloth wrapped around my torso. Men don’t wear baby wraps. Maybe a backpack-type carrier for a hiking trip but not a thin, cloth wrap. What will other guys think?
And then another memory, of a blog post I wrote for another parenting website: “8 Things Not to Say to a Stay-at-Home Dad.” I cringed when I recalled my words, particularly my response to being called Mr. Mom. “No, I am not Mr. Mom. That title was funny 20 years ago, but now it’s dumb. I am a man, not a woman. As a stay-at-home dad, I don’t need to alter my gender to want to care for my children. Stop asking that question.” I can hear resistance pulsating in my words.
Why did I resist being feminized? The best answer I can give is fear. I feared being seen as weak by other men, feared being rejected and ostracized. Putting on a baby wrap or allowing others to call me Mr. Mom would have gone against traditional expectations of what is masculine: toughness, emotional stoicism and bread-winning. Our social structure privileges men who embrace traditional masculinity and takes power from those who threaten it. I did not want to risk losing even more power because I felt I had lost enough by becoming a stay-at-home father.
Many stay-at-home dads, including myself, are guilty of trying to have it both ways — to maintain the privilege and power given to us by our male-dominated society while performing a role traditionally done by women. Snitker describes this dynamic: “Although by staying home, in some ways, these stay-at-home fathers continue to challenge traditional gender expectations around caregiving, in many ways, they continue to benefit and affirm the power and privilege associated with masculinities.”
I know many fathers who see no harm in maintaining a traditional masculine identity. They don’t see the power imbalance between men and women as problematic, and they believe undoing it will harm men. Possibly. But I don’t think they are considering the larger cost of subscribing to the traditional ideas of what is masculine — the damage done to our sons.
When fathers reject the feminine we deny our sons access to the full range of their humanity. Teaching them to suppress feelings and assume a tough facade undermines their emotional well-being. We are, essentially, asking them to be something other than human.
When you see boys taught to hide sensitivity and put on hardened masks; when you hear someone telling a 4-year-old to “take it like a man”; when you see boys explode with violence because they have no constructive way to express emotions; when you see girls encouraged to embrace things that are traditionally masculine but boys given no leeway to do things that are traditionally feminine; when you see the suicide statistics of males vs. females — then you will understand why it is necessary to embrace the feminine.
It baffles me that we teach boys that nurturing, empathy and emotional expressiveness are the traits of women. I would argue that these are the basic traits that make us human. Both men and women have the capacity to access these traits if given an opportunity. So, to facilitate a generation of men who feel free to embrace these traits, we need a generation of fathers who are willing to undo their resistance.
A few weeks ago at the grocery store, I scanned the checkout lanes for the least busy one in hopes of quickly passing through and avoiding a meltdown from two impatient boys.
“Ya’ll come over here, honey,” said an elderly woman in a green apron, waving us toward her register. “Do you want some stickers?”
Henry, my 4-year-old, grabbed them and plastered them on the back of his 11-month-old brother. As she scanned our groceries, Henry shouted and slung open the cooler door, while Theo mashed banana on his face and rubbed the remains on the cart. I jammed my debit card into the machine and entered my PIN, hoping to get them strapped into car seats soon. I stared at the debit machine, mostly ignoring the cashier, until she asked, “Are you Mr. Mom?”
I raised my head and saw her warm smile. If she had asked me this question a few years ago, I probably would have felt annoyed but politely said, “No.” But I stopped myself from reacting negatively. I looked her in the eye. Smiled.
“Yes,” I said.“That is my official title.”
Billy Doidge Kilgore is a native Southerner, ordained minister and stay-at-home father. He lives with his family in Nashville and blogs at Wrap Daddy.