The thing about househusbands

While more fathers seem to be staying at home with the children, Dr Andrew Singleton warns we should not be celebrating equity in the home just yet. — The cultural ideal of fatherhood has changed dramatically through the 20th century. In the 1950s, the model father was a breadwinner, mentor and disciplinarian. Emotional involvement with the children was not important – rather, what a man could provide materially was the best measure of being a 'good dad'. This ideal of fatherhood was reinforced by the ubiquity of single income families and glamorised on wholesome television shows like 'Leave it to Beaver'.

 

Social theorists argued that a stable society could only be achieved through 'instrumental' male leadership in the family home. To be sure, not everyone was happy with this image. Perhaps fearing that the 1950s man might become too domesticated, Playboy magazine offered a utopian vision of a place where men could spend their money on 'anything-but-the-kids'.

By the late 1970s, following the second wave of the feminist movement, a new and abiding cultural ideal of fatherhood emerged – the 'new father', who was expected to be caring, sensitive and emotionally available to his children. He was present at the birth, pushed the pram, changed nappies and picked his children up from child care.

Like his & apos;good provider' forebears, images of the 'new father' are everywhere. Think of retiring footballers embracing their children on the farewell lap or calendars depicting bare-armed fathers cradling their babies.

The importance of men taking an active and emotionally engaged role in their children's lives is reinforced by academics, health professionals and pop-psychologists. As a recent 'new dad' myself, I have witnessed this interest first hand. In preparatory birth classes, I was taught not only how to wind and bath baby but instructed on the value of dads giving remedial massages. The local health centre sent me a brochure telling me that 'research shows that men's involvement in early parenting is very important' and offering a range of 'new dad' classes. The 'new dad' self-help literature is more concerned with how a father can provide emotionally than what he can give materially.

The epitome of the 'new father' today is the stay-at-home dad. He is the bloke who takes substantial time off work to be the primary caregiver. He changes nappies, prepares formula, soothes the overtired child and looks bashful at mothers' group meetings. In between child-care duties, there is no rest. Washing needs to be done, meals prepared and clothes folded.

For many, the existence of the 'househusband' is the barometer of how far our society has come in response to feminism. When asked if domestic work is now being shared more equally between men and women, students in my sociology-of-men-and-masculinity class say that more men are staying at home to look after the kids on a full-time basis. A number of students even know of a househusband.

Many of the social scientists who study patterns in domestic labour claim that men's preparedness to assume primary household duties is indicative of a move towards an equitable division of domestic labour between men and women. This optimism is reinforced by the occasional television or newspaper feature on men who choose to be househusbands.

But, despite the widespread optimism, very few men are actually taking up the job of househusband. Those who do are generally not choosing to stay at home in the first instance because of a broader commitment to gender equity. Rather, the existence of househusbands highlights the complexities and contradictions of having children in contemporary society. Financial imperatives, career paths and divorce are all factors that come into play.

In many cases, the female partner earns a higher salary, so the couple will make a pragmatic decision that he stays home for the sake of the mortgage. Sometimes, the man is unemployed or made redundant, so it makes sense that he stays at home and looks after the kids for a while. The death of a spouse or a ruling in the family court may also be a factor.

Other couples actively negotiate a domestic arrangement that will enable both parents to spend time at home with the children while also allowing professional contact with the outside world – both workers and houseparents in any given week.

But evidence indicates that househusbands do not always have an easy time. Amidst the joys of a child learning to walk or mouthing a few words, many househusbands report feelings of isolation, boredom and depression. They tell of the anxieties of a career on hold, the difficulties in completing a task without disturbance and the tedium of watching the Wiggles. Of course, this is not news to women who stay at home and look after children – many report exactly the same feelings.

And while a few men are prepared to take up the househusband role, claims about equity in the family should be restrained. More broadly, men's interest in being 'new fathers' is not always matched by practical application. Social research consistently demonstrates that in most families it is women who continue to take the leading role in the provision and organisation of domestic labour and child care. Men might be performing tasks like nappy changing or Sunday afternoon pram pushing with greater endeavour, but for many that is the limit of their involvement. Indeed, significant numbers of men spend more time at work after the birth of a child than before.

This reality makes the few househusbands that do exist seem like a special breed of man who should be lavishly praised. But, while they are doing an important job, plenty of women have done the job before and never received the same giddy accolades. Raising children is a tough job for anybody.

Dr Andrew Singleton is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Monash University. His research interests include the sociology of men and masculinity, youth spirituality, gender issues and Generation X.

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