Although I've noodled on the subject a fair amount, I only this week had an epiphany about the dumb dad stereotype this blog seeks to combat. Call me slow on the uptake, but what finally occurred to me may explain - at least in part - why one vein of sexist advertising continues to be tolerated. I detail one side of the coin in my "Why Competent Parent?" sidebar mini-manifesto - that coming off as incompetent allows men to punt family responsibility. My epiphany, on the other side of the coin: men in the domestic sphere threaten some people's conception of how the world works and what kinds of people should get which opportunities. Fathers taking responsibility for their kids and their homes aren't as rare as we once were, but we're still pioneers. If this choice seems novel in a good way to many, it also seems novel in a threatening way to others. Lampooning the at-home father may be a defense mechanism for the threatened.
I've pointed out before in this space the Huggies ads with implicit or explicit themes of
dad as doofus, father as fool. These ads gain context in relation to how the culture has treated women who have pioneered in traditionally male fields over the years. Those fictional female characters seemed similarly threatening to those who took comfort in the status quo. The type reached its apotheosis in Demi Moore's star crewcut turn in 1997's G.I. Jane. Herein, Moore fights her way into the few and the proud sixteen years before the military allowed women to take combat assignments. My research revealed that in my memory, I'd actually melded G.I. Jane with (childhood crush) Nancy McKeon's (pun-not-rejected) trailblazing role in 1986's television movie Firefighter. If we're
establishing a Hollywood lineage here, we should probably wind back the clock at least to Yentl in 1983. (Side note: apparently one must be a brunette to face this challenge.) Whether it's Semper Fi or the fire house or religious training in the shtetl, when women invade male domains, they have to endure hazing. I confess that I haven't seen Firefighter or G.I. Jane, and it's been a long time since I saw Yentl (wherein the lads didn't know she was a she), but the hazing clearly attempts to convince the pioneering woman that she's not strong enough for the challenge. In fact, she doesn't belong because she's not strong enough. Cue the stirring music at the end, though, and fit that lady for a uniform. She proved everybody wrong.
Which brings me back to what unsettles me about the dad-can't-handle-the-home-front subtext of advertisements: that they don't come around to an ending. The
Huggies dad stereotype tends to focus on a stage at which all new
parents feel inadequate to the task: parenting babies. As Dan Savage
has told all the gay kids, it gets better. We don't see that process most of the time when dads get lampooned. I've gotten to the third paragraph of this post without mentioning the at-home-dad cultural artifact kryptonite that is Mr. Mom. Well, there. I've said it. The parallels in the titles of Mr. Mom and G.I. Jane are quite striking. Observers can only see the pioneer through the lens of the person who traditionally holds the role - G.I. Joe at war and, of course, mom in the house. Everyone associates Mr. Mom with the beginning where (dark-brown-haired) Michael Keaton is utterly incompetent at his new job. In fact, it can be rightly credited with starting the whole battle that at-home dads still have to fight about how incapable we are of actually running a household. Of course, the Mr. in this case only becomes a stay-at-home dad because he loses his job, and his wife finds one before he does. Not exactly a profile in courage. The narrative eventually arrives, however, at a place where Michael Keaton gets better at running the house and he and Teri Garr do what many professional couples have done in the 31 years since: they both return to work, having negotiated new deals with their old bosses.
Dads get hazed as incompetent the way Demi and Nancy got hazed as weak. I remember that in high school when I wanted to start doing laundry, I had to lobby my mother hard to get her to teach me the basics. Why? Maybe because she'd controlled the laundry room for decades and had her system down. Maybe she didn't want someone who might make clothing-ruining mistakes to mess up one of her domains. Just like the firefighters and Marines, power and trust were at issue. She eventually relented, and I'm a careful-if-not-perfect home launderer.
The fact of the matter is that I'm better at running point on our household and our kids than I was when I went part time six years ago. I can balance giving attention to the kids and the house better now. I've always tried to put dinner on the table soon after Paige gets home, and I accomplish that far more often now than I did then. I calibrate what I can accomplish in the time allotted far better. I'm faster and better at planning menus that allow us to use what's on hand far more efficiently. My laundry rhythm rarely leaves us naked or interrupts other activities. It helps that the boys are six years older than they were then (oi!), but I have also done what people do as they gain experience: I have gotten more competent.
I don't believe that I am less capable of doing this work because I'm male. Although girls babysit more than boys, I would hazard a guess that your average delayed-marriage, delayed-parenting, career-launched new mother isn't that much better than her partner at the diapering, feeding, cleaning and sleep management required of a new parent. But women aren't depicted as falling apart in the kitchen or the nursery because those are traditional female domains. No one's threatened by her forays into domesticity, even if her graduate/professional degree and rise up the brand management or legal or engineering ladder are inadequate preparation to be a mom.
What would the at-home-dad-who-overcomes-the-odds movie look like? Where could the moment of triumph occur? Progress on the homefront occurs in slow motion. Achievement consists of things like nutritionally balanced lunches packed 4-5 days a week for nine months. The main motivation for me going part-time in the first place wasn't a singular goal that could be pinpointed (like a military commission). In the one year post-kids that both of us worked full time we observed that our sons needed more of us than we were able to give when every evening and weekend was a sisyphean mountain of errands and tasks. My wife was launching her career at a point at which I felt like I needed some kind of professional and work-life change. I had the good fortune to stay at my job part-time and the opportunity to give more attention to our kids -- and to facilitate Paige giving them more attention by chipping away at the humdrum. No one comes in and certifies our home as well-run or our children as well-raised. There's no moment at which the soundtrack could swell and I could stare off into the distance looking proud and relieved.
Dads who are new at this, be strong and competent. Don't let the sneering diaper-industrial complex get you down. You can do it. If it helps, though, I'll come over and whistle Eye of the Tiger while you slice apples.
4 months ago