Did this past year live up to being the often-predicted “Year of the Dad?” You could certainly argue yes based solely by the media attention that was directed towards stay-at-home dads, and “involved dads” in general. Some of the attention has been good, some of it bad, some of it weirdly condescending as it heaps unnecessary praise for doing little, and some of it astoundingly backwards in its conclusions about why more dads are getting involved and questioning whether it’s a good idea.
And in all of this, for some reason, even the best pieces about stay-at-home dads can’t seem to help asking some variation of what I simply call “The Question,” posed to just about every stay-at-home dad interviewed, ever:
Let me be clear with my short answer: “No. Not at all.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a very compelling interview, so I’ll expound a little . . .
Back in October at the national At-Home Dad Convention I was on a panel discussing interactions with the media, and panel moderator Matt Schneider asked us to talk about how we answer the question. At the time, I said that I generally try to answer by explaining that I define myself as a man primarily by how well I serve my family — putting what’s best for them before my own ego, desires, dreams, or personal comfort — and that what I do as a stay-at-home dad fits well within that definition.
As a Christian, this sort of servant-leadership is, of course, best exemplified through Christ’s own example. Did washing His disciples’ feet emasculate him? Of course not. So why would cooking dinner for my family, or changing my sons’ diapers?
To me, I’d really only be emasculated if I actually bought the image of masculinity that elevates stoicism and authority over joyfully serving. My masculinity is not threatened in the slightest by what I do, nor by the fact that my wife is the family’s primary breadwinner; it is merely questioned by those who . . . well let’s just say they define masculinity in different terms (to put it nicely).
So no, how our family works doesn’t emasculate me, or make me feel like less of a man, any more than my manhood relies on liking beer and football above all else. Any emasculating going on is being done by others, for their own reasons, and is their problem, not mine.
Anyhow, what brought this up again recently for me were a couple of episodes of the new Ricki Lake Show, which featured interviews with a handful of stay-at-home dads, over the course of a few episodes that focused on the changing dynamics of the “modern family.”
(In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of many stay-at-home dads contacted by the show’s producers over this past year, as they put together potential interviews and episode ideas. I didn’t end up involved, but several great dads that I do know were featured.)
If you have watched the shows, I think it’s clear that the producers and Ricki Lake herself actually think the world of these sorts of involved dads, recognize the practical wisdom in why a family would choose such an arrangement, and wanted to give a positive portrayal.
And yet, if I’m not mistaken, Ricki asked The Question of every stay-at-home dad that I saw.
Why is that?
I thought all of the dads handled themselves and The Question as well as could be expected. Two fellow dad-bloggers I know a little bit were featured, Charlie from HowToBeADad and Andy from BetaDad, and they are both great dads and superb writers. I was more than happy to see them on there, representing dads like me who have chosen to take on the role of primary caregiver for their children.
To reiterate I don’t blame Ricki Lake, or question her motives. This isn’t a criticism of her or her show. Like I said, I think Ricki is firmly in “our corner,” so to speak, as dads taking on non-traditional but vitally important roles, and that she respects and celebrates those who are doing it with competence and confidence. So it really surprised me to see her casually pull out The Question multiple times, maybe even just as evidence of just how ingrained into our lexicon “emasculated” has become as an easy label for anything outside of a very narrow idea of what constitutes masculinity.
And let’s make one thing clear: asking a man if he feels emasculated because of something he does is absolutely a suggestion that he’s doing something that puts his masculinity in question. Otherwise, why ask at all?
Don’t get me wrong, I do get it. I get that there is a ton of pressure to conform to a certain image of masculinity, and I get that many — even most — men have to adjust their idea of masculinity somewhat, to be comfortable in a non-breadwinner role, or to be confident and content contributing to their family as a caregiver and by overseeing domestic responsibilities. I get that almost any sort of childcare has been seen for a long, long time as being mostly within the sphere of women, and the feminine in general. I get that we often define masculinity based on all sorts of things that don’t include changing diapers, preparing meals, singing lullabies, tending to boo-boos, cleaning house, and having an informed opinion on stroller brands. I get that questioning a man’s manhood has long been society’s way of keeping him in line, and doing what the role defined for him by said society demands.
I get all of that.
But I also get that for an even longer time, many, many other things were held as completely off-limits to women, as they were considered to be mostly or solely within the sphere of men and the masculine. The limits on women reach far further back in human history than those on men, who in every generation have had far more freedom and flexibility to define themselves. And yet, though we’re not in any way at full gender equality by any stretch, how often in the 21st century do you see a female CEO interviewed, and asked if her position makes her feel masculine, or unfeminine? Not often, I’d venture, particularly not by someone who is actually presenting the huge leaps women have taken in chipping away at the glass ceiling in the past 50 years in a positive light.
Yes, of course, there are definitely lots of conversations in the media about how mothers can or cannot “have it all;” plenty of working moms judged as bad moms for not being home; and plenty of stay-at-home moms judged as bad feminists for not caring as much about career paths. But the suggestion that a woman’s identity as a woman is in question because of her choice to be a doctor or a CEO or a police officer or a soldier is swiftly and completely and correctly called out every time.
Why don’t we do that when a man’s identity as a man is so casually questioned?
Why don’t we come down hard on those who try to pigeon-hole men into the same old roles as we do on those who do the same sort of thing to women?
No one is taken seriously who would ask for a woman to hand in her “Woman Card” should she earn a Senior Resident position, or is elected to office, or makes her first million dollars going public with an IPO. So, why do we keep offhandedly implying that dads who care for their own kids while their wife works have somehow turned in their “Man Card?”
(Incidentally, I am pre-soaking in the irony of how many times I’ll have my own masculinity questioned, openly or privately, simply by deciding to post this. I fully expect a deluge of people telling me to “man up” and keep quiet about the things that I think should change, which has never made much sense to me at all. C’est la vie.)
I certainly can’t speak for all stay-at-home dads, only for myself, and the truth is firmly as I stated way above: what I do doesn’t make me feel emasculated.
But . . . y’know what? Being asked all the time if it does can’t help but start making a guy feel like maybe you think it should.
I can only imagine how many men get that same message, and chose to either remain disengaged from their family, or become more disengaged, lest someone question their manhood.
Look, it’s important — really important, I believe — to be having these conversations about gender roles and expectations, why they continue to be so deeply held like they do, how and why they were formed, and lots of real, honest discussions about both the price and they payoff to breaking out of those roles. I think it’s really important to keep talking and wrestling with how men and women are different (we are!) without trying to keep us in two neat little boxes where the threat of being accused of appearing too much like the people in the other box is used to fracture people and relationships.
But let’s not beat around the bush here: “Emasculation” may have come to refer to a man simply being rendered “less of a man” in a figurative sense, but the word itself directly refers to having one’s genitals removed. This is not merely something one “feels,” but to something that is done to you, almost certainly against your will. At it’s best it’s a stripping of strength and a declaration of weakness. At it’s worst it’s an inherently violent and violating act, that renders a man not only impotent but actually steals from a him, forever, the very outward evidence of his masculinity. It’s language that specifically follows a logic where one is less of a man and more like a woman, and that more like a woman = bad bad bad. It’s exactly the sort of negative trigger language that we as a society have been recognizing as damaging and sexist when applied elsewhere.
So if you want to know about whether people have treated me poorly (or simply differently) because I am a stay-at-home dad, ask me about that, not whether I feel emasculated.
If you want to know if I’ve experienced difficulty adjusting to a role as a husband and father that most men are not expecting or prepared for ahead of time, ask me about that, not whether I feel emasculated.
If you want to know what friends and family and strangers have said to me about what I do, ask me about that, not whether I feel emasculated.
If you want to know how others have tried to emasculate me, ask about that, not whether I feel emasculated.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, please, can we all recognize that a man taking on the role of primary caregiver for his kids is not in any way akin to having his genitals removed? That it’s no more a threat to a man’s masculinity than a woman being in the workforce is a threat to her femininity?
I think it’s time to move the conversation forward, and that seems like a good next step.