The evo­lu­tion of the stay-at-home dad

Ottawa Citizen - - ARGUMENTS - AN­DREA DOUCET An­drea Doucet is the Canada Re­search Chair in Gen­der, Work and Care and a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy a Brock Univer­sity. She is the au­thor of Do Men Mother? and is com­plet­ing a book on pri­mary bread­win­ning moth­ers and their part­ners.

Twenty years ago, the stay-ath­ome fa­ther was a cu­rios­ity, a spec­ta­cle, viewed with a mix­ture of sus­pi­cion and praise. I know this be­cause I be­gan to con­duct re­search on th­ese men two decades ago. They were hard to find and re­luc­tant to speak about be­ing the odd man out in a sea of moth­ers or what one fa­ther called “es­tro­gen-filled worlds.”

Today, stay-at-home dads are ev­ery­where. They walk proudly with their ba­bies in slings; they’re daddy blog­gers cre­at­ing on­line and com­mu­nity dad groups; and they’re injecting a male pres­ence at li­brary story time and in­fant play groups. Tele­vi­sion pro­grams, such as Mod­ern Fam­ily, Up All Night, and Par­ent­hood, por­tray stay-at-home dads as smart, hand­some, willing, and con­tent. And high-pro­file women such as Meryl Streep, An­gelina Jolie, Christiane Aman­pour, and Sarah Palin all live with men who have been called, or call them­selves, stay-at-home dads.

The term ‘stay-at-home dad’ (SAHD) is part of our 21st cen­tury dis­course and is used in a taken-for-granted man­ner by aca­demics, jour­nal­ists, and blog­gers. The term is im­por­tant. It sig­nals a rad­i­cal shift in tra­di­tional gen­dered forms of bread­win­ning and care­giv­ing. Yet I think it’s time to re-think the stay-at-home dad la­bel.

First, it is dif­fi­cult to know to whom it refers. Ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada, a stay-at-home dad is part of a hus­band-wife cou­ple who have de­pen­dent chil­dren at home (at least one un­der 16) and where the wife is em­ployed and the dad is not em­ployed; they also note that this means dad is “not go­ing to school and not look­ing for work, but able to work — mean­ing not dis­abled.” Us­ing this def­i­ni­tion, in 2011, there were 60,875 Cana­dian stay-at-home dads (13 per cent of all stay-at-home par­ents).

While th­ese num­bers in­di­cate a three-fold in­crease since 1986, they also se­ri­ously un­der­es­ti­mate the num­bers of fa­thers who pro­vide much of the daily care of chil­dren.

Ex­cluded from th­ese num­bers are sec­ondary, ir­reg­u­lar, flex­i­ble, or part­time earn­ers; part-time stu­dents; work-at-home dads (WAHDS); un­em­ployed job-seek­ers, the un­der­em­ployed, and dis­cour­aged work­ers. More­over, sta­tis­tics that fol­low only hus­band-wife fam­i­lies ex­clude a grow­ing num­ber of sin­gle, di­vorced, and gay fa­thers.

A sec­ond prob­lem with the SAHD la­bel is the now out-dated dis­tinc­tion be­tween work and home. This dis­tinc­tion, rooted in the early stages of in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion when there was a phys­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion be­tween fac­tory and home, led to a mythol­o­gized view of home as a sep­a­rate world — a refuge be­hind a white picket fence, or as his­to­rian Christo­pher Lasch called it, a “haven in a heart­less world.”

This im­age was re­in­forced in TV and mag­a­zine im­ages of the 1950s North Amer­i­can house­wife stand­ing at the door of her sub­ur­ban home, wav­ing her hus­band off to work.

This sep­a­ra­tion still per­vades our un­der­stand­ings of work and care. We as­sume that the worker goes off to work while the care­giver stays at home. In today’s world, how­ever, th­ese lines are blurred. Em­ployed par­ents may work via their smart­phones while they are at school events and take on some par­ent­ing du­ties while at work. Stay-at-home par­ents, on the other hand, may take on paid work while in­fants are napping, while kids are at school, or when an­other par­ent or care­giver is avail­able. As I ar­gued in my book Do Men Mother?, while most stay-ath­ome dads are the home-based, flex­i­ble, or sec­ondary earner, they nev­er­the­less main­tain some connection to the labour mar­ket.

Fi­nally, the stay-at-home la­bel as­sumes that care is not work. Many fem­i­nist schol­ars have sought to cor­rect this as­sump­tion by ar­gu­ing for the eco­nomic value of un­paid work. The ar­gu­ment that care is work also ap­peared in the re­cent ex­change, re­hashed for days in the Amer­i­can me­dia, be­tween Hi­lary Rosen and Anne Rom­ney. When Demo­crat Rosen quipped in an in­ter­view that Rom­ney “ac­tu­ally never worked a day in her life,” the wife of the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date replied, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Be­lieve me, it was hard work.” In my re­search, I have heard many stay-at-home dads use sim­i­lar words to de­scribe “the hard­est job I’ve ever done.”

In the past few years, the mean­ings and daily prac­tices of work and care have rad­i­cally shifted. Ca­reers have be­come more fragmented, and, no­tably, the shame of work­ing in­ter­mit­tently has faded in step with any of the ear­lier em­bar­rass­ment of be­ing a stay-at-home dad.

In the midst of a global re­ces­sion, fam­i­lies have come up with in­no­va­tive ways of pay­ing the bills and car­ing for chil­dren.

This may mean that mom stays late at work and dad makes din­ner, or that mom works down­town and dad works at home — but both are still work­ing to put food on the ta­ble.

In­stead of stay-at-home dads, should we think in­stead of workat-home dads (as well as work-ath­ome moms)? This would con­nect to a large body of re­search on how women have long cre­ated lives com­posed of a patch­work of paid work and un­paid work.

More and more men are now liv­ing such lives. No longer con­fined to one job — 48 hours a week, 48 weeks a year, for 48 years — men now com­bine work­ing and car­ing, at work and at home, paid and un­paid. Per­haps the most com­pelling story of father­hood in 2012 is not about the rise of stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) but about the richly nu­anced lives of work-at home dads (WAHDs).

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