We must improve our assumptions about dads and domesticity if we’re ever going to solve the problems plaguing female breadwinners and derelict dads, says stay-at-home dad Vincent O’Keefe.
Last week I had the torturous pleasure of chaperoning five 13-year-old girls around an enormous amusement park for 10 hours. So imagine my irritation later when I sat down with The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” and read that given the rise of female breadwinners, “what is the purpose of men in modern families?…Do fathers bring anything unique to the table?” Are you kidding me?
Upon starting to read the seven debaters’ essays, I found my defensive self siding with W. Bradford Wilcox: “The view that men are superfluous in today’s families is dead wrong…girls and boys are much more likely to thrive when they have the benefit of a father’s time, attention, discipline, and especially affection.” For a moment I could even sympathize with Juli Slattery’s declaration of “the beauty of a dad’s unique contributions,” though she lost me when she insisted on a father’s conventional “financial provision” for his family. As a Ph.D. turned stay-at-home father and part-time writer, my idea of “providing” for my family is far less traditional than Slattery’s.
As I continued reading the essays, however, my footing in the debate started shifting. Michele Weldon reminds readers that children are “better off fatherless” if their fathers are abusive. Then she notes that “Americans encourage women to leave abusive partners, but mothers who do this end up in a class we shame and pity.” This point led me to soften my resistance to the perspective of Jane Mattes, founder and director of Single Mothers by Choice. Mattes argues that “the real issue is not the gender of the parents or the number of parents. It’s the ability to parent.” As long as there is “one consistent, stable, and mature parent,” children can turn out fine. Indeed, Mattes’ position made me reflect on the single mothers—and fathers—that I know, and the great job they are doing of raising their kids.
But Brad Harrington grounded my fuzzy reverie with his “Behind the Data” piece on the large disparity between high-earning female breadwinners with working husbands and unmarried female breadwinners likely to be in a much lower income bracket. He concludes, “Families are better off in virtually every way when there are two parents present.”
Harrington inspired me to look more closely at the Pew Research study on “Breadwinner Moms.” Because I’ve been fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home father for many years, the following line stung: “About half (51%) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.” What?! Is this 2013? Enter salt in the wound when the report continued, “The public is not conflicted at all about whether fathers should work or stay home with their children. Fully 76% say children are just as well off if their father works, while only 8% say children are better off if their father is home and doesn’t hold a job.”
These findings surprised me since they do not match my experience. Despite the occasional zingers, most individuals (particularly mothers) that I have met since becoming a stay-at-home dad have been supportive. Some even glorify me to an uncomfortable degree. Also, stay-at-home dads are more prevalent today than ever. Ten years ago we were Martians; five years ago we were immigrants; now one or more of us is living down the street from you and you’ve been thinking about saying hello. (Go ahead—he could use the company.) But 8%? We can do better.
In fact, both men and women MUST improve their assumptions about dads and domesticity if we’re ever going to solve the problems plaguing female breadwinners and derelict dads. Another debater, Hanna Rosin, believes children need “at least one loving adult who is a stable, reliable presence; a few more loving adults hopefully thrown into the mix; and enough resources not to be constantly struggling.” I would agree, but this seems a bleak baseline.
Rosin laments that “a series of recessions made it hard for working-class men to find work, and they haven’t quite adjusted to the new ‘college degree required’ work force.” Her point is valid. But such men have also failed to adjust to what I would call the new “domestic work required” state of raising a family with a woman (or another man, as Terrance Heath notes) in contemporary America.
Given the Pew report’s dismal 8% approval rating of stay-at-home dads, however, the blame does not lie solely with misplaced machismo at the expense of children’s welfare. Part of the blame lies with a culture that continues to discourage men’s domestic participation by denying, for whatever reasons, that fathers are just as capable as mothers of being warm, stable, and mature parents—even those fathers who stay at home, either by choice or necessity. As Emily DeRuy recently reported for ABC news, “there’s no study that shows children who grow up with stay-at-home dads fare worse than children with stay-at-home moms.”
Ideally, future studies on the healthy, well-adjusted children of stay-at-home dads will help put people’s anxiety on this issue to bed (sorry for the parenting pun). The stay-at-home dad stigma is fading, no doubt, but progress needs to happen faster given how quickly breadwinning moms are rising. Now that would be a great Father’s Day gift.
Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is finishing a memoir about a decade of at-home parenting. See more of his work at www.vincentokeefe.com or follow him on Twitter @VincentAOKeefe