When my wife went back to work half-time I rearranged my schedule so that I could spend one morning a week at home with my son. My wife stayed home with our baby for the first year and we were both excited about the idea of me having more time with my son. It was a chance for me to be an even greater part of raising him, and came with the added benefit of saving us an extra day of daycare.
This week, my wife’s work schedule got shuffled and so I got to stay home for a full day. I packed my son into the car first thing in the morning and headed out to a local state park to spend the morning hiking the trails and splashing in the lake. For an hour or so, we were the only people there and I enjoyed sharing the solitude of that place with him as he explored shoreline of the lake.
Inevitably he got soaked playing in the water, and so, it was about mid morning, just as other people started to arrive at the park, that I propped him up on a nearby picnic table to change him into dry clothes. As I put on a new diaper a woman walked by and with a smile said, “Are you playing Mr. Mom today?”
At first I was taken aback by the comment, but as I thought about how often I hear people say that to me on my mornings with my son, I grew increasingly frustrated.
Why is it that, for so many people, seeing a man caring for his child is still a surprise. Why is it treated like a game, as though I’m just “playing house?” And why is it that people can only understand a father nurturing his son through the frame of “Mr. Mom.”
The term “Mr. Mom,” even when used in a joke or with a wink, perpetuates a whole range of stereotypes about men, fathers, and families that continue to haunt American culture in powerful ways. It reinforces the notion of women as the nurturer and men as the breadwinner, and suggests that for men to be caring and nurturing they have to put on a persona other than just simply being a dad. As if by caring for your child or being nurturing you are not being a father, you are being a surrogate mother. In addition, it constructs the ideal family unit with men at the margins, suggesting their relationships with their kids is not as important and the relationship between mother and children.
This isn’t just limited to one or two passers-by at state parks and on street corners. The “Mr. Mom” meme is pervasive – sitcoms, commercials, pop songs, movies. Even in the “progressive” parenting magazines we get at home, instances of stay at home dads or fathers acting as an equal part of the parenting effort are treated as special cases, worthy of extra praise and attention.
Don’t get me wrong, its vital to celebrate and highlight men who are embracing their roles as caring fathers. We need to promote new images of masculinity and new ideas about families and parenting, but we need to do so in a ways that breakdown old roles, not ways that reinforce stubborn stereotypes. We can’t just redefine good fatherhood as a mimicry of motherhood – that’s not fair to either parents. We need to talk about fatherhood in new ways and honor men, not for being mother-like, but just for being good dads.
As the American family changes – growing richer and more complex – we are seeing single parent households, same-sex house holds, extended family homes, homelessness, adoptive families and more. Irregardless of the shape, size, and scope of the family – our children need mentors and role models, love and attention, support and guidance, tenderness and firmness, laughter and encouragement, and more. None of this is the sole province of a mother or a father.
I’m not playing Mr. Mom. I’m just being a dad.