Men and Mothering

by Harry on March 10, 2009

Another piece by Mary Ann Mason at the Chronicle, this time on the problems academic men (and men generally) have being primary carers for children. Describing a recent book by Andrea Doucet, Do Men Mother?: Fathering, Care, and Domestic Responsibility, she says:

it was not easy for those single fathers because, just as in the scientist’s case, American society is not always willing to accept them as the primary caregivers. Particularly tricky is being accepted by other parents in social situations and at schools. As one father commented in the book, “There’s a lot of networks for moms and there isn’t a network for guys, and I think a huge part of that is it isn’t easy for a guy. I’ve been out to the library, and I’ve seen a guy pushing a baby carriage. But it’s just not so easy for a guy to go up to another guy and say, ‘Hey, how old is she? Do you want to be friends?'”

She goes on:

Father as breadwinner is a deeply held cultural stereotype within the society and the university; despite many instances in which women, particularly professional women, earn salaries larger than their husbands’. In Doucet’s study, the married fathers who had chosen to be stay-at-home parents included those whose wives made a much higher salary and those in couples who had decided that the father was the better choice for stay-at-home parent. In virtually all of those cases, the father returned to work within three years. Most of them attributed it to the social stigma they had experienced by not being the breadwinner.

I’m sure that the “stereotype of male breadwinner” comment is right, but it’s not the whole story by any means. It’s interesting that the example in the first quote has nothing to do with social stigma, but everything to do with the absence of well-developed social norms and habits among primary parenting men (and between them and primary parenting women — did it occur to him that he could chat to a mom?). The stay-at-home dads I know are, in fact, friends with one another, and have a reasonably well established network designed around school-age rather than younger children (soccer, anybody?). But we live in a place where there is something close to a critical mass of men doing this, which makes everything easier for them (unusual at the moment, but with the economy getting worse my guess is that stay-at-home dads are rapidaly becoming more common). For myself, I can identify, somewhat, with CB’s comment about a mother-toddler day out in Weston-Super-Mare. When my first child was little, she and I hung out quite a bit with our next door neighbour and her son, but my neighbour’s efforts to involve me with a larger group of women definitely did not work, and not, I think, entirely because of my own resistance (which was mild). I don’t think any of the women were at all animated by a male breadwinner stereotype; they just felt uncomfortable with a man in what they all felt to be a relatively intimate space and were uncomfortable talking with men who were not their husbands about babies and toddlers. I hasten to add, this seemed entirely fair enough to me. I am not at all homosocial, but I realise that plenty of people are, and I could see that some women were struggling with the tension between their belief that they should be welcoming and their own awkwardness. (My neighbour, by contrast, seemed disappointed, but then she, unlike her friends, knew me).

Another apparently common problem for fathers is the difficulty of arranging their children’s play schedules. Several fathers have told me that some mothers simply refuse to deal with them when arranging play times between kids; they demand to talk to the mother. I’ve not exactly encountered this directly; although several mothers over the years have made it very clear that they expect my wife to be the scheduler, most are willing to deal after two or three successful arrangements. Again, I doubt this difficulty has much to do with a stereotype about the male breadwinner; I suspect, instead, that it flows from direct experience of dealing with fathers who either rebuff attempts to arrange play schedules (“you’ll have to talk to my wife”) or who do not rebuff the attempts, but then forget all about it (so that either the kid doesn’t turn up or, worse, you turn up to drop your kid off and there’s no-one there). I’ve had both experiences often enough to have some sympathy with the women who don’t want to risk it by dealing with me.



Matt 03.10.09 at 3:51 pm

Very interesting. I’m somewhat curious about these issues because one of my brothers (who is divorced) is the primary care-giver for his daughter, and one of my sisters has a stay-at-home husband who watches their two kids while she works. (Given their careers and interests this is perfect for them.) One thing that’s quite strange to me, though, is this idea of parents “arranging their children’s play schedule”. Is this a new thing? I’m pretty sure I didn’t have a play schedule and that my parents didn’t schedule anything for me like that. When I played sports they might have set up car pools and the like when practices or games were too far away to walk or ride bikes, but otherwise I think it was mostly me who “scheduled” my play, by saying things like, “Mom, can I go to Paul’s house?” or, “Mom, can Billy stay the night this weekend?”, and so on, or by just going and playing with people. Is something more than this meant? (I must admit that I also have no idea what people are talking about when they talk about scheduling “play dates” with other kids. It sounds awful, though.) I must admit the idea of a “play schedule” sounds awful to me, much too controlling, but maybe I just don’t know what’s meant by it.


Nick 03.10.09 at 4:13 pm

My memory is similar to yours, but I suspect “play-dates” are more a feature of the toddler/pre-school set. If my mother did arrange play-dates for me when I was a toddler or pre-schooler, I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it. My son is four and has one friend whose house he can reach on his own two legs. All other socializing requires driving to the friend’s house, and that necessitates some adult scheduling.


Matt 03.10.09 at 4:25 pm

You’re probably right, Nick, on the “play-dates”. Thanks. (I actually remember a fair amount of my pre-kindergarten playing, but it mostly was just with my mother and my older brother as far as I can recall.)


Lewis Leavitt 03.10.09 at 4:28 pm

the fuel for the engine of play dates is no doubt a combination of working parents’ complicated work schedules , weak neighborhood friendship networks, and the thick fog of fear for
the safety of children who are left open to the prey of strangers—in the u.s. we are not that far from the time of pictures of missing children on paper grocery bags.

but most play dates are for younger pre-school children who may be growing up
sibling free (or with an older sib at school) and without benefit of nearby young cousins.

the stay at home father is still viewed with suspicion –even in my own university town.
at my neighborhood coffee shop young women with toddlers meet regularly for talk,
friendship and solidarity. in these networks of adult friendship toddler bonds are formed. in theory men and their children “could” be part of this but the several stay at home fathers i see —hover on the periphery; not unwelcome but not too welcome as well.

buuuut once children reach the “capable of sports” stage stay at home fathers become
welcomed as prospective coaches and are celebrated for this activity—there’s a bit of light for them at the end of the tunnel if they get that far.


mpowell 03.10.09 at 4:49 pm

if they get that far.

Sounds grim. The coaching option is available whether you are stay at home or not, from what I understand, though.


Tracy W 03.10.09 at 5:04 pm

One of my friends and her husband are trying out him being the stay-at-home one, and part of the reason they are is that one of his friends is also being a stay-at-home Dad.


harry b 03.10.09 at 5:05 pm

In our case, it’s busing. Don’t underestimate this — a lot of kids go to elementary schools far from their home either because of choice programs or bussing programs, and make friends who live too far away for them to walk (4 miles in our case, though even if she weren’t bussed she’d have friends a 1 1/2 miles away, which is too far for her to walk given the traffic). In fact now both my girls have best friends round the corner, so life is pretty much as Matt describes (except sometimes without the request for permission).


CJColucci 03.10.09 at 5:18 pm

I don’t think men have any trouble going up to other men and asking about the kid in the stroller — they certainly do it about the dog on the leash. The reluctance to add the “want to be friends?” part I’ll buy, but that can take care of itself.


Katherine 03.10.09 at 7:19 pm

There are a few men who are primary care-givers round these parts, or at least sharing care – and I have to say that I view this “men are unwelcome” meme with suspicion. I realise I’m not in a position to know first-hand but I’ve never excluded the fathers in question – in fact, quite the opposite – and I’ve never observed any cold shoulders exhibited. My partner took 3 months off work recently to have a brief stint at primary carer of our daughter and he didn’t notice any hostility.

Is there any actual, y’know, evidence behind the claims made in this book? Why does this guy quoted feel that it’s not so easy to go up to another guy with a small child and strike up conversation? What’s going on there?


Zeba 03.10.09 at 7:28 pm

My husband was the primary care-giver for our youngest son from when the minion was 1 until he was 2.5 and old enough to go to kindergarden here in Brussels. He had opportunities to socialise with mothers, but didn’t really enjoy it, besides which as a non-driver, felt bad about cadging lifts to out of town activities. I think he coped better with the demands of stay at home parenting better than I would have (I did it for 18 months with number one, but was always getting tangled up in activities that were non-child related, e.g. teaching, directing plays, freelance editing and journalism, exam marking…and personally loathed all the ‘mumsy’ activities like Tumble tots and mini-music).

He was regarded as relatively unusual – whether looking at expat circles or Belgian ones, but that said, he is much happier as a homemaker than I am, and far more competent in that arena. Now that both children are in school, he works part-time and I continue as the main breadwinner and expect to do so for the foreseeable future.

I think fathers who stay at home are confronted with stereotyped and tiresome views about their role and their status. But if enough couples have the courage to examine their situation honestly, facing up to the issues of finance, status and self-esteem which are associated with staying at home, I would imagine that many more men and women would be happy with role reversal.


Philip 03.10.09 at 7:39 pm

‘but with the economy getting worse my guess is that stay-at-home dads are rapidaly becoming more common’

Probably right, made me think of this book by one of my old lecturers.


des von bladet 03.10.09 at 8:10 pm

Mrs Von Bladet has lately swanned off to Milan, leaving me (a card-carrying member of the penis-club) as temporary “primary carer” of our one-year-old for an (almost) full two weeks. (Normally we have a co-care arrangement – with only one child and Dutch infrastructure we have both traded down to four-day working weeks and we fill the rest with third-party care.)

I must say that although the Netherlands is surprisingly “traditional” about gender-roles and parenting for a northern European country, I have never felt the slightest hint of exclusion or disapproval when I proceed solo in a parently direction. (If either of us were to give up paid employment for parenting it would probably be me – it is not that I am particularly good at it, but I am also not very career-minded.)

And there is really no need for me to gloat about it, but we do propose to send little Boris to a school about 100 metres up the road – and there are several others within walking/cycling distance. (This neighbourhood is built around the assumption that children will play outside and their friends will be very local and they do. As I understand it, this is not unusual in the Netherlands and it is certainly very welcome.)

(I guess I’m an Associate Member of Academic Club; I hold roughly the rank of a non-commissioned officer in the programming corps – back in the UK I used to claim that I was roughly at the rank of a postdoc, only with less stress and better pay, but I’m not sure the postdocs are as stressed or underpayed as they were in Blighty.)


harry b 03.10.09 at 8:13 pm

Katherine — it says she did a qualitative study with 100 men. No info on how they were selected, but I’m getting the book so will know when I read it. Two things. 1) I know that what I experienced and observed was discomfort, and I’m pretty certain no hostility. But discomfort can readily be experienced as if it is hostility (in other circumstances I know I have experienced the discomfort of others as hostility and vice versa). So that someone says they experience hostility is only prima facie and fairly weak evidence that it is there. 2) Nevertheless, depending on where she drew her men from, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is hostility in some environments. I know older women in particular who find the relationship between me and my children troubling in a way that sometimes slips out in comments that sound slightly hostile (not so much to me, as to my wife).


Ingrid Robeyns 03.10.09 at 8:59 pm

I think the critical mass is really the issue here. I partly agree with Des about gender roles in the Netherlands; because it is true that the NL has a very low female share of the total work force (not the number of women that work, but rather participation weighted for hours of paid work); yet on the other hand the NL also has the highest percentage on earth of men working part time (not that it is that much – roughly around 15 percent – but last time I read about it, it was nevertheless the highest male part-time statistic worldwide). Since this statistic is over hte entire population, one can expect that in certain neighbourhoods (e.g. with yups or concentrations of academics) it is higher – and it is in ours. I see men with strollers, fathers in the sandbox, or fathers in the park all the time. I talk to them just as they talk to me. I have never felt that they are excluded – perhaps next time I am going to ask them. And I think it is because I have almost never seen one of them alone, that is, as the only men. They are sometimes in a minority, but often their share reaches a critical mass so that one doesn’t notice the gender imbalance.
In research about women in politics or women in the top of academia, it is sometimes suggested that one third is what one needs to no longer notice the gender composition. I would stipulate that with about one quarter one would at least include people from the minority sex on a roughly equal footing, even though we would still in the back of our heads know about it. And in this weird country with all these men having ‘daddy days’, I think we’ve reached that critical mass.
So Harry, there is hope! :-)


Cian 03.10.09 at 11:25 pm

Two data points. I’m a stay at home dad in Brighton (UK), and never felt any disapproval (some jealousy from other men), but its pretty normal here. On the other hand, when we visit my wife’s family in S. Carolina I get lots of questions about when I plan to return to work, etc, etc.

On the other hand I have experienced awkwardness, but you’re going to find that in any situation where you’re the sole male in a femal environment.

One of the nice things about having twin toddlers is that you don’t have to arrange play dates.


ECW 03.11.09 at 12:12 am

I’ve been the (male) primary care-giver for our toddler for since her birth three years ago. I live in a relatively traditional suburb where the college is only a minor influence on the social culture. It has been made very clear to me in both explicit and implicit ways that I was not welcome in the daytime parenting activities of our community, which are overwhelmingly gendered. Some of that comes from the discomfort that male-female encounters call up in the intimate sphere of baby/toddler raising, at least in a community that practices very strongly normative parenting practices. Some of it comes from gender practices themselves: while I’m deeply committed to feminism and feminist ideals (hence my stay at home status) I still “communicate like a man.” My politics don’t transform my affect, in other words, and the male affect disrupts (or highlights in uncomfortable ways) the female character of the baby/toddler care community. I see this very clearly in the public spaces that are obviously female in our suburb. I’ve never seen another man at the duck pond or toddler swings during the day — those are female spaces between 8-4 — and my presence makes the women uncomfortable. The same is true of the public library story hour, which is a mid-morning female space.

I think most of this has to do with the not surprising need for women to preserve spaces for their own interactions. My barging into those spaces, baby stroller and diaper bag notwithstanding, takes that space away. Any man willing to do primary parenting should also be attentive enough to feminism to recognize their own privileges and impact on the “safe” feeling of publicly female spaces and be willing to minimize it. I’ve learned to reduce my presence in those female spaces by staying to the side and keeping quiet, which I think is respectful, or as respectful as I can be while still letting my child have a chance to interact with other small children.


harry b 03.11.09 at 12:29 am

I used to be a (male) nanny in Brighton (well, I’m still male). It was fun. I was young enough that no-one looked askance — I could have been a (much) older brother (it was a very long time ago). Still, when I tell my students they laugh, thinking I’m making it up. I’d guess Brighton is among the most friendly places one could be a sahd.


Katherine 03.11.09 at 7:55 am

ECW, those are all very good points, well made. I think perhaps some of the lack of that that my partner has may be to do with the fact that, although a man, he tends to “communicate like a woman” far more than I. His appearance, although obviously male, is not in the macho model (not that I’m suggesting yours is) – long-ish hair, quite slight. Perhaps that, combined with the fact that he too is a committed feminist, somewhat minimised the “man in a female space” effect.


LizardBreath 03.11.09 at 4:55 pm

My husband has always been more of a primary caregiver than I have been (that is, I work outside the home, he’s a writer working at home. When our kids were smaller, we had a paid caregiver, but my husband was around during the days, before she came, and after she left.) He didn’t have any trouble becoming part of the mothers/nannies network, but that’s not worth much except as an anecdote — he’s unusually far out on the extroverted/approachable/nonthreatening end of the spectrum, so if any man were going to be able to integrate, it’d be him.


Doug K 03.11.09 at 8:14 pm

My experience in the occasional week of primary caregiving parallels ECW’s; though in my case it’s a generally college-educated Republican suburb. The experience is not one of hostility as such, but certainly discomfort. It might well be different if I moved 60 miles north to Boulder CO..


Witt 03.11.09 at 11:05 pm

if any man were going to be able to integrate, it’d be him

I wonder if another social or cultural issues is also a factor. LB, if I remember correctly, your husband grew up in the U.S. but not in a setting that is anything like the urban area where you now live.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he gets coded as “different” (not sure whether I mean rural/small town here, or something else) enough that he’s “allowed” to break rules that men who are from the same social and geographic background can’t.

To stretch a point, I’m regarded as slightly peculiar/exotic by some of my neighbors because I commute to work in the city; I think they’re also more tolerant (or at least unsurprised) by other behavior because they had already classed me as “not exactly one of us.”

Not sure I’m saying this clearly; I’m certainly also agreeing with everything you said about being extroverted/approachable/nonthreatening.


LizardBreath 03.12.09 at 1:17 am

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he gets coded as “different” (not sure whether I mean rural/small town here, or something else) enough that he’s “allowed” to break rules that men who are from the same social and geographic background can’t.

You’re pointing out that I married John-Boy Walton? Eh, that’s part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole thing — I wouldn’t expect someone else similarly small-town in NYC to necessarily have the same sort of stuff going on.

We’re also in a male-caregiver friendly neighborhood, admittedly. There are a lot of men in work-at-home or odd-hours jobs (writers, musicians), so one man taking care of his kids doesn’t stand out in the same way they might in another neighborhood.


dutchmarbel 03.13.09 at 2:10 pm

I asked my husband and he doesn’t feel shut out or making women uncomfortable now (our kids are 6, 8 & 10) but he does feel that it’s different when you talk about babies and toddlers. Things in the Netherlands are still geared towards women caring for the babies: changing tables are usually in the women’s toiletrooms in public places, when people had questions about the babies they would always ask for me even if it was by phone and they talked to him, and when we visit people with small kids they always assume I want to hold them but never ask him – which is a shame because he is more into babies then I am.

The part-time culture in the Netherlands makes a difference I think. These days there are many many dads picking their kids up from school and discussing their kids there, so seeing men as care-givers is normal. Though being a stay-at-home-dad would still be seen as weird, people would assume there would be a specific reason rather then a volontary choice.

My husband actually made a comment about the status of child-caring. He felt that people are much more focussed on child raising these days, life is more child-centred than it used to be. Maybe men also feel more at ease with child caring because it is seen as more important than it used to be.

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