Matthew Peregoy would like it if media would stop treating full-time fathers like a weird phenomenon that needs a special name, thanks very much.
There is chatter in the blogosphere about the new movie What to Expect When You’re Expecting and whether or not dads should be upset about how it portrays fathers. The dads in question are members of Chris Rock’s “Dudes Group,” a meet up of like-minded fathers that swap war-stories underneath a Fight Club-esque veil of secrecy. From what I can see in the trailer, it appears that, while not perfect, the dads are competent (not clueless), involved (not aloof), and vulnerable about their shortcomings (not too tough to care). That is a lot more honest than most portrayals of fathers in film and television. I am leaning towards “no” being the answer I will give to the above question about whether to be upset with the way the fathers are portrayed, but I am going to reserve final judgment until I see the actual film in its entirety. The one thing I do want to address is this strange desire of various media to put a label on what it is that we at-home dads “do” in order to be able to talk about it more openly.
Sometimes, the best way to describe something is to label it as something that is universally understood but then give it a clever adjective that sets it apart from the norm. For example, in the auto industry, you simply take the original understanding of a word and give it a catchy companion – van became mini-van, vehicle became sport-utility vehicle, small trucks are compact or light duty trucks, and sedans became luxury or performance sedans. You get the idea. Everyone understands that they purpose of an automobile is to get you from place to place. The purpose is clearly defined, and additional labels that are applied are merely a summary description of the features you can expect to find while shopping.
Mainstream media tries to apply this same principle to people, and it just doesn’t work. Because the “universal” understanding of what it means to be a mother or father is not as universal as people make it out to be, the labels often just don’t stick. When it comes to at-home dads, or at-home moms for that matter, there is no universal story. There is no universal purpose to it other than “parenting,” a term that is just as broad and varied as “working” or “providing.” So, there is really no way to apply a more descriptive label to it. The stereotype that currently exists is that “at-home” and “mom” are somehow synonymous. But decades of women’s liberation and a shift in culture now lead us to believe that that assumption is unfair to moms because it is limiting and exclusionary.
Terms like “Mr. Mom” and “House Dad/Husband” are largely our culture’s way of labeling what we at-home dads do as some sort of mutation of what at-home moms do. But moms are incredibly different from other moms, let alone compared to dads. And believe it or not, we dads are incredibly different from each other too! I know, you’re shocked. Terms like “Mr. Mom,” “daddy daycare,” and “house husband/dad” don’t really account for the differences between moms and dads. Not to mention the “daddy is babysitting today” and the “he must be unemployed” stereotypes that totally undermine the importance, influence, and capabilities of fathers as involved parents.
Because the at-home dad is a growing trend, the media know that they should be talking about him (and his wife). They just don’t know how to do so without perpetuating archaic stereotypes or affixing labels. For example, when a media outlet refers to an at-home dad as “Mr. Mom,” they totally devalue him as a father. Yes, it serves the purpose of the media to define him in a way that the broadest audience can understand; however, it does not move the conversation forward. If we keep defining dads as moms, we will be losing out on the richness of what dads have to offer to their children. Not only that, when you affix a feminine title to a male role, it doesn’t exactly make other guys eager to step up and try it out. I don’t have any crazy notion that all men should be at-home dads, but I would like to push the conversation about fatherhood to a place where being an involved dad is very masculine, very manly, and very appealing. We have to be careful to not take away the value of parenthood when we speak about shifting gender roles and recent trends. When we devalue parenthood, the ones that suffer are children.
We don’t need any more labels. Simply call us what we are in our broadest terms–at-home dads, at-home moms, dads, moms, or parents. When you can identify us by our purpose (parenting) instead of labeling us with the latest flashy adjectives like a late model sedan, we’ll be more likely to listen. The solution is for the mainstream media to engage in more conversations with at-home dads; it will definitely change their angle on the story. If the writers of What to Expect When You’re Expecting actually did some research for the “Dudes’ Group” characters, as I suspect they did, then we should expect to see an honest and funny portrayal of fathers.
Photo—Portrait of a father, from Shutterstock