The progressive shattering of the glass ceiling that once barred women’s access to the uppermost reaches of educational and professional success represents a new freedom for men: a freedom to finally step down from stressful, uninteresting, or uni-dimensional careers many felt pressured to affirm their identities as providers. Women have begun to lean in against the obstacles that hamper career advancement, now occupying leadership positions in technology, business, education, and politics. And while equitable pay is a ways off, women bring home salaries commensurate with those leadership roles, often out-earning male partners. Because of this, removal of professional barriers has opened up exciting new opportunities for men, as well: opportunities to be caring, opportunities to be meaningful, and opportunities to have our worth measured by something other than a paycheck.
And yet, the barriers to our participation in these new opportunities remain firmly intact. While a recent PEW report showed that the number of stay-at-home dads has nearly doubled to 2.2 million since 1989, men still represent a paltry 16% of stay-at-home parents. More importantly while 73% of stay-at-home mothers report staying at home to care for their families, only 21% of stay-at-home dads report staying at home to provide care for their spouse and children. While alone, this under-representation of men can be viewed as indicative of barriers to access, it is far from the only evidence that domestic culture is one created by women and for women – and that it is a culture that can leave stay-at-home dads feeling misplaced. To illustrate, I have created a list of 10 of ten “mom privileges”. And like most privileges (white -, male -, cis -), the privileges are not advantages that make life easy, they are simple messages that communicate who “belongs” and who does not.
- Mom Privilege 1: Hosting playdates. I love playdates. I love the activity of a busy house. I love hearing a group of kids romp from room to room as my kids use their imagination to breathe new life into toys long forgotten in the recesses of their toy chests. And yet, whenever I suggest a playdate, I find myself listening to a string of hims and haws, excuses and maybes – not because most mothers wouldn’t jump at the chance for free childcare…but because I am, after all, a man.
- Mom Privilege 2: Park conversations that are relevant to lived experiences. While park conversations around parenting challenges unite parents through a shared experience, it’s not uncommon for the topic of conversation to turn to issues that unite only women. Issues like pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and weaning are the playground equivalent of cars, sports and yacht maintenance. They convey who A and B are, and who is welcome to C their way out.
- Mom Privilege 3: Social connection. I would describe staying at home with kids as moments of wonder and discovery that happen amidst a sea of boredom, poop, and forgetting to shower. Having a friend in the same life spot can make all the difference in the world. Unfortunately for men, these relationships can be difficult to cultivate. Not only are there fewer stay-at-home dads, but socially the rules for making friends are different among men – and we still haven’t quite managed to define appropriate friendships between men and women into adulthood. The result is that men may feel a sense of social isolation.
- Mom Privilege 4: Not being asked if they’re babysitting. Asking a man if he’s babysitting, is like asking a woman if her job is for shopping money. The concept is so wholly out-of-date that – if I wasn’t wrapping a baby with one hand, giving out crackers with the other, and changing a diaper with both feet – I might use my free hand to karate chop someone in their stupid-question asking face.
- Mom Privilege 5: Assumed competence. On a somewhat related note, I can wrap a baby with one hand, give out crackers with the other, and change a diaper with my feet. So if my toddler is eating sand and I’m not saying anything – it’s not because I don’t notice. It’s because I don’t really care. I let my kids climb on tall play structures. I let my toddler climb tall ladders, and explore places I can’t see. I am relaxed – not careless – and so I bristle when well-meaning moms intervene as though they were the same thing.
- Mom Privilege 6: Parenthood is treated as synonymous with motherhood. Whether it’s in parenting magazines, detergent commercials, or ads for the Olympics – parenthood is treated as synonymous with motherhood. Even the ads in Parenting magazines make it clear to dads that the magazine is called Parenting, because mothering sounds too much like “smothering”. For some stay-at-home dads, this is no problem – and most of us already know that we’re living in a woman’s world. However, seeing people who look like you has the benefit of making you feel as though you belong. Dads often don’t have this benefit.
- Mom Privilege 7: Being affectionate. Harold was a friend of my 7-year-old when both were just toddlers, and Harold loved sitting on my lap. Every time I would sit cross-legged on the ground, Harold would walk up to me, turn around, and back up onto my lap. I love “takes a village” moments like this at parks, but it was something that made his mom visibly uncomfortable. Culturally, we are not used to seeing men interact with children as caregivers and so, even when instigated by a child, that type of affection seems unwarranted and uncomfortable.
- Mom Privilege 8: #worldstoughestjob. In 2014, a YouTube video in honor of Mother’s Day circulated using the hashtag #worldstoughestjob. Personally, I would consider being a gold minor in South Africa to be the world’s toughest job, what with the 2.5-mile deep mines and 140-degree temperatures – but I digress. My issue is that while I would like to celebrate the #toughestjobeverundertakenbynearlyhalfthepopulation, I could not help but think: why rank-order care so that only one parent takes home the trophy for “hardest job”? Now don’t get me wrong, I would be abysmal pregnant. But at what point in the lifetime that follows do we allow the scales to even out?
- Mom Privilege 9: Gender Traditional gender roles dictate that – as a man, I should feel more of a biological drive to provide…even if, for most of us, providing just means sitting at a computer. Providing care rather than on providing money means I have failed to live up to the masculine ideal. Women who provide care have the advantage that caregiving affirms their identity as women. Moreover mothers (and fathers) who work outside the home still provide care – but stay-at-homes may find it harder to bring in additional money. As such, women who do not conform to their traditionally prescribed role can still exercise their femininity, in a way that traditional masculinity remains out of reach for non-conforming men.
- Mom Privilege 10: Taking Over. Once their workday is complete, research suggests that working women will most often take over at home. According to the research, women do this both because of social expectations, and in order to affirm their own care-taking identity. The problem is that I often do not want help. While it is thoughtful of my partner to offer, making space for her at the end of the day is not always easy. She doesn’t adhere to my schedule, doesn’t enforce my rules, and doesn’t keep things as clean.
While the number of stay-at-home mothers has declined significantly since 1970, more than 29% of all mothers (10.4 million) report staying at home to provide care for their families. As a result, the culture of home continues to be one constructed by women, for women. The culture does not feel malicious or purposefully exclusionary. Exclusion is simply a by-product of how the culture has always been. However, resistance to men in family spaces is colored by the same traditional value systems that have kept middle-class women excluded from the workplace for years: that men provide – women nurture, that women talk – men act, that boys like blue – girls like pink. However, pushing for space in formal settings requires ceding space in informal ones. Because if women can provide, act, and like blue – men can nurture, talk, and like pink.
“Social discussion on stay at home dads is split with some providing thanks and encouragement while others express the challenges of the role.” – Howard K. 30dB
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