Ben Martin thinks it’s time that we reassess the artificial division between “women’s work” and “men’s work”.
I’m a stay-at-home dad and sometimes that feels a little bit…weird. It’s not that being a homemaker makes me feel less “manly.” My own dad never made a big deal about manliness. As a kid, he and I never had any big talks about what it means to be a “real man.” Hell, he worked from an office at home, so it doesn’t feel odd to me that I don’t go “off to work” with a briefcase or a hard hat each morning.
No, it’s more that I get the sense that lots of other people still think homemaking is exclusively “women’s work.” Maybe that’s because of where I was raised—the South is famously conservative. Maybe it’s because I’ve only known one other stay-at-home dad—the only other man I’ve met who wasn’t his family’s primary breadwinner—as compared to dozens and dozens of homemaking moms.
Maybe I feel this way because I still have a hard time relating to the stay-at-home dads I read about in the types of human interest pieces that showcase them. Most of those articles spotlight men who’ve left successful, fast-paced, high-stakes careers for a while. Sometimes, they’re only stepping away for a couple of months, as if on an extended paternity leave. Other times, they work from home as “consultants” or “freelancers”—both titles that strike me as impossibly posh and urbane.
From what I’ve observed, women are proud of doing a “man’s” job, but men are seldom proud of doing “women’s” work. I think this is a part of living in a society that still sees the roles that women have traditionally held as automatically inferior. More than just inferior, they’re less challenging, too. The “women’s work” of homemaking is thought of as being a pretty cushy gig: soap opera marathons, bonbons on the couch, and quiet walks with a stroller and a cooing baby. Certainly, it’s viewed as lacking the bosses breathing down your neck for increased productivity, the tough decisions, the physical toil, or the looming deadlines that characterize “real” work, a.k.a. “men’s work.”
Make no mistake, what I do every day falls absolutely and unequivocally into the realm that has historically been reserved for women. I enjoy writing essays like this one, but writing comes in between making breakfast, folding laundry, cooking dinner, helping with homework, walking the kids to and from school, making medical appointments, vacuuming, paying bills, and all the rest.
I think it’s time for “women’s” work to get its due. I’m talking about homemaking, but also nursing, social work, teaching, and the like. These jobs aren’t just valuable, they’re tough and, as surprising as it may be to many men, they’re at least as “manly” as anything else.
The world, is a cold, cruel place. Thomas Hobbes wrote that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Want proof? Think of the thousands of species that can only exist by giving us diseases: protozoans, tapeworms, roundworms, flukes, tsetse flies, botflies, and more. Think about most of the things we learned in history class: basically a list of genocides and wars over resources that groups of people needed to keep themselves from starving to death. Think of pretty much any nature program you’ve ever watched: there’s always a hunting scene where a lovely little animal gets run down and bitten to death by some toothy creature that wants to feed her cubs. When the lovely little animals aren’t being eaten by predators, they’re busy smashing their heads together to decide who gets to be in charge until the next lion comes along. The circle of life runs a bloody orbit.
If evolutionary biology tells us anything about the current state of the world, it’s that throwing a bunch of self-replicating molecules into a primordial soup doesn’t make for the most peaceful means of experiencing 4.5 billion years of life. The whole progress-through-chaotic-struggle plan is a shitty way of organizing things. The problem is that, as awful as it may be, it’s made us who and what we are. DNA, the twisting constellation of atoms that set the stage for what all living things are is predicated on the individual struggles that tweak and shape them over time.
Humanity has been shaped by the same godawful forces of cutthroat competition as everything else.
Yet in spite of what a terrible design this is, one version of masculinity—let’s call it “action movie masculinity”—has embraced it. Rather than seeing the “red in tooth and claw” history of life as an unfortunate description of the reality we’ve been dealt, it sees it as an excuse for no-holds-barred competitiveness. It’s Gordon Gecko making another million, James Bond coolly taking out a KGB agent, or a gangster emptying a gun into a man who disrespected him.
The macho, action movie side of masculinity doesn’t give equal value to homemaking and nurturing professions because it sees a world where the strong prosper and it reacts only by attempting to be, or at least appear, strongest. This view is appealing because, on the surface, it makes sense. Life’s history tells us we should take advantage when we see weakness.
You see this attitude in parenting styles that fear coddling above all else. Parenting should instill toughness, self-reliance, and strength over other virtues. Nurturing the weak (i.e., kids, people with disabilities, the poor, the sick, etc.), the traditional role of women, is seen as a one-way ticket to a jarringly rude awakening when they are inevitably crushed by the hardnosed bastard of a planet that we live on.
“Women’s” work, like homemaking and other jobs focused on nurturing and caretaking, is really anathema to action movie masculinity and the dog eat dog world it celebrates. Women’s work requires a second version of masculinity that I’ll call nurturing masculinity. Action movie masculinity sees that life is a cold, heartless game of survival and seeks to impose its will on the other players in order to win. Nurturing masculinity sees the same cold playing field, but seeks to impose its will on the game itself in order to change it. Pardon the pun, but that kind of nurturing takes balls. It looks at the cruelty and coldness of the world and says, “That may be how this game has always been played before, but it’s not how I’m going to play it.”
It’s easier to just give in and play the game as it’s presented. History tells us the game is life or death, not life or real living. It’s simpler to allow ourselves to be beaten into acquiescence to that dynamic. But that’s more cowardly and, in fact, that’s what a lot of the more cynical strains of masculinity would have us do.
Nurturing masculinity, as manifested in traditionally female roles, isn’t just braver either. It dares to shout into the darkest of nights, but it also gets results. Kids who are nurtured by dedicated parents (stay-at-home or otherwise) are happier and more successful. Kids who are educated and taught to believe in their academic potential by dedicated, caring teachers go on to solve social problems. People who have been helped out of poverty or nursed from sickness contribute enormously to society. Those who’ve been nurtured grow up to create and invent the things that pull us above a base struggle for survival. These are the things that move life beyond the brutish, lonely cesspool that Hobbes described.
I’m not trying to co-opt femininity for men or deny the importance of traditionally masculine roles. Rather, I want to widen our understanding of masculinity’s scope and show how caring and compassion are universal virtues. Men should be courageous, practical, and stubborn in the face of long odds. A man with these traits should be a caregiver regardless of whether he works at home, at the electric company, at the army base, at the law firm, or anywhere else.
photo: mnemophobe / flickr