Posts from June 2003

Stay-at-Home Father’s Day in the Mass Media

If there is some Evil Genius or cabal of Illuminati out there behind the cycle of repetitive human interest stories that somehow reach every corner of the United States mass media, they’ve at least picked up one of the interesting on-going stories for today.

Because of Father’s Day, a number of outlets have chosen to dust off a standing human interest story that is, at least, a somewhat interesting and quasi-positive feature: the growing number of stay-at-home fathers.

The trend is a good one: although households with stay-at-home fathers are still a tiny minority (about 4% as well as I can estimate) of all households, they are on the rise (the 2000 Census showed an increase of 70% over the 1990 Census). Now, Right-wing polemics to one side, there is absolutely nothing wrong with households in which both parents share childrearing duties and also work outside of the house. But—as feminists have pointed out many, many times–homemaking and childrearing are important work in society, and they are only regarded as not real work—or simply not mentioned at all in discussions of labor and the economy—because they are jobs that are gender-coded female. The result of more women entering workplaces outside of homemaking and childrearing has been a number of significant shake-ups in the cultural and material underpinnings of patriarchy. One can hope that the result of more men entering into homemaking and childrearing will be the same.

Of course, worry-wort that I am, I have plenty of cavils and downsides to worry about. In particular, although an encouragingly large amount of the coverage has been purged of this disease, the old Backlash refrains still come around: CNN, for example, reported on the increasing number of men helping with childcare, etc.—as if spending all day at home cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids, etc., were some gift that men were chivalrously pitching in to help out the little woman, rather than necessary work that, in this particular household, a man is doing a disproportionate share of in return for financial support from his wife.

Another worry: every single family portrayed in these stories, as far as I can tell (including the San Fransisco Chronicle, Cherry Hill Courier Post, the CNN television report, etc.) has been a family where one or both parents have spent their time in white-collar, upper-middle class professional jobs. Nearly all of them have been white-skinned. Needless to say, all of them have been heterosexual married couples. Just a reminder of how constrained the debate is: all of the debating, measuring, studying, hectoring, and congratulating in the world is completely irrelevant to the many, many, households that simply can’t afford for either parent to stay at home or which are headed by single mothers or which are headed by gay, lesbian, or transgendered couples.

That’s to be expected, I suppose. But if it is important to open up our social norms to include stay-at-home fathers and make them visible, it is certainly just as important—and perhaps much more so—to open them up to include the huge variety of family structures that lie outside the whitebread, heterosexist norms that are standard requirements in the mass media human interest story. And we must continue to work for material improvements (like better access to childcare and healthcare, more flexible work arrangements, etc.) that can make happy, healthy families a reality—no matter what their demographic make-up happens to be.