I’m a working dad. Four days a week, I cook lunches, change diapers, make doctors’ appointments and arrange playdates for my two children, ages six and two. I fit my freelance writing in around my partner’s work schedule.
Recently, I was accompanying my six-year-old son to kindergarten, jogging beside him as he raced along the sidewalk on his bicycle. He attempted to steer around some pedestrians but lost control and crashed into a young woman. Caught from behind, she toppled with a gasp and an expletive. She got to her feet, shaken but relieved to see that her assailant was only a boy on a runaway bike. I apologized to her and urged my son to do the same. When he refused, hiding behind my legs, I snapped at him: “You have to be more careful!” The woman ducked into a café, and my son and I continued at a more responsible pace. By the time we reached his school, I’d forgotten the incident. But when I bent down to hug him goodbye, he burst into furious sobs and clung to me. I tried to pry him loose, thinking about the stack of work waiting for me at home, but he only wailed harder. I realized then that the crash on the sidewalk must have stunned him as much as the woman. I’d been sympathetic to her, but I hadn’t acknowledged his emotions (alarm) or mine (embarrassment). We took a few minutes in front of the school to talk about what had just happened and how each of us had felt. Soon he was wiping his eyes, ready to enter his classroom.
Nothing in my adult life has taught me more about myself than spending time with my children. Parents have the confounding job of teaching their children to recognize and name the emotions they experience powerfully but haven’t yet learned to understand. But any parent knows you can’t help your children reckon with their emotions without paying attention to your own. I’m not the only man who’s learning this: in 1976, stay-at-home dads accounted for about one in 70 of all Canadian families with a stay-at-home parent. By 2015, the proportion had risen to about one in 10.
Fathers who stay home to care for children are essential to the future of feminism. “Fifty years after the birth of feminism . . . its promise of gender liberation seems closer and more distant than ever,” writes Canadian author Stephen Marche in The Unmade Bed, his timely new book about men and women in the 21st century. Closer because, of all the grand revolutions of the last century, feminism has had the most measurable effect on everyday life, altering everything from how we have sex to what drives the economy to who looks after the kids. And more distant because, although women are steadily closing the economic divide (they are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households with children), men still hold most of the highest-paying jobs and positions of power. This phenomenon, which Marche calls the “hollow patriarchy,” is socially and financially costly, and he predicts it will continue to collapse.
In a series of personal essays about masculinity, fatherhood and housework — accompanied by delightful and sometimes contradictory commentary from his wife, Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Toronto Life magazine — Marche argues that the feminist movement needs a rearrangement rather than a revolution. If women and men hope to find a way through this messy transition to true equality, it’s going to take nuanced negotiations, not Twitter fights over mansplaining.
“We don’t need a men’s movement that takes sides in some phony gender war,” writes Marche, who left a tenure-track professorship to stay home with his toddler when his wife was offered her dream job. “We need a men’s movement that understands the rise of women is a triumph for the species, one of the most unalloyed political goods ever achieved in human history, and who can acknowledge that this achievement does not require us to be ashamed of our masculinity.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter has a similar take: “The next phase of the women’s movement is a men’s movement,” she argues in Unfinished Business, a book that grew out of her 2012 essay in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Writing about her decision to give up her high-profile job in Washington to spend more time at home with her adolescent sons, Slaughter assails the half-truths we tell ourselves about women’s advancement. “Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver.” Even when partners agree to split the childcare and housework equally, women still end up shouldering far more of the mental and emotional workload — planning meals, organizing birthday parties and attending to everyone’s feelings.
But no matter how the work is split, says Marche, the burden of earning a living while raising children will only become bearable once paid parental leave and affordable daycare are the norm. And to achieve that, we have to stop framing these as women’s issues.
There’s never been a better time for men to be talking about this stuff. Yet I find that when I’m among other men, our conversations drift to our income-earning activities rather than our work as fathers. The truth is, until men start valuing their roles as parents and caregivers as much as their identities as authors and CEOs, there will never be equality between the sexes. We tell our daughters they can become mechanics and presidents; why don’t we tell our sons they can be nurses and stay-at-home dads?
“The new fatherhood,” Marche writes, “is a huge gain for men, the chance for a whole new range of pleasures and agonies, a fuller version of our humanity, a deeper intimacy.”
Recently, while washing dishes, I listened to a podcast in which the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talked about caring for your anger as if for a small child. I was astonished. I’ve feared my anger, despised it, ignored it and tried to crush it. Until that moment, I had never thought about caring for it. I sometimes wonder how the world would be different if men everywhere started to pay closer attention to their emotions. What better way to learn than by caring for children?
This story originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The UC Observer under the title “The new masculinity.”