You know the stereotype: the bumbling father with a baby trying to change the diaper but inevitably creating more of a mess than he had in the first place, the young father with his tantrum throwing, leg stomping two year old handing the child back to his mother, the awkward and shifting in his seat father fielding questions from his five year old daughter about where babies come from. These are some of the caricatures often seen about fathers with young children. Somewhere in the culture of our society we have decided to mock the image of the father as a man who knows what to do at work, but as soon as he comes home he is ignorant and unable, foolish and inept. Babies and toddlers are set before him as fragile mysteries like faith and religion, things for women. As they grow he finds his footing in discipline because he is a natural authority, being a man and all, and sets the rules for the house of which he is largely out of touch. The teenage years call for tough love and it is here the man balances out the constantly crying mother lamenting the separation and loss of her babies. It isn’t until the children move out of the house that some of the stereotypes soften and round. A father walking his daughter down the isle or shaking the hand of his son as a sign of respect before the boy leaves to fight for his country. Only in old age are men portrayed as caring, loving, and respectful of their children. Only then is a man allowed to be soft towards his children. Now, after years of emotional and relational disconnection, he is supposed to be a present force in the lives of his children.
Stereotypes serve as a way to see the broad spectrum as a single whole. They reduce the complex to something overtly simple so that we may feel we have a grasp of a person or an idea. Unfortunately, as we all know, stereotypes also leave out much of the story. With fathers the general perceptions drawn are those mentioned above: disconnected, incapable, and intolerant. Men are not faulted for being incapable as fathers as much as they are excused. Men are just good at other things. Men need to be out building, selling, and sweating and when they are at home they need time to relax and watch the game without being bothered. Two things make this stereotype frustrating. The first thing is that there is some truth to it. Stereotypes are created out of observations and many men have acted in such a way so as to justify such generalizations. The second thing that makes such thoughts frustrating is that I believe it is largely untrue. The vast majority of men I know are dedicated, loving, attentive, and self sacrificing men. They love their children without reservation. They show their children they love them and are unafraid to engage in the day to day care children require.
Being a stay at home father for over ten years now, I have encountered and battled such stereotypes. The interesting, and often troubling, thing is that not only have I battled them from the culture around me but often from my own heart and mind. I struggle with the thoughts that I should be out building, selling, and sweating. I should be more stereotypically male. It’s not that I don’t feel good at what I do. I don’t struggle to care for young children beyond what is normal. Being a man doesn’t immune me to or protect me from the normal travails of parenting. The day to day routine of children can be exhausting but I know what I am doing and why I am doing it and I feel, on the whole, good at it. But, what I do struggle with is this; I am a man with babies. Beyond the stereotypes of men as incapable caretakers of children there is a perception that it’s just not right for a man to do such things. When I walk into my local hardware store with a baby on my hip, a three year old at my feet, and a five year old rummaging through the spare plumbing parts I walk in and create a mystery. “What in tarnation is a man doing in a hardware store, or anywhere but Disneyland, with three children?”. Most will wonder where the mother is and why isn’t she taking care of them. Is she sick or did she leave him? Maybe she is getting her nails done. Whatever the answer is at that moment one thing is certain; it’s just not normal. These day to day occurrences force me to struggle not with my children, but with myself and my own self imposed stereotypes.
Self perception is tricky. As much as I may want to, I can’t just change the way I perceive who I am through my own will alone. I need the observations and opinions of others. As much as I do not want to feel awkward in the hardware store, I do. I feel awkward because I am violating the social norms for men, norms that even despite my own choices, I have also adopted. To be a man and not have a job or a career, to not be financially providing for my wife and children, to not have a place or position in the professional world strikes at the core of my sense of value as a man. I am a man in every physical, mental, and emotional way but when it comes to fitting into the culture in which I live I often feel as if I am the last one standing in the game of musical chairs with the difference being, of course, that I chose to remain standing. I don’t want to sit down and if I don’t want to sit down, then why do I feel like I should?
Having spent the last ten years fighting the stereotypes I now find myself in the odd position of confirming part of it. It feels strange not to work. Wherever I go I have children with me. When people ask what it is I do for a living being a stay at home dad is never a popular answer. I don’t relish the fact that it is my wife that goes off to work everyday. And yet, I love being with my kids. I love that I have an uncommon connection to them. I like the day to day routine of playing Batman with my youngest son. And I don’t mind the laundry. I like being at home.
I am stuck between these two worlds. Sometimes the tension between them is easier to handle, sometimes it’s not. I feel fortunate to be with my children, to see them grow and change seemingly before my eyes, but to not contribute to the professional society around me doesn’t always sit well. And maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe living in the tension between the two worlds is how I fight the stereotype.