So Long Mr. Mom!
There was a time not so long ago when dads who were very involved in the lives of their children, or took on the role of primary caregiver, were sometimes cast in a negative light. Remember the semi-emasculated, fish-out-of-water Jack Butler (played by Michael Keaton) in the 1983 comedy Mr. Mom?
Rather than being a source of admiration for taking on the challenges of domestic responsibility, the stay-at-home dad became a laughingstock.
The stigma was often compounded by everything from the intricacies of men and women swapping long-held traditional roles to the external pressures applied by a society somewhat uncomfortable with men changing diapers, keeping house and cooking dinner. However, with an increasing majority of women joining the full-time workforce and families commonly relying on dual incomes to make ends meet, the movement of guys taking more prominent roles in parenting continues to progress, driven by both necessity and personal preference.
For Eric Johnson, an author, family-focused food blogger and father of two, the decision to become a stay-at-home dad was something of a calling. Dismayed by a less than conducive work schedule for spending time with his young children and eager to be more involved in raising them, he and his wife came to the decision it would be best if he quit his job to stay at home.
“It’s been great! The most indescribably wonderful experience I’ve ever had,” Johnson says of the last eight-plus years serving as primary caregiver. Johnson, whose dad was absent from a young age and whose mom worked two jobs while also attending school, yearned to provide the parental involvement that didn’t really happen for him. And although he carefully weighed his decision and approached it with determination, the transition hasn’t always been easy.
“I went straight from work to holding a 4-month-old baby, all day long, with a 21-month-old boy (also at home),” Johnson says. Like many men, he hadn’t received any education or role modeling in how to care for young children. So he had to learn from whatever resources he could find. “There’s a lot of great books out there on how to be a parent, and you can take what you read and translate it to your situation,” he says.
Besides learning the ins and outs of diaper changing, temper tantrums and countless common items stay-at-home parents deal with every day, Johnson says there were other pressures purely based on being a guy doing what some still view as a woman’s job. He remembers back to his early trips to the grocery store or playground with his kids in the middle of the day and getting a lot of “sideways” looks.
“It’s like, what’s he doing with the kids? Why isn’t he working? Oh, he must have lost his job,” he says. Johnson believes people still sometimes look at dads in his position as a failure or weak, stuck at home while his wife is working to support him. “But of course with me that’s not the case. It was a conscious decision,” he says.
Haji Shearer, director of the Fatherhood Initiative at The Children’s Trust in Boston and parent of two grown children, began working with families in danger of having their kids taken away by protective services shortly after becoming a parent in 1993. “I got a large number of referrals from social workers who told me the dad wasn’t involved and I should just work with the mom and kids. Being a relatively new dad, it was hard for me to believe so many men would just voluntarily walk away from this life-changing, life-enhancing opportunity,” he explains. After taking the time to ask a few questions and reaching out to more fathers, Shearer says he became fairly successful at engaging some of these “hard to reach fathers” to get more involved.
Influenced by those early experiences, working with dads, often in groups, has become Shearer’s focus for more than 16 years. “And what I realized at each step was, I was not unusual in my deep abiding love for my kids and my ability to put my family’s well-being before my own.”
He agrees a lot has changed since past generations, and gives much of the credit to the women’s movement of the ’60s, ’70s and beyond, and what he refers to as a shift in the great dance between moms and dads and the roles they had previously played.
Shearer feels many of the challenges dads like Johnson face are part of a leftover cultural legacy. “Even though many of us didn’t grow up in that 1950s Father Knows Best family, that’s the image instilled,” he says. Years ago, guys could punch the “dad ticket” by simply playing the role of provider and disciplinarian. “Now we’re asking dads to also take on additional roles of feeding and homework and school meetings and doctors appointments and all these other things that moms would have done before. I really think it’s helping men increase our emotional satisfaction and emotional competence in being involved with young children in ways we never were previously,” he says.
John Falco, a father of three school-age children and vice chairman on the Medford School Committee, views the modern dad movement as an encouraging trend. From an early age he made a point of being integrally involved in raising his children, from changing diapers and playing Captain Hook in the backyard to taking them to the park or coaching their sports teams. “More and more, you’re starting to see both moms and dads sharing the responsibility and parenting role and that’s a good thing,” he says.
Falco says he never felt a stigma about taking an active role in the lives of his children, even if at first he might not have been as prepared for parenting as his wife. “She was ready. It was a complete natural fit. I was probably like, am I doing this right?” he confides. But what really made him feel confident in being a dad was getting involved with other parents through the Medford Family Network, a local children’s center where he could access a diverse range of programs for parents. “You meet moms and dads and it’s great because everybody comes together to share their stories and challenges.”
Johnson, who has reached out for networking opportunities with mixed success, reports it can be difficult connecting with other stay-at-home dads. Whether you’re a writer like he is, or you restore motorcycles or design jewelry, many of the dads he knows are also dedicated to hobbies and interests beyond parenting, as if feeling the need to validate their domestic existence. He also says some men just aren’t naturally inclined to accept advice.
With the Family Network at his disposal, Falco is one dad that’s always been up for all the help he could get. “To me, it felt pretty natural to talk to other parents. We were all new to it and had that in common. And I think we learned through each other’s experiences,” he says.
From Shearer’s perspective, it’s hard to overstate how critically important networking and support truly is. “We know from research on family strengths that when there are social connections between healthy parents, they do much better. For dads especially, if their only adult connections are with moms, it’s simple to see how they might feel this is feminizing. Which is one of the reasons why, at the Children’s Trust, we promote and fund parenting programs for dads,” he says. When fathers in groups are able to connect around the purpose of becoming better parents, Shearer explains, it can be extremely enriching to their lives.
The Modern Dad
While the reality of dads assuming more domestic family roles may have felt a bit awkward at first, it now presents the opportunity for men to put their own unique spin on child rearing. Guys searching for more definitive role models can look no further than dads like Falco and Johnson, who both focus on doing what’s best for their kids but go about it each in their own unabashed way.
Says Johnson, “I love to cook, so I thought, I can involve the children and through cooking we can learn math and reading and where the food comes from. The simple question of where peppercorns come from might lead to lessons in history, linguistics, geography and so on.” They’ve made recipes inspired by classic nursery rhymes, such as “Hot Cross Buns,” garden together and visit the local farmers’ market. He says it’s an engaging way to educate his children, but it also serves as common ground on which they connect.
“The way I look at it, you have to check your ego at the door,” says Falco. “I would do anything for my kids. And you know what, if you need to change a diaper you change a diaper.” He says there’s been plenty of times he’s been in playgroups were he’s the only dad there. “That’s fine with me. That’s quality time I’m spending with my children. And at the end of the day, I know they’re better for it.”
Shearer agrees, adding, “It’s a huge gift for our society to support these men in their roles as fathers. We’re building stronger communities in having these dads staying more connected to their kids and to their kids’ moms.”
To dads who are not sure where they fit in the modern family picture or are apprehensive about taking a primary role, Johnson says, “Don’t be afraid, embrace it. You didn’t learn to ride a bicycle the first time you got on it. Expect to make mistakes; hopefully they’re not too big. And enjoy every second of it, because as everyone says, they grow so fast and boy do they!”
Shearer believes ultimately it’s about looking within. “A lot of parenting is intrinsic,” he says. “We can learn from the groups, we can learn from the books, but a lot of this is written in our hearts. Trust your gut and remember each stage in your child’s life is so brief that you really want to enjoy the ride as much as possible.”
“Is it challenging at times? Yeah, of course, but in my eyes, being a dad is the most important job I’ll ever have,” says Falco. “I love it and it goes by so quick. You have to take advantage of every moment.”
While our culture has changed a lot since the days of Mr. Mom, and men are more involved raising children than perhaps ever before, modern dads still face a diverse range of challenges. But no matter the struggles, whether it be gaining acceptance from friends, winning the confidence of our parenting partners or simply getting up to speed with the many skills associated with successful parenting, the payoff can be substantial. Not only are dads today playing integral roles in raising happy and healthy children, we’re also benefitting from the immeasurable joys of forging more impactful, intimate relationships with our kids.
Brian Spero is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Boston Parents Paper.
Eric Johnson, author, food blogger and stay-at-home parent. authorericjohnson.com
Haji Shearer, director of the Fatherhood Initiative at The Children’s Trust in Boston. childrenstrustma.org/training-center/trainer-profiles
For more on dads and parenting, read our article about Boston Dad's Group titled "It's a Dad Thing!" here.