Face it, daddies: We can be real douchebags.
I speak from experience. I have three kids, ages 9, 13 and 15, and because my wife works like a madwoman and provides the bulk of our family income, my main job is managing the house and looking after the kids.
That makes me a "house husband" -- which I'd call myself if it weren't for the fact that saying that word out loud mysteriously shrinks my gonads to the size and firmness of month-old blueberries.
A while back, I started calling myself a "domestic first responder."
Much manlier, right?
The fact that I've gone to such lengths to butch-up my job title gets at a problem caretaking guys know all too well: While breadwinning women are now more common than ever (The Pew Research Center reports that women are now primary breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households), male householders are often gripped by a potent mix of shame, pride, isolation, frustration, delight and ambivalence. Even those rare guys who are completely at peace with their place in the family and world routinely bump up against assumptions that they secretly resent their wives, tolerate their children and down deep, kind of hate their lives.
Are you OK? As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out, this is the question men get when their wives succeed (while women married to successful men are told, "Congratulations!")
"That's the problem," Sandberg says. "The problem is we demand and expect professional success from men. It's optional and even threatening from women."
No matter how loosey-goosey and boundary-smashing the world may seem in certain blue state bubbles, age-old stereotypes die hard. Boil it down and many if not most people will tell you guys are really knuckle-draggers who harbor secret fantasies of standing on a mountain with their woman chained next to them in a bikini. When confronted with a male caretaker, a guy in a schlumpy V-neck flecked with partially masticated Cheerios, the world thinks, oof. Must be hard on his manhood. Must make up for it in other ways.
All that can make for some seriously bad behavior. You know who I'm talking about -- the irritable schlubs at the playground madly thumbing their phones while mommies dole out the snacks. The grandstanding daddies who turn diaper changes into acts of performance art when company is around but who otherwise leave the dirty jobs to mom. The high-fiving fun dads who devote weekends to X-Box, but who get flummoxed by school registration forms or stinky hampers of laundry.
Confession: I've been all those dads.
My novel Plus One is about one of those daddies, a marketing executive who quits his job to stay home when his wife's career takes off. In so doing I spun out all my craziest anxieties and deepest insecurities. I also talked to a bunch of guys in similar circumstances and many told me they feel privileged to be home with the kids, but diminished and belittled out in the world.
To a certain extent, householding guys are just now facing the same hard realities women have been dealing with for generations. After all, guys like me have spent the last 20 or so years drifting into our masculine selves, trying this and that, peripatetically following our bliss. During the same period, our sisters have engaged in open and public warfare over their roles at home and in the workforce. They're toughened-up, battle-hardened and found their balance.
Lord knows it 'aint easy for any caretaker, man or woman, but by and large women are just better at it. I'm thinking here of a woman I know who raises four boys, runs a boutique architecture firm and gives extensive notes on the scripts of her husband's crazy-successful television show. Plus, she keeps to a strict exercise regimen and shows up at award dinners and parties looking super hot in vintage minidresses.
Meanwhile, most of the "Plus One" men I know are either embittered or entitled or seem to overcompensate for the fear they're either mooching or emasculated. While I was working on the book, I was invited to a gun club by the husband of a woman who makes network television. He recounted two weeks of racing a modified Lamborghini in a European gumball rally while demonstrating how to load and fire a 12-gauge shotgun. My ultimate judgment may have been clouded by the fact that I can't even spell Lamborghini and I hit three of the 100 targets he nailed, but the whole exercise seemed desperate. We both had children and women at home to attend to; why, I kept thinking, were we out here with these grizzled Nugents, stinking up our hands with gunpowder?
Another guy I know worked as a gaffer before meeting a woman who writes big studio movies and makes big studio money. He quit the job, had two kids and then hired a posse of assistants to schedule and schlep the children. These days, he keeps busy leveling-up in World of Warcraft, adding wings to the family's ranch house-cum-English cottage, logging hours for his certification as a scuba dive master and working out with a tai kwon do master. It's a good life and he's a lovely guy, chatty and entertaining, but it's hard to get through five minutes of conversation without hearing the granular details about life as a level-50 Elf, dive master and black belt. Sure, life has conspired to make me a pussy, he seems to say. So I'll be the alpha pussy. (Sidenote: "Alpha Pussy" was my working title until it was explained to me that no halfway tasteful or self-respecting reader would ever pick that up at Barnes & Noble.)
Of course there are biological differences between men and women, but we have to give men more credit. Despite the occasional weird outburst or awkward social interaction (I still remember a mommy at Gymboree asking, "What are you doing here?" as if I was an Angie's List birthday clown), I'm a pretty good dad -- at least I try to be. I for one feel deeply blessed to have that role with my kids and wife, to be available to my kids in a way I hope will create deep and lasting bonds, and to do the things that need doing so my wife can lead the professional life she does. That's a huge privilege. The fact that the culture sidelines anyone doing that work -- man or woman -- must change for the sake of all our well-being. Men can be natural caretakers and the world has got to stop assuming that we're all threatened and emasculated.
So, a call to my fellow caretaking dudes: enough with the douchebaggery. There's nothing shameful in taking care of a family. Stop with the apologizing, the grandstanding, the hyphenating, the dodging and weaving. The time has come to own our place. Let's all try laughing at our failings rather than blotting them out with macho posturing.
When someone asks what you do, say it loud and proud.
I'm a Plus One, and I'm done apologizing for it.