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The Downside of Being a Stay-At-Home Dad?

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Among the many poignant moments in Michelle Obama's electrifying speech at the Democratic Convention this week was an ode to her father.

"You see, for my dad, that's what it meant to be a man. Like so many of us, that was the measure of his success in life -- being able to earn a decent living that allowed him to support his family."

What was true for Michelle's father is still true for many men today -- a man who can support his family is considered a "real" man.

So, what are we to make of the "New Dad" so trumpeted in the media, the men who are staying at home to raise their kids, despite Ann Romney's declaration that it's mothers who "really hold the country together"?

It's true, there are more hands-on dads than ever before -- as many as 1.8 million single dads and 154,000 stay-at-home dads, according to recent Census figures. But as Brock University sociology professor Andrea Doucet writes, the numbers are deceiving:

"Excluded from these numbers are secondary, irregular, flexible, or part-time earners; part-time students; work-at-home dads (WAHDS); unemployed job-seekers, the underemployed, and discouraged workers. Moreover, statistics that follow only husband-wife families exclude a growing number of single, divorced, and gay fathers."

Because of the Census' criteria of who is considered out of work, there probably are closer to 1.4 million fathers at home and taking care of children full-time, according to a study by Beth A. Latshaw, assistant professor of sociology at Appalachian State University.

That certainly seems like something to celebrate. But the question that needs to be asked is, how many of those stay-at-home dads actively chose that role, and how many were forced into it by the economic recession? There is a difference in how that impacts Dad and Mom.

One way it impacts fathers, according to one study, at least, is that the more economically dependent a man is on his wife, the more likely he is to cheat, says Christin Munsch, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford's Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research. And as we all know, infidelity is one of the main reasons for divorce.

Munsch is among those contributing to a growing body of research about threats to masculinity. Research suggests that men who experience threats to their gender identity often overcompensate by resorting to booze and drugs, engage in risk-taking behavior, become sexually aggressive, and express anger and aggression. And, they're more likely to have an affair.

Why?

As Munsch argues, "because breadwinner status is an important component of masculinity for married men, economic dependency may threaten masculinity. Given the symbolic importance of virility and sexual conquest to cultural definitions of masculinity, having multiple sexual partners may be an attempt to restore gender identity in response to these threats."

And, yes, as antiquated as it may seem in 2012, we still consider "real" men as the ones who provide income; caregiving and nurturing just aren't seen as "providing." Even the fathers themselves believed that the self-esteem benefits associated with working, earning money and having an identity besides "full-time dad" was attractive.

As Latshaw writes:

"Just as many stay-at-home mothers seek part-time or freelance opportunities to earn extra income, fathers might feel doubly compelled to do so because of the stigma associated with being an unemployed male and a caregiver, two roles that are not traditionally associated with the masculine or father ideal."

Some researchers believe manhood is a precarious state of existence in itself. While women who don't live up to cultural standards of femininity may be judged and labeled, their status as women just isn't questioned the same way a man's status often is. Real men, they say, "experience their gender as a tenuous status that they may at any time lose and about which they readily experience anxiety and threat."

In an email exchange, I asked Munsch if we're liable to see more cheating men as the numbers of stay at home dads increase. Probably, she notes. For men who "voluntarily, happily left the labor market to stay at home, they would not experience it as threatening to their masculinity or feel the need to compensate in response," she says.

However, she adds, "if more men are staying at home out of necessity, for example because of job loss during times of economic downtown, then according to the theory they would be more likely to cheat."

But, with whom? Evidently, watching a man care for his kids is like seeing a puppy -- our hearts melt. Many women find stay-at-home dads sexy, in theory anyway.

As sexologist and author Logan Levkoff says, "if a man feels emasculated by his stay-at-home status, it is very difficult to have a fulfilling sex life." Maybe that's true with his wife, especially if she is the one bringing home the paycheck and his masculinity is somewhat wobbly. Perhaps it isn't so complicated with someone other than his wife.

A version of this article appeared on Vicki Larson's personal blog, the OMG Chronicles.