09/17/2012 02:57 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Got Gender Shock? How to Get Over The End of Men

In The End of Men, three different working mothers use the same three words to assess the rise of women and the decline of men in our economic culture: "Get over it." In my favorite example, Sarah Beth Gettys responds to her husband's lament that his career wanes while hers soars by telling him to "build a bridge and get over it."

I consider the husband's disbelief an example of "gender shock," echoing Alvin Toffler's famous concept of "future shock" from the 1970s. Toffler's prophetic book catalogued our culture's overwhelming rate of change in many areas of daily life (including gender relations), particularly due to technological advances. The results are often high stress, disorientation, and the constant need for adaptation. Unfortunately, Sarah Beth's husband -- like so many men in Rosin's book -- seems unable or unwilling to adapt.

As the husband of a breadwinning wife, I agree: Men do need to "get over" their shock at the rise of women (I built that bridge over my wife's success long ago). And there is a part of me that wants to shake some of the inflexible men Rosin interviewed. A flip side to the equation, however, appears briefly in Rosin's conclusion and deserves more exploration: the role of women in helping men "get over" their current malaise.

Throughout the book, Rosin encourages "Cardboard Man" to be less resistant to careers conventionally associated with women -- e.g. nursing, teaching, service jobs and childcare -- in the wake of declining fields like manufacturing and construction. She urges men to be more like "Plastic Woman," whose gender flexibility has led to prosperity in fields formerly dominated by men.

Since I'm a veteran stay-at-home dad, I suppose I fit what she endorses as "Project Plastic Man." But imagine my surprise at her observation in the chapter on egalitarian, "Seesaw Marriages": "One woman at our preschool can't stop bragging about her stay-at-home husband -- although, I can't help it, I am still startled by the sight of him hanging around the school making handprint T-shirts for the teachers."

I may be defensive, but I detect a whiff of contempt (if not fear) in her description. It was especially disheartening to read that statement just before leaving to volunteer (or, in her words, "hang around") at my children's school! Was I somehow supposed to change into something less "startling"? My response to the book (and my dog) at that point? "Build a bridge and get over it!"

But to Rosin's credit, that is exactly what she does by the book's conclusion, where the "startling" stay-at-home dad asks her directly about her reaction to him. After thinking about it, she realizes: "Obviously it was not just men restricting themselves to a narrow set of acceptable roles, but the rest of us colluding to keep them imprisoned. He was right. Why should I, after all my research, be 'startled'? Why should I be anything but delighted?"

Another bridge built over troubled genders. Rosin's realization is especially important because it shows someone moving from gender shock to the correction of a blind spot regarding gender. Key to that process is Rosin's openness to changing her view, another "plastic" trait that helps one overcome gender shock. It is still telling, however, that such a blind spot needed to be pointed out, another sign that ongoing revisions of our deep gender assumptions will require much time and great effort by both men and women. But the more bridges built, the better for our sons and daughters in the future.

Finally, before someone accuses me of "blaming the victor" in my plea for women to help men become more flexible, a few disclaimers. First, the vast majority of both working and stay-at-home moms I know have been supportive of my plasticity as a parent, for which I am grateful. Second, as a stay-at-home father, I am very familiar with other people's gender shock, as when I recently entered a cosmetics store to inquire about hair extensions for my youngest daughter. (The irony of my surrendering hairline only intensified the shock on the clerk's face.) But I am certainly not immune to blind spots myself, much like Rosin.

For example, one of my older brothers recently told me his daughter joined a sports team at her college. "What sport?" I asked. "Women's rugby," he replied. In a flash I pictured my lovely niece, then remembered a men's rugby party back in my college years, then my brain stopped working. I could muster only the equivalent of "Good luck to her... and you." So much for enlightened Plastic Man.

So when do you still experience "gender shock"? Does a stay-at-home dad volunteering at your children's school "startle" you? How about a female CEO? A male nurse? A female rugby player? If so, how did you learn to "build a bridge and get over" such a blind spot? Conversely, when have you wanted someone else to "build a bridge and get over" their gender shock?

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