“Mr. Mom”? Why Not Just, “Dad”?

Like Lata Murti, I, too, have been thinking, teaching, and writing about men and women at work for a long time, and my initial reaction to her story is one of regret for Adam.  Nearly simultaneously, though, I think about my own daughter and what my spouse and I expect of the people who care for her.  When I look back at the history of her baby-sitters, the majority of them (all but one) were women.  And when I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I can dismiss the possibility that each of those independent decisions was gendered in some way.

In fact, how could it be anything else?  We swim in gender.  Nay, we breathe it.  Even when we decide, as some of us have, to try to resist its constraints, gender still has a way of dictating what we do, even if it’s by way of counterpoint.  If I decide self-consciously to hire a man as my secretary or baby sitter because those decisions are rare (which is partially why we did hire the one man as a baby sitter), I’m still reacting to the institution of gender, and, most importantly, I’m still making decisions about individual fates based on group attributes.  And no matter how much I think about equity and the ways in which men and women, boys and girls, merms and ferms and herms are similar in body and mind, I put on pants every day, I routinely get my hair cut relatively short, and I carry myself in a way that commands, I hope (when I’m honest with myself), masculine respect and privilege.  And, more to the point, despite a belief in what Murti describes as a mutual sexism that degrades everyone when we declare men unfit for care of young children, at the end of the day, when it really counts, I’m not sure I don’t have more faith (or less distrust) in the women that offer their child care services.

There would seem to be good reason to suspect men of some of the things Adam’s colleagues fear.  Men are more guilty of sex abuses than women—rape, pedophilia, and other sexually and physically aggressive behavior is extraordinarily associated with men and masculinity.  There’s hardly any doubt about that in the popular imagination, and research findings seem, in this case, to come down on the side of what people have long taken for granted.

And yet, I’m torn about how to feel regarding Adam.  Men certainly aren’t all rapists and pedophiles, and I’ve had my own battles fighting some of the fears and suspicions that go along with caring for small children.  For three years while I was finishing my dissertation, I was a stay-at-home dad.  Like most men, I hadn’t ever aspired to full-time parenthood (parents will know that parenthood is full-time, overtime, and all-time, but I mean, here, opting out of the paid labor force to take care of kids).  But I found myself changing diapers, cleaning vomit from my hair and clothes, and spooning mashes of sweet potatoes and avocado to the small, always-moving mouth of my infant, and then toddler, daughter.

And I loved it.  I really loved it.  I loved the way my daughter smelled.  I loved her smiles and giggles.  I loved the feel of her body—loved to hug her and feel of her soft cheeks against my cheeks, loved to cuddle her at nap time.  And I loved, loved, loved watching her sleep.  Sleeping babies are sublime perfection—it’s as if god has leaned down from the heavens and kissed you on the forehead.  Never mind the fact that I was always tired and, because of it, a little predisposed to emotionality.  I loved babies, and I really loved taking care of mine.  It’s the one thing I think I might be truly gifted at.

One day, I found myself at story time at the local library.  I had been there more than once, and, in retrospect, I suppose I had been around long enough to develop a reputation.  Never, not once, did I see anyone other than women bring kids to story time.  Week after week, I was the only guy there.  As a sociologist of gender, between you and me and these transparent digital walls, I wore this fact as a badge of pride.  “We can do it, too,” I said to myself.  Badge or not, though, I wasn’t readily adopted into the group.

On this particular day, one of the mothers had the courage to speak to me.  Normally, I was ignored, and, frankly, I was okay with that.  I don’t remember how the awkward introductions began, but I do remember this among the few words she spoke:  “So, what is it they call you?  Mr. Mom?”  She wasn’t trying to tell me I didn’t belong; there was no suspicion in her voice that I could detect, just curiosity, really.  But in the moment, I was too demoralized to give the answer I wish I had.  “I don’t know what they call it,” I said, with disgusted emphasis directed at whomever the cretin they were.  “Why not just, ‘Dad?’” is what I wish I had added.  But “dad,” of course, doesn’t really describe for most people what I was doing.  What I was doing was mothering behavior by conventional standards, and my skin didn’t fit.  In that one moment, I knew that I was unusual, weird, a curiosity, maybe even a pariah.  I took off my badge:  All that I was during that three year period before I moved on to full-time paid work was suspicious.

This is all to say that the prevailing fear of Adam and my own brand of fathering is not only academic and theoretical to me; it’s also personal.  We don’t really know enough about Adam’s situation to know where the truth lies.  The allegation that he had an erection after bouncing a baby on his lap is certainly troubling.  Honestly, it would give me real reservations, too.  Never mind that it’s not unheard of for men in their twenties (I’m guessing Adam’s age) to get erections from the kind of stimulation that one gets when moving legs back and forth or up and down over and over, and for reasons that could easily have nothing to do with whether a baby was there or not.  If I learned that about a guy who was watching my child, I’m not sure I wouldn’t react the same way that the parents and staff at Adam’s day care did.  Whether the risk is high or not, the potential consequences of being wrong are unimaginable as a parent.

At the same time, I also know that confirmation bias—in gender and in life—also leads us to find what we go looking for, sometimes even when it’s not really there.  And I also know from my own experience that male intimacy with children is possible without all the awful things that people fear most.  We sometimes see things not so much as they are, but as we believe them to be.

So I am more than a little bit suspicious about what Adam’s colleague says she saw.  If she had a conviction that men shouldn’t be changing diapers, if there was an unusual crease or a shadow in the crotch of his pants, was she just seeing things in such a way that confirmed the fears she was having?  And in the context of a scandal at Penn State and recurring child sex abuse stories at the hands of Catholic priests, did the very powerful emotion of fear combine with what I am sure is a very powerful desire to protect children and convince her that Adam couldn’t be trusted with children—because he also loved the hugs too much, was a little too dramatic in the melodramatic readings of Jack and the Beanstalk?

I am fairly sure there is a glass escalator—a quick path to the top—for some men in institutionalized child care and education of the very young, as well as in other female-dominated professions.  My own research says as much, and the theory fits better some of those situations in larger organizations where men can advance into positions of authority.  In smaller, less institutionalized dynamics, though, I’m inclined to agree with Murti.  There’s a fear and an incredulity about men in nurturing roles, and when there’s no place to go but out—when there’s no place or position to shunt the gender renegade upward into authoritative positions that suit his skin—then out the revolving door he will probably go.

And that is unfortunate.  Whether in Adam’s case or not, it’s unfortunate for those men whose calling is to care for children—men who would be really good at it, who would love the sounds of giggling children, who would love to tell them stories and get them to count in unison in that slow, energetic way that young children count.  And we’re all the worse for it, too, because we generally like to have people doing what they are good at doing, especially when the work is as important as the work of teaching children everything they need to be healthy, successful grownups.  We certainly don’t want to make the error in judgment of putting pedophiles in charge of little children, but if we go looking for problems in the few men who strike out in child care, we’re probably much more likely to make the error in judgment that excludes good, competent, kind men from the important work of nurturing our children.  The consequences of each error are not the same, to be sure, and therein lies the rub.  But to err on the side of caution is nonetheless to make an error, and some good people will lose out.  Moreover, as Murti points out, the laborious, if loving, work of child care will continue to fall nearly always to women as long as we mistakenly target good men, and that will mean that women continue to face huge obstacles when they try to go out for work, to earn money, and to take charge at work or in politics.  And so, my last thought, like my first, is one of regret—for Adam and for the rest of us.

Andrew J. Cognard-Black is adjunct assistant professor of sociology and liberal arts associate in the Office of the Dean of the Core Curriculum and First Year Experience at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.  He recently returned from a Fulbright semester at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia).

  1. Thanks so much for your very thoughtful commentary, Andrew.

  2. laurar70 said:

    my question is…why was Adam’s colleague looking at his crutch? I am an early childhood educator and would love to see more men in the field. Children have so much fun when we have male visitors for some of the children they are the only male interaction they get.

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