Getting real about men and household labor

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by Kristen Myers

Fox News in Chicago recently invited me to do a Father’s Day segment during the noon news hour explaining how “Dads today are better than ever!” Aiming for a feel-good piece celebrating dads, they prompted me to talk about how “real men” cuddle with their children. On the one hand, I cringed at the use of the term, “real men.” What is a “real man?” Although sociologists have shown that there is no one right way to be a man, the notion of “real” manhood remains salient in the popular imagination. The expression, “real men do x,” is typically used to call men out, to shame those who don’t do x into “manning up.” The popularity of language like “real men man up” reminds us that the rules we’ve made for men haven’t actually relaxed all that much, even though some dads are able to interact with their children in ways that their own dads never could have.

On the other hand, Fox News was using the expression “real men cuddle” ironically, to encourage traditional men to do something non-traditional, like show emotion. This gave me an opportunity to focus on ways that men can do things differently than they have in the past, how they’re “undoing gender,” as Francine Deutsch would say. More men today are able to physically and emotionally bond with their children without risking a blow to their manhood. The Pew Research Center has documented trends in the work world and the household that are permitting dads to be more involved than ever in childrearing and housework.The time is ripe for men, no matter how traditional, to take advantage of these shifts. Sometimes these men must be pushed out of their comfort zones in order to take the first steps.

Losing work definitely affects men’s comfort zones. Ilana Demantas, and I interviewed 40 men who lost their jobs during the recent recession. Most of those men held traditional beliefs about manhood, arguing that men should be the breadwinners and heads of their households. They espoused these beliefs even though they had women partners who worked outside the home for pay. Despite its outdatedness, research shows that the breadwinner ideology is one of the most enduring gendered ideologies in the US. What happens when these men can no longer provide any income to their households? Interestingly, the men in our study reworked what it means to be a man to emphasize what they could provide to their families after losing work: unpaid household labor and care-work. In other words, they redefined traditional women’s work as men’s work.

As one subject said, “I’ve been playing Mr. Mom I watch [my 5 year old daughter] when [my wife] goes to work. She has to work, make money so I am here, I am around, I keep the place tidy, clean. I do grocery shopping. I actually really love spending time with my daughter. It’s kind of priceless.”

Another subject said, “I wasn’t ready for this. It took a lot of adapting to become the house-husband and do all the things that I have never done…..Now I am a guy doing these things. I’ve adapted quite well to it, and it’s basically out of survival and I am proud to say that I’m a good house-husband.”

A third subject said, “I thought I’d always be independent, I’ve always been the man, you know, not cleaning ever. But it’s just the reverse right now. But I think everything is good. Everything happens for a reason. … I just have to step up and be a man in a different manner.”

These men did this work neither because education had enlightened them, nor because they previously valued gender egalitarianism. They changed their ideas about manhood due to a changing gender order. Our research shows that even traditional men can do gender differently when pressed to do so.

All men can help undo gender. Rather than using “real manhood” as a tool to call men out, we should call men in to participate in this larger collective project of making egalitarian households and workplaces. Disentangling gender from parenting is challenging, but doing so is valuable for both parents and children.

Kristen Myers is professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University.

This post originally ran on the Gender & Society blog.

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