A few decades ago, calling an at-home dad “Mr. Mom” may have been as funny as the famous Michael Keaton movie, but times have changed, and Al Watts thinks that nickname should too.
In 1983, a very funny movie starring Michael Keaton and Teri Garr was released called Mr. Mom.
It’s not so funny to me anymore.
The movie, as I am sure you remember, is about a breadwinning dad and a stay-at-home mom switching roles. Michael Keaton’s character, Jack Butler, is laid off from his job and he ends up staying home with the kids when his wife lands a job in an ad agency.
Jack struggles with the basics of childcare and household duties. He eventually becomes depressed, drinking beer in the afternoon, and watching soap operas while not bothering to put any soap on himself for weeks.
It was a very successful comedy and even ushered a new phrase into our public consciousness: “Mr. Mom.”
Back in 1983, this scenario was very uncommon. Men still ruled the workplace; women the homeplace. Men were not seen as capable primary caregivers and this movie fed into this public perception.
Things have changed.
Women now nearly equal men in the workplace. Women have surpassed men in bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Thirty-five percent of wives outearn their husbands.
Men have started to become more involved in childcare and household duties. Most fathers of the last generation probably did not participate as much at home as husbands do today. Many, such as myself, are the primary caregivers of their children (32% of married fathers are, in fact, according to the latest Census report).
Perceptions of men as childcare providers have not changed, however. The movie Mr. Mom is still stuck in our brains as the idea of what an at-home dad is. Perceptions need to change because reality has changed. Consider these myths of “Mr. Mom” that are no longer true today:
MYTH: Dads become stay-at-home fathers because they lost their job.
MYTH: At-home dads are unemployed.
FACT: Most at-home dads make some income. The Census reports that there are 176,000 at-home dads but also reports about 7 million fathers are primary caregivers. The main reason for the difference is the how the Census counts an at-home dad. Only dads out of the workforce with kids under 15 are counted as “at-home dads.” But in 2012, society is not as simply defined. Often both parents earn some income and share in the child care duties more than they did even 30 years ago.
MYTH: At-home dads are not as good at parenting as moms.
FACT: At-home dads, in fact just about any dad, can parent as effectively as any mom. Research by Lee Gettler of Northwestern University showed dads experience a drop in testosterone levels when they become a parent, just as hormones also change in moms. His research means that dads are biologically capable of nurturing and parenting.
We need to stop calling at-home dads “Mr. Mom” because these dads are not a substitute for mom or somehow less qualified than mom to be a parent. At-home dads do an exceptional job filling an important role in their families and need to be respected for what they do.
Years ago, our society realized women were capable of doing just about any job a man could do. We began using gender-neutral terms to define jobs, such as police officer and postal worker instead of policeman and postman. We are rarely surprised by a female play-by-play announcer on a college football game or a woman running for President.
It is time for our society to feel this way about men who choose to take on roles previously thought to belong to women, such as child care. It is time we encourage these men by calling them “at-home dads” instead of challenging their masculinity by calling them “Mr. Mom.”
Al Watts is an at-home dad of 4 children living in west Omaha and the President of The National At-Home Dad Network. He writes regularly for The Good Men Project and Momaha.com and is co-editing a book project titled “Dads Behaving Dadly: Chronicles of the Fatherhood Revolution.”