Wow, I'm finally famous. Or at least I'm part of a hot media demographic of a fleeting moment, like soccer moms or pedophile priests. Newsweek's recent cover story overflies the phenomenon of men who stay at home to take care of the kids while mom goes out to earn a paycheck. Although the article unearths some interesting data, we'll likely have to wait for the next confluence of a topical Eddie Murphy flick and Mother's Day for an account that escapes old zero-sum, gender-war framing.
First, the good news. Newsweek tells me there is a new focus on finding out just how many dads now take care of home and hearth as their primary job. Just five years ago, when I quit my job to stay home with my new son, wild guesses were the norm. Hard data are always better, whatever the topic.
The piece is also broader than Fortune's "Trophy Husband" cover from last fall which more or less confirmed that even a high-powered corporate woman needs a good corporate wife. Fortune's focus on the boardroom also skewed things toward the 50-ish husband who didn't so much quit a job as cash out his chips to play at his hobbies and whose child-care responsibilities might be no more than a pancake breakfast for the youngest daughter home for spring break.
Newsweek gets bonus points for promulgating the "Alpha Earner" tag, given to women who earn more than their spouse. The Alphas now describe one-third of all married households. And despite snarky comments about these women being "bred for the office," this shift in earning power is something the public needs to know.
You might think this would be a good jumping off point to challenge notions about the glass ceiling or at least note that if so many women are out-earning their men, they must be getting equal pay for equal work somewhere. But you'd be wrong.
Instead, Newsweek trudges through the old victimhood vignette storyline news magazines love to show us—farms foreclosed, steelworkers bagging groceries, Wal-Mart walloping ma-and-pa. Here the story takes the terrifying guise of proud men thrown out of work and forced to stay home while their wives hold down a job. "I hate it all," is the out-of-work dad's quote that closes the opening paragraph. Readers very quickly called foul on that set-up, noting that a forced layoff is not the same situation as a careful family decision undertaken with the consent of all parties.
Much more interesting than keeping score in the blame and pain game would seem to be the fact that at-home dads represent a challenge to the existing orthodoxies about family life. In fact, maybe it is at-home dads' dual threat to left and right that keeps both sides from much talking to them.
By their mere existence, at-home dads deny the reductio ad absurdum of radical feminist arguments about unfair burdens of child-rearing. In the vernacular, "Temper-tantrum in the shoe store, huh? I got that plus two HAZMAT poopy diapers this A.M. and an abandoned sippy cup growing head-cheese under the couch. Who's oppressed by the patriarchy now, hun?"
Conservatives are equally unequipped to handle the daddy-at-home fix to all the various pathologies they ascribe to the social superflu of Women Entering the Workforce. In fact, "parent" is almost universally taken to mean "mom" when conservatives lament parental absence from the home.
Writing in Policy Review, Mary Eberstadt lays everything from childhood obesity to teen sex at the feet of mom's going off to work. How about if dad stays at home and runs the horny little pudge balls to the park? Well, maybe next year then. You could even argue—although I wouldn't—that keeping the menfolk at home is a profoundly conservative reaction to threats like snipers and stalkers and snatchers, oh my.
So if the left-right dichotomy doesn't help explain what is going on, what does? If we have to grossly oversimplify all complexities of family life—and we do, because it is fun—to come up with a sloppy, catchy metaphor, I'd borrow one from sports: Playing out of position.
When Magic Johnson, subbing for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, scored 42 points and give the Lakers a championship in 1980, it wasn't because he suddenly preferred Jabbar's center position to point guard. He made the switch and embraced it because the switch gave his team its best shot at being successful. Nor did Magic sacrifice anything, as the position switch provided him the best chance to secure his top goal, winning.
Presumably men who choose to stay home do so because they believe it gives their families the best shot at flourishing despite millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of culture to the contrary. This weight of history will keep most at-home dads feeling out of position for the foreseeable future even as they strive to do what's best for their particular brood.
But that's life. More specifically, that's human life. It is no one's fault that members of the species homo sapiens are pretty much helpless until age 7 or 8, unable to perform the most basic function without a good chance of utter disaster. Not until 13 or 14 are they good for any meaningful work; complete command of charge cards and sexual organs doesn't come until age 25, if at all.
So parents have a tough task. Throwing another possible division of labor into the mix has to be a net good for families even if it doesn't fit into a neat category on the left-right continuum or editorial templates. Ultimately, pragmatism—what works best for each family—is death to the dogmas of both left and right. As Michael Keaton told Martin Mull in Mr. Mom, "Yeah, 220, 221—whatever it takes."
Here's to whatever it takes.