Monday, February 16, 2009

“Mr. Mom” and Other Absurdities of Modern Fatherhood


A co-worker asked me the other day if I would rather be a “Mr. Mom” than working where I do. Nothing dramatic, but I took just a hint of offense at this. First of all, Mr. Mom was a cute, funny domestic comedy in 1983 starring Michael Keaton and Terri Garr. That’s all. It was so long ago, Mr. Keaton probably doesn't even list it in his resumé anymore.

It is not a clinical or even an official term for fathers (i.e., male parents) who for whatever reason are the “stay-at-home” parents in a family unit. The joke in the phrase “Mr. Mom” is that it is self-conflicting term regarding gender, and might even conjure mental images of less-than-glamorous men dressed in a brand of drag you probably won't see at Pride.

Mister is (for speakers of traditional English) a title reserved for men only. I do actually qualify for that much.

“Mom,” however, is rather more rigidly defined by biology, suggesting the person with the epithet “Mom” is equipped to bear children. A quick inventory of my own reproductive organs (i.e. the same testicles that qualify me for being a “Mister”) reveals I have no such capacity.

Further, the term “Mom” is derived from “Momma,” or “Mommy,” both having the same root as “mammary,” referring to breasts in polite layman’s terms, often referred to colloquially as “boobs,” “hooters,” and occasionally “gazoombas,” among other slang and informal terms of varying cultural acceptability. I don’t have those, either.

So what’s with the “Mr. Mom” reference? I mean, we don’t call female wage-earners “Mrs. Dad,” do we? Gender roles have been rearranged, re-assigned, and just plain shuffled for about as long as I can remember. It's funny too, that many of the jobs "traditionally" attributed to "moms" have been done professionally by men for ages: cooks, chauffers, medics, butlers/valets, and sometimes even cranking up the show of force to protect the young from potentially harmful intruders, just to name a few careers. So, where's the disconnect if a man were to choose to do these things without the professional accolades?

Is this some way the prior generation copes with these changes? Is this shift so unsettling we/they need to tack on some cutesy buzzword to help them feel more in control of a changing situation, to kind of keep it compartmentalized in a nice, neat little phrase? So it doesn’t seem to be as much of a threat?

Well, maybe I should also consider the source, a woman who refers to her “hubby” (rather a condescending term in itself) and once in a while passes the phrase, “that’s so like a man to…” This might put her perspective in perspective, so to speak.

One might infer that she holds certain expectations of men and their culturally assigned gender roles, as depicted in this movie of the same name, although she is certainly not the only one, evidently.

The comedy in that movie pretty much came from the initial shock of a new social reality that was beginning to take hold in our country back in the early 1970s and 80s.

What surprises me is that while the gags in the movie are viewed now with more or less a, “Yeah, so what,” the attitude that made it funny is still alive and thriving today, even after almost 30 to 40 years.

I would suggest it simply must be a point of view unique to a conservative State seeped in a “tradition” that defines such gender roles, but it’s not. A few years ago, my brother-in-law’s wife was thoughtful enough to set me up with a subscription to a leading parenting magazine for a birthday present. Hey, who couldn’t use a few helpful hints? Leafing through the pages of this magazine, however, I found that aside from many of the articles that refer to children in the feminine (which, ironically, I do sort of understand as kind of a swing of the pendulum from children always being referred to as though they were all boys), a number of the articles tended to focus more on the concerns of mothers.

There's nothing wrong with that, it’s just that, frankly, “staying sexy, even in post-partum” just has not been a concern for me as for one, I am physically incapable of biologically experiencing post-partum (see above), and for two, both of my sons are adopted in the first place. For the record, also on my list of non-concerns are issues of whether or not to breast-feed (again, see above), clothing for during and after pregnancy, and while I certainly appreciate the traumas of new mothers returning to the workplace, that just does not apply to me, except that my wife and I have both had to adapt to being paradoxically married and yet functioning at times as single parents as we’ve been working alternate shifts during the first few months of each of our sons’ lives. Never the less, I'm a parent, too.

I don’t downplay the role of the Mother, far from it, but surely, somewhere on these magazines’ editorial boards, there are at least a couple of men who might have some experiences they’d like to share with other male parents, or “dads” as a number of us like to be called.

What about the perspectives of these male counterparts? The working father? The adoptive father? The stay-at-home father? The single father? The father in a household where both parents work? Hell, let’s get with the 21st century and ask about perspectives from two-father households, huh?

Are there no fathers whose hearts break every time their child cries when he drops them off to daycare? It is just assumed that men just don’t feel the agony of helplessness over a sick child? Don’t Dads feel a bit guilty over resorting to feeding the kids ramen noodles because it’s the only thing he can find in the kitchen cabinets between shopping trips? Does a father not hurt a bit when his teen child gets dumped? Is a father’s pride in his children really so cheap? Does a father love his children that much less, just because he didn’t give birth to them after nine and a half months (if this is the case, this does not exactly flatter adoptive parents, does it)? Why does “Dad” then not equate to “parent?”

I know there is a view that men are nothing more than sperm donors. A quick one, an orgasm, and his “duties” are done. Not. I am truly sorry if that’s anyone’s particular experience, but the reality is that I am no less a parent than a woman just because I go by “Dad,” and not “Mom.”

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