Catbus: A male role model

People who talk about masculinity — especially conservatives, who seem to obsess about it, but in a peculiarly juvenile way — have always seemed a little weird to me. It’s like the cliche retort the wealthy like to use: “If you have to ask how much it is, you can’t afford it.” Masculinity is one of those things where if you have to talk about it, you’re never going to get it. And the harder you try, the less a man you become.

So I enjoyed something of a low, mordant chortle the other day when Jane picked up, from Instaputz, something that Dr. Helen (the spouse of our old friend [ahem] Glenn Reynolds) wrote at her blog:

I have seen this fear of manliness in many modern husbands and fathers. Some men today are afraid of appearing like their own fathers, whom they thought of as unfair, controlling or condescending to women—the son swears he will not act the same way. Unfortunately, he often goes to the opposite extreme of letting his wife or others run all over him. These men are often doing dishes, watching the kids and earning much of the money all the while feeling guilty if anyone is unhappy with them. If you think this may be your problem, I have a couple of suggestions. Pick up a copy of How To Be a Man by John Birmingham and learn how to gain more self-confidence in being a man. In addition, get The Dangerous Book for Boys and build a treehouse, make a go-cart or learn to engage in fun activities that will make you appreciate how much fun it is to be a man. Ignore the societal pressures and male bashing and practice carrying yourself with pride until it feels real.

You see, for the past six years, while I’ve been editing my blog and writing my books, my primary job description has been stay-at-home father for my daughter, Fiona. She turned six earlier this summer and will start first grade this fall, so I’ve gotten a real job again and have spent much of the summer ruminating on what it’s all meant.

And I have to tell you: it’s been without question the most satisfying and rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. When I shuffle off this mortal coil, it will be with the knowledge I really did accomplish something worthwhile, and nothing — certainly not sneers from the haplessly ignorant — can take that away. The idea that it is not a masculine thing to do just seems absurd and incomprehensible to me.

Perhaps more to the point, it’s only confirmed my belief that it’s an experience more men need. It’s important not just for making men better fathers, but I think also for making women better mothers — and most of all, for giving child-rearing the cherished and significant place it should have in broader society.

My wife Lisa and I did it this way partly because, though we intended all along to have children, we wanted to do so when one of us could stay at home. I’d seen too many friends and colleagues knock themselves out to juggle child-care schedules, paying exorbitant amounts of money to have someone else do what I already knew from personal experience (when I was a teenager, I had to learn child care to help raise my then-baby brother) would be the most important and rewarding job they’d ever have. So we waited until one of us was in a position to stay at home — and that opportunity arose in 2000-2001, when I decided to step away from my work at MSNBC and try freelance writing from home for a living. Lisa was still at Microsoft, and we’d paid down much of the mortgage on our home, so we had decent revenue and low overhead.

Of course, plans never quite work out the way you envision them. The reality of caring for an infant made me quickly realize that I could no longer do daily freelance work, which entailed running to event scenes and conducting interviews and taking calls at all hours, while caring for a baby who needed regular feedings and naps and constant care outside that. (Try doing a phone interview with a baby in a Bjorn on your chest sometime.) So within a few months I’d shifted gears, focusing on writing books, which I could do evenings and weekends when Lisa was home, and about a year after that, I started blogging, which I found I could do during naptimes and playdates.

As the months and years added up, and I spent days on end at playgrounds, gymnasiums, swimming pools, and in playdates, it became plain that there really is a certain amount of resistance among a lot of people to the concept of stay-at-home daddies. There often was an assumption that I was a divorcee getting to play with my daughter on a custody date. Because I was an older father (I was 44 when she was born) sometimes I was asked if I was her grandfather (I really loved that one, as you can imagine).

And even though a lot of women thought it was neat that a man was being the primary caregiver, there was still a certain amount of resentment directed my way, from a lot of women, over my invasion of what for them was their territory. Some of this was perfectly understandable; when Fiona was a toddler, the topics of conversation among the gathered mothers often veered into various complaints with such bodily functions as breastfeeding and yeast infections and that sort of thing, and I of course was not just utterly incapable of conversing on these matters but felt like I was invading their privacy as well, so I made it a habit to wander off at such moments.

And there were moments — whispered comments, offhand remarks — where I was reminded that a lot of people, both men and women, privately viewed stay-at-home daddies as wimps or out-of-work losers. Sort of like Dr. Helen.

Well, all this melted into insignificance in the daily reality of raising a child. It’s impossible, I think, to put into words the immensity of the rewards that come with it: you watch them grow in body and spirit, become real little persons with real minds and dreams and desires all their own, and you bond with them in a way that lasts for life and maybe beyond. I’ve done many good and rewarding things in my life, but none of them — not even marrying a great woman, or publishing three books, or building up a good blog, all of them great things — has meant quite as much as being Fiona’s daddy. What other people thought, really, hardly mattered at all, because I knew what the score was. Certainly, it never seemed to me that my masculinity might be at stake.

Some of this has to do with how I was raised — which is to say, in an extremely masculine environment in southern Idaho. I was raised doing things that a lot of people like Glenn Reynolds and Dr. Helen seem to regard as the essence of masculinity: handling guns, hunting, fishing, being a woodsman, learning to be a hunter/provider from the time I was able to talk. I was a capable fisherman by the time I was 8, and I shot and gutted a deer when I was 12.

When I reached working age, I found work that was similarly male-dominated: a farmhand hauling irrigation pipe, a welder/mechanic in a farm-machinery factory, roller and chip-spread operator on a road-construction crew. These jobs put me through college, where I shifted from my blue-collar upbringing to white-collar world.

It’s tempting to say that this shift provided me with my first encounter with men who actually were concerned, consciously, about their masculinity, but it would not be true. Certainly, there seemed to be more of them, but I’d been encountering them from my early years too.

I remember camping out with my dad and his buddies during deer-hunting season and encountering these kinds of men then, too. They were always the guys who had to drink the most, carry on the loudest, and make a competition out of everything, especially to see who could shoot the first buck and who got the biggest one. They were the kinds of guys you really hated hunting with, because they were terrible woodsmen and even worse companions; they were the ones who always forgot some critical camp item, and the ones who would accidentally knock your meal into the fire. Mostly, there was always the chance they were going to shoot their own fool heads off if not yours.

I later knew men like this in the working world too. It always seemed like they were also lousy fathers and husbands. They’d whack their kids and their wives, and were usually more interested in going out drinking with the guys than doing anything with their families. They were abusive and boorish louts, and they largely formed the opposite of my notion of what it meant to be a man.

In my world, these kinds of men were half-men, because masculinity was all image and show and petulance to them. Being a real man, the way I was taught by other men — in that silent way that cannot be communicated in mere words — meant being a whole man. Men like that — well, they had their moments and could be fun to be around. But you always knew they were missing something.

So I grew up masculine because I knew in my bones what I was, first of all. I never thought much about it because maleness lies in the doing and the being, not the thinking. I did without thinking things that I now realize many people view as masculine not because they made me manly, but because they were in my nature. I don’t fish or camp or kayak now because they’re manly, but because they’re what I do.

And in all those years of doing “manly” things — including, I guess I should add, my roustabout bachelor years chasing women, which happens to also be when I learned how to be a good cook and to clean my house (ahem!) — I’ve never encountered anything that came close to making me feel like a “real man” as being a daddy. I never felt more manly than in moments like those captured in the top of the post.

Obviously, it was also incredibly fun (and still is). I used to joke with the other mothers at times that this was their great secret: that being the stay-at-home parent was the best job on the planet. Some of them smiled wryly at this.

Certainly, more men ought to be stay-at-home dads because they’d find, like me, that not only are they good at it, but it’s the best job they ever had. But I also think we need to encourage more men to become caregivers because it’s in the best interest of all of us.

Caring for children teaches us patience and generosity — forces it upon us, really — and that makes better men, regardless of what John Wayne or Dr. Helen might say. Masculine men (that is, if your notion of maleness is about strength and drive) also bring a groundedness and confidence to the table that I think nurtures children in ways that women often do not.

Encouraging stay-at-home fatherhood makes for a healthier society in a lot of ways. It makes better men of us because it makes us better fathers. That in turn makes for better-rounded children who are going to be better citizens. It also helps women whose goals might extend beyond family-rearing reach those goals. It makes more equal partners out of us, and I think makes for a stronger marriage.

I suspect, in fact, that part of my being enthralled with the job had to do with its being somewhat special if not unique — sensing that in many ways, I scored extra points (in the great Parenting Game in the Sky) just for doing it. But this also made me realize that women don’t get those extra points. They’re expected to do the child-rearing, and so for them the job often loses its specialness, at least insofar as getting some recognition and respect for what they do. It seemed to me that being a stay-at-home mom becomes drudgery for many women, and that is a sad thing, really. Yes, it is hard work, but it’s great work.

Raising children — especially in their first six years — is something that a sane and healthy society should celebrate as one of its most cherished and celebrated jobs. It’s how we shape our future, and that is a task for men and women alike, equally. It’s a task to be embraced, not delegated to the back bench, as do so many boorish, insecure men — the half-men I’ve known since childhood — and the women who enable them. Women like Dr. Helen.

Along the way, I hope, we’ll learn to discard foolish old notions of masculinity — the kind you get in half-baked reactionary books and articles, as though reading such things could actually make a man out of you — that have more to do with insensate petulance and self-absorption than with being a real, whole man.

And it will be the children themselves who show us how.

Fiona and the fountain<