Since becoming an at-home father, Adam Mamo has been on a desperate search for his masculinity – after all, he keeps being told it’s gone missing.
First published on 18 June, 2018
You needn’t look far back in time to when being a stay-at-home dad wasn’t really a thing. Early practitioners of this dark art were seen merely as fathers without real jobs. But once it was given a name and entry into mainstream consciousness, being a stay-at-home dad was opened to greater scrutiny.
Testing needed to be done. Were these guys abandoning careers to look after kids really men? Stay-at-home dads became the subject of studies that concluded men who do it are more prone to risk-taking behaviour, drinking, smoking, infidelity and eating unhealthy foods than regular working dads. A recent Danish study even found that full-time dads were more likely to seek treatment for depression, anxiety, insomnia and erectile dysfunction.
Heavy stuff indeed. And the reason for these nasty side effects? Emasculation.
The what now? Yes, emasculation, a concept used by both researchers behind the studies above, and in many on-screen depictions of full time fathers. And how could Hollywood comedies and doctoral post grads, hunting convenient academic conclusions, possibly be wrong?
As a stay-at-home dad I was suitably worried to learn of these studies. Here I was, just an emasculated ticking time bomb about to detonate in a frenzy of exciting self-destructive and overcompensating behaviour. I had to get educated on my condition fast, so I looked it up on dictionary.com:
Emasculate (adjective): deprived of or lacking strength or vigor; effeminate
Alarm bells rang. The definition connected ‘lacking strength’ and ‘to feminise’, putting strength and female in opposition. An idea that if spoken out loud could well result in emasculation in the most literal sense.
The definition, the studies and the hilarious comedy movies about at-home dads were all pointing to one inevitable conclusion – my masculinity was gone. For the safety of myself and those around me I had to get it back. But where could it be?
Concerned mates suggested I check my wife’s handbag as they thought my balls were in there, and it was a smart spot to start. But it was a disorganised, frightening place and I could only find my recently revoked man card and 17 pens. I needed better ideas.
Thinking hard, I realised that a man’s masculinity must be attached to his job and that’s why at-home dads lose theirs. The next place to check was my old workplace. I bet I left it in that desk drawer, between the epic paperclip chain and the expired tin of tuna.
Before becoming a stay-at-home dad, I worked in an office. It was macho shit: every day was like a Predator movie, but indoors, without any Predators, and more shirts with sleeves. It was so dangerous that the company had a nurse on staff to help office warriors maintain a correct seating position and desk set up. That’s when you know you’re in the jungle, when a nurse prevents you from hurting yourself while seated in an ergonomic chair clicking on a mouse pad with gel wrist support.
I also used a footrest for a while. I saw it sitting vacant one day and thought, “live a little bro”. But you do that sort of stuff when you still have your masculinity.
Only weeks after finishing at the office, I was on a routine playground mission with the kids when we were caught in a hailstorm. Spitting icy hailstones, sheltered under an ineffective tree with a toddler buried into my chest and a baby in the stroller, did I feel emasculated? The hell I did. I felt like a freaking emperor penguin.
So perhaps having the air I breathed and the static position I sat in for eight hours a day, completely controlled, wasn’t entirely masculine. I needed to look elsewhere.
Maybe I lost it when I stopped getting paid. That makes sense. Off to the bank to further the inquiry. Masculinity must be about how much money a guy earns: the more you make the more masculine you are. That’s why Bill Gates was the world’s most masculine man for so many years.
Unfortunately, all I could find out at the bank was how much money I was saving on childcare. Saving money isn’t masculine per se, but is saving hundreds of dollars a week on childcare less masculine than earning hundreds to pay for childcare? I didn’t know and neither did the bank.
Off to the gym; it’s a sweating feast of masculinity there. Maybe mine fell out of my pocket on the rower. I resisted Zumba class, instead taking time out from my investigation to push some weights. Unbelievably, I wasn’t any weaker, and I realised the physical strength earned at the gym finally had a practical application in my daily parenting duties. I didn’t feel depressed like the studies suggested, and the only anxiety experienced was by my t-shirt sleeves.
Then I saw it, my masculinity!
Staring back at me from the mirror, it was still there but had been knocked a little loose. How does that even happen?
Well, the only time a stay-at-home dad feels even slightly emasculated is when other forces suggest he should. After that, his masculinity may require realignment. Nothing that can’t be fixed by some shirtless firewood splitting or changing the engine oil in a V8 Commodore while drinking brown-bottled beer.
So why exactly are stay-at-home dads emasculated again?
It all works on the premise of ‘if a man is a full time parent and isn’t the family breadwinner then he must feel emasculated’. In reality, it’s not much more than basic gender-role stereotyping. As antiquated as it is in 2018, caregiving remains closely associated with women, and is still considered feminine. So for a man to do it, he becomes less masculine and boom! Check your Y-fronts because you’re emasculated… apparently.
To score cheap laughs, on-screen comedies still play into these deep-set beliefs about what a mum and a dad do. While Hollywood is slow to move on from the novelty 1980s home situation of Mr Mom or the fabulous 1990s cross dressing antics of Mrs Doubtfire, a father’s role has advanced into the 21st century.
But what about those studies that claim being at at-home dad is bad for your mental health?
Well, they’re more interesting. The focus is squarely on fathers not being the primary financial provider for their families. Usually, no distinction is made on the circumstances that led to this position. A study that includes at-home dads who lost their jobs and were left with no option would yield different results to one where participants elected to become full time dads to play a larger role in their children’s lives. It would take very few disgruntled participants to skew the results towards the suggested issues.
The results may also reflect the stresses of full time parenting that aren’t gender specific and are felt by both at-home dads and mums. Depression, anxiety, insomnia could in many cases be attributed to this same stress than the much vaguer concept of emasculation.
So should potential stay-at-home dads be worried about emasculation?
It would be easy to say, “No way man, take a cement pill” but the answer has to remain “yes”. If a man’s self-esteem and self-perceived masculinity is tightly pegged to his professional status and salary then the subsequent uncoupling may prove problematic.
If you’re a competent and engaged dad, going full time shouldn’t be feared.
Being a stay-at-home dad isn’t an illness, and emasculation isn’t a symptom. There’s no real threat to gender identity.
In fact, there’s a new kind of masculinity to be discovered in the adversity of being a full time father. Try doing the toughest job of your life while being told you’re less of a man for doing it.
Whether you’re a predator-slaying office warrior, a tradie or a gym strongman, becoming a stay-at-home dad won’t take away your masculinity, it will show you exactly where it is.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.