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Dead Tree Alert: The Real Househusbands of TV

Work-home balance is too often treated as a "women's" issue. But a new reality show is devoted to the radical idea that caring for your own child does not make your penis fall off.

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Women who aspire to have both careers and families have been lately getting so many warnings and suggestions from the media that it’s like watching an overeager coach trying to correct a student’s golf swing: Lean in! But not too far in! Opt out! No, wait, opt back in! Whatever you do—you’ll regret it!

Men have not had to deal with the contradictory chorus of career kibitzing. For them, it’s the opposite. In all the attention to widening working mothers’ options, there’s been little attention to broadening working fathers’ choices–to lean out, cut back, take more paternity leave, or even stay at home. Even in well-meaning coverage of work-life balance, as I wrote back when Yahoo! dropped its work-from-home policy and it was called an attack on “moms,” there tends to be an assumption that fathers are the backup parents.

This is a problem not because of balance or fairness; it is not as if poor persecuted men never get enough attention in news reports. It matters because, in a heterosexual marriage at least, dad’s work-home balance and mom’s are the same issue. Unless you’re well-off enough to hire an army of domestic help–and often even then–someone has to make lunches, go to doctor appointments, stay home on sick days. As Anne-Marie Slaughter (“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”) wrote, one reason she was able to lean in to her career to the extent she could was a husband who leaned back.

TV, as I’ve written before, is not historically great at portraying dads as hands-on parents. For every Louie–maybe the best current show about parenting, period–there’s at least one Baby Daddy or Guys With Kids, shows that treat the idea of a dude-caregiver as inherently hilarious. Into this breach next week steps A&E’s reality show, Modern Dads, the subject of my column in this week’s TIME (subscription required) about four stay-at-home fathers in Austin.

A&E Modern Dads

Stuart Pettican

From the press materials for A&E’s Modern Dads

At first glance, Modern Dads gives the impression that it will be pretty awful, heavy on the stereotypes and emasculation gags; in fact, you get the sense that A&E’s marketing depends on it. The key art in the ads shows a guy in a flannel work shirt with diapers, a bottle, and plush toys in a tool belt; A&E’s press kit to critics includes a picture of one dad affixing a baby’s diaper with duct tape. “A good day at the office for them,” says the show’s website, “is just keeping their kids–and their manhood–alive.” (Note: caring for your own baby does not make your penis fall off. Indeed, fathering a child and having a penis are highly correlated.)

But maybe the highest praise I can give Modern Dads, judging from the first episode, is that it is better than its marketing wants to make it seem. It’s not exactly a brilliant work of cinema verite, as you can see from the credits sequence of the men posing in shades with their babies, a la The Hangover; like A&E’s huge hit, Duck Dynasty, it’s edited in a “sitcom” style that can often seem stagey or forced.

But it’s also impressive in small ways and avoids easy gags and predictable conflicts. Its dads—a single dad, a new dad, a stepdad, and a father of four–are, shocker of shockers, actually portrayed as competent. The show portrays full-time childcare as exhausting, because it is, but not as humiliating or embarrassing. Opting out is not cheap, in Austin and other places like it, and the dads who are supported by a high-earning wife or girlfriend don’t mourn their mojo but celebrate their luck: “Hell yes, I married up!” says one. (Modern Dads comes from producers of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and the Real Housewives series, while often knocked as superficial, phony docusoaps, are actually full of ironies and observations about class and subcultures in America.)

As I say in the column, there’s obviously a trade-off here. It’s good to see a show that doesn’t simply assume that every man worth his Y chromosome wants to work and earn as much as possible; reality shows like this are increasingly family viewing, and I like the idea that some boys out there will be exposed to the idea that men are allowed to nurture their own children. On the other hand, it would be nice if stay-at-home dads weren’t treated as a curiosity like doomsday preppers or sister-wives.

But that’s probably the way you get a show like this on the air at all, and with any luck, it means we’ll see more dads-as-caregivers worked more organically into other TV shows. Because, news flash: there are actually men in the world who would rather spend more time with their kids than in quarterly planning meetings. When you treat home-career flexibility as a “woman’s” issue, you hurt both men and women–and increasingly you also ignore reality. It’s a practical and economic issue as much as it is an ideological or feminist one. (Or, put another way, it’s an issue that shows that feminism is practical, for both men and women.)

Running a household is simply hard, hard work. The best way to make it easier is to make sure that everyone has more tools in their belts.