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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.

TheHoobie like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

I'm so glad you keep writing about this topic and this kind of show, James. My husband and I do a "split-shift" co-parenting arrangement to care for our three kids. (I work from 8:00 to 4:00 on weekdays, and he works evenings and weekends.) All of the families with parents who are our age we know make life work in different ways (in one family, mom is a doctor, and dad stays home with the kids; another couple owns their own business and can do a lot of work out of their home), but all the dads I know, to a man, are fully invested in parenting and think nothing of, say, changing a diaper, cleaning a bathroom, or telling a bedtime story. Another thing about all of the couples we know is that nobody expects the at-home parent to also be able to keep the house in apple-pie order! Maybe we're lucky/exceptions, but all the parents I know (mommies and daddies) have a generous understanding of how hard and complicated the different aspects of keeping a family going can be. We all cut each other a lot of slack.

I'm so glad that (despite the stutter-steps reflected in A&E's crappy marketing), TV is starting to reflect the increasing gender neutrality of work, childcare, housework, and family life in general. A gender neutrality that, just as you said, benefits everybody. Especially our kids! It feels so good to realize that to our kids, our arrangement will seem second nature. They'll grow up assuming that daddies and mommies can take care of babies and that mommies and daddies can work and make money. (Not to mention that, as Free To Be, You And Me knew 40 years ago, they will learn that housework sucks for everyone!) 

TheHoobie like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Oh, and, employers? You know and I know that my 40 hours a week of work is worth at least 1.5 times what you're paying me, so a) don't act like I need to work 60+ hours a week to prove my worth to you and b) seriously think about proving your worth to ME by being generous with the flex time and telecommuting. Just like the (true if rather sexist) adage that "A happy wife is a happy life," a happy employee is a really good employee.

Lucelucy like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

As someone who has put on more diapers than most men (big assumption here, but I'm going with it), those little sticky tabs have been known to tear off, especially when wrestling with a squirmy baby, so a handy role of duct tape would be - how shall I put this? - handy.


See, he's using duct tape on a diaper because he's too dumb to put it on the right way HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA


@RichGonzalez Oh my god thats wacky! 

@Lucelucy from my experience, the fail rate of the average diaper tab is maybe 1 in 200, regardless of how much the squirm. .5% is not grounds for any outside help. 


@JamesPaquette @RichGonzalez @LucelucyWhen my kids were about the age of the ones in the pic they thought it was hilarious to pull off their diapers and make a huge mess - I wish I'd thought of trying duct tape!

About time there was a show that shows Dads loving and enjoying fatherhood, I think it's especially good for boys and young men to be exposed to that. Excited to see it.