The Offensiveness of Saying "Mr. Mom" - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

stay-at-home-dad-stigmaMany of us are old enough to remember the Michael Keaton movie, Mr. Mom, from the early 80s. While easily and quickly forgotten when put up against his Beetlejuice in the category of “How To Be a Good Parent,” it’s interesting that the term, a “Mr. Mom,” has fallen out of favor and is fairly offensive now.

The stats are in: more and more fathers are stay at home dads:

  • They are doing the laundry
  • They are going to the park
  • They are cooking the meals.

Still, though, I had a mom say to me not so long ago , “They’re just like us,” to which I gently corrected her, “You mean, they’re just like fathers.”

The stay at home dad stigma prevails.

The Kinds of Dads We Watched Growing Up: Where the Stay At Home Dad Stigma Began

Many men are fine with staying home and wouldn’t have it any other way. They view it as a gift to be financially stable enough to be so present for their children, especially during the early years. They get to be at the day cares for pick up and drop off. They are organizing play dates, preparing meals, and going to the park.

But many men are also surprised that this is their parenting role.

This is more of a guess than a statistic, but most men in their 30s and 40s probably didn’t grow up with the idea that they’d have a job for a few years and then stay home while their co-parent went to work. It just wasn’t a reality we often saw in our families growing up or our friend’s families. It was barely shown on TV.

In fact it was so out of the ordinary that the title of an ’80s sitcom couldn’t even decide Who’s The Boss? (Answer: It was Mona). Could you imagine that show being created now? (Or that Tony Danza still has a career?)

“I Learned it By Watching You!”

If you’ve been reading this blog you know how high I value modeling. Kids learn how to be people by how they are treated and by what they see their parents doing when parents aren’t aware they are ‘teaching’. It’s the old, “I learned it by watching you” accusation (another ’80s throwback.)

What’s the message you took in from your parents when it came to being a father? Did you have a father who modeled total self-sacrifice for his family? Did you have a dad who was able to spend play time with you at all? Was he comfortable with it or was your mother popping in a lot to ‘help’ him out by correcting him? And do you want to parent differently?

Where Does He Go?

Some who study attachment in kids and parents talk about how the child views the traditional dad who leaves the home, but comes back at the end of the day. They theorized that the child had this fascination about what happened during these times—mom’s always here, taking care of my every need, but this guy gets to go out into the world and then returns. What’s out there in that big, crazy world that doesn’t include the playground and grandma’s house?

It can be helpful to note, especially if you’re having some ambivalent feelings about staying home, how you took in your father’s role. Do you unconsciously (or consciously) want to replicate who your dad is. Here’s a quick quote from someone I recently spoke with about dad’s and self-disappointment:

“My father was a relentless door holder for others, especially for women. Each time I walk out of a store and simply prop the door open behind me instead of stepping aside and letting her walk through I feel a tinge of guilt.”

This person took in his idea of a man’s role without trying to, without discussing it—just by witnessing it again and again. Not holding a door for a woman meant to him that he was somehow disappointing his dad. And this is about holding a door open, this is a “nice” thing to do—can you imagine all the instilled ideas about life and being a man that he also had?

Of Course You Have Conflicting Feelings

As a stay at home dad you may be excited about seeing all the milestones for your children that many working parents miss. But it makes sense if there were some ambivalence mixed up in there as well.

Maybe you find yourself defending the choice to be at home before someone even comments on it. Perhaps you hear backhanded compliments or passive aggressiveness (perhaps from your own parents–or your own partner?) that are just a part of the stay at home dad stigma. Just because it’s something you want to do, just because it’s financially savvy with day care costs, and just because it’s mutually agreed upon between you and your partner doesn’t mean it’s going to feel good all the time.

Men who become stay at home dads make a choice in the face of a lot of social pressure. There are some strong social ideas of what a man does, what a woman does, and, yes, even in Brooklyn, these can be present. While some people make fun of them and others laud them the fact is that the stay at home dad may have some conflicting feelings and that makes perfect sense.

School taught us about historical men who did “important” things—and also happened to be fathers. They invented, were presidents, climbed mountains, walked on the moon, and made huge scientific discoveries, and were still considered ‘family men.’ I take nothing away from these men who’ve accomplished these amazing things, but, yeah, they were probably not always home in time for supper and definitely were not present for every nap time, every feeding, every push on the swings, every play date, and every diaper change while doing whatever it was got them into my social studies text book.

Expect Fallout in No Matter What You Do

As more and more women shifted from being stay at home moms many also felt—and continue to feel—guilty and sad about that choice because many would like to have the chance to stay at home. Many can’t afford it. Many who chose to stay at home are shamed for making this choice, but that’s the most important part here: the choice. The personal choice.

If you are in the midst of making this decision now it may provide some clarity if you can remove some of the societal pressure for a few minutes and step away from any major statement you are making for The Fathers of America.

If you are financially able to make the decision either way and you want to stay at home, you can—and there will be fallout from yourself and others. If you want to go to work, you can—but other people are going to have something to say about it and you may have some regrets.

You should expect others to have an opinion and you should expect some ambivalence from yourself no matter what your choice is.

Either way, if the conflicting feelings about this decision are getting in the way of the enjoyment of your role as stay at home dads or working full time dads, please feel free to drop me a line and perhaps we can sort this out together.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been providing counseling for men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.