A number of women who quit their jobs when they become
mothers say they always planned to stay home when their children
were young. When you were growing up, did you ever fantasize about
being an at-home dad? What did you imagine fatherhood would be like?
I was taken by surprise by the at-home fatherhood thing, and I certainly
didn’t spend my youth dreaming about fatherhood, let alone
being an at-home dad. If anything, I had rather expected to be a
father like the one I had: a hard worker who cared deeply and passionately
about his kids, but not the one running the PTA.
That was my expectation
even after my daughter’s birth. But I was able to take nearly
four months of paternity leave, and my commitment to being involved
in her life snowballed from there. When it came time to make the
final arrangements at the daycare center, I had a breakdown that
caught me by surprise. The center wasn’t bad or dangerous
or uncaring. I just realized that I wanted to continue to see my
daughter grow as much as I could.
When and why did you decide to launch Rebel Dad? You recently started
offering podcasts on the site -- what’s next?
Dad is on its third year now; I launched in November of 2002. The
site was originally meant primarily as a personal reference. Since
becoming an at-home dad, I became fascinated with the job. I set
out to read everything I could on the lifestyle and quickly realized
that the stack of literature was rather meager. There was, however,
a growing number of stories and articles that I was tracking down
on the web. Every time I’d run across one, I’d print
it out. After a few months of this, my paper stack was getting large,
and I decided to just copy the URL electronically and stick it on
a free web page.
Over time, as the site’s
readership has grown, I’ve added more commentary, more interaction
in the comments threads and, as you point out, an occasional podcast.
I have no idea what’s next for the site -- as with any kind
of unpaid labor of love, the best I can hope is to keep it up for
the sake of the next information-starved at-home dad who logs on.
What are the biggest issues facing today’s at-home fathers?
What do you think is missing, in general, from the national dialog
on contemporary fatherhood?
Isolation remains the biggest hurdle for at-home dads. This is less
of a concern that it was a decade or two ago, when fathers said
they really were shut out of the informal at-home parent circles
at the playground or the neighborhood or the school. But those barriers
are beginning to break down, and I think the isolation is now often
more self-imposed. All people seek out others who are going through
similar experiences, and at-home dads simply have a harder time
finding men who can relate to exactly what they’re feeling.
This is not a particularly
crippling problem, and the happy truth is that there are not many
major issues facing at-home dads. Every couple of years, an at-home
dad talks of starting a national organization of some sort. Those
efforts invariably fail… mostly because there’s nothing
to lobby for.
The national dialogue
is another matter altogether. It’s not that there is some
element missing from the dialogue on fatherhood -- the dialogue
itself is missing.
There are a whole host
of areas in which father involvement is linked to a bevy of good
outcomes, yet talk about how to get men more involved in the lives
of their kids is most often limited to academic debates about welfare
reform. There is no broad-based push to get guys to play a larger
part in the lives of their kids. There are few prenatal classes
on fatherhood and little media attention paid to the working father.
(Compare this to the scorching -- though frequently banal -- dialogue
on contemporary motherhood.) Fortunately, this is changing.
A recent study from the Families and Work Institute suggests that
“Generation X” fathers are more likely than their baby boomer
co-workers to place equal value on having a career and having a
rewarding family life. Are most of the rebel dads out there younger
dads? If so, why do you think that is?
Yes, rebel dads trend younger, and I’ve been trying to tease
out exactly why that is. On a macro level, I think we’re beginning
to see the reality of egalitarian marriages catching up with the
promise. For a lot of couples, one career can’t be prioritized
over the other, which frees up the decision over who stays home.
Then there is the “Free
to Be You and Me” effect, in which children of the 1970s finally
incorporate the equality messages of their youth. Or it could be
a backlash against the screwed up work ethic of the 1980s.
But mostly I think it’s
a snowball effect enabled by everything above. Men now know that
they can be perfectly good parents. And we’re in an exciting
period now where every new at-home dad or every proudly involved
dad serves as a model to the new would-be at-home dad. The biggest
change between my generation and the one that preceded us is that
we all know that spending time with the kids is good and fun and
socially acceptable. And in that sense, we’re probably less
rebellious than the older guys who cleared the way for us.
When I read Daniel Jones’ anthology ("The Bastard on
the Couch") I was struck by how many fathers wrote openly about
the connection between doing more housework and child care and their
sense of having less power -- both in their relationships and in
society. Mothers experience this too, of course, but they rarely
use the word “power” to articulate it. How do rebel
dads negotiate conventional thinking about gender, particularly
the strange idea that manly men don’t do diapers or dishes?
Is this something fathers who are primary caregivers talk about?
I agree that a lot of the modern writing on fatherhood has to do
with the loss of power that comes with renegotiated household roles.
The best illustration of this is Austin Murphy’s "How
Tough Could it Be," a memoir of his six-month stint as a rebel
dad. It’s an agonizing read because -- as in many of the stories
in Daniel Jones’ collection -- he repeatedly assumes that
the only way to achieve success in the domestic realm is to do things
exactly as his wife did them. And it’s no wonder that he sounds
miserable most of the time: he’s not doing the job on his
The most thoughtful at-home
dads have really transcended the traditional roles. They are, generally,
uninterested in keeping a spotless house and unconcerned about their
failure to do so. (The annual at-home dad convention once featured
the serious suggestion that household toy cleanup be conducted with
a rake.) They have defined the role on their own terms.
This is probably similar
to what women have gone through in the workplace. To achieve success
in the business world, there are a number of different models to
follow, and being forced to adopt someone else’s strategy
inevitably leads to a loss of power.
Have you followed recent news stories about the fathers’ rights
movement? What’s your impression of these groups?
I’ve followed the recent stories with some interest, and I
have largely stayed out of the fray. Given the extreme passion of
that movement, I am simply not sufficiently armed with facts to
enter that debate nor do I wish to give up any time getting involved
in that shouting match. My impression is that there are individual
cases where men are harmed in custody disputes simply as a result
of their gender. But the fathers’ rights movement alleges
a system-wide bias that I, frankly, have yet to be convinced of.
(In contrast to the deep research on the financial cost of divorce
to women and children.)
It may be worth noting
that I have heard very little discussion about fathers’ rights
among the guys in national and local at-home dad groups. The prospect
of getting the short end of the stick in a custody dispute simply
never comes up.
Any big plans for Fathers’ Day?
For all the bluster on rebeldad.com, I really don’t like a
huge fuss. I’m sure I’ll get a sweet, hand-lettered
card from my daughter, which is all I could really ask for.