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Brave new dads

MMO interviews Brian Reid of Rebel Dad

If the Mothers Movement Online has a father-focused counterpart, it must be Rebel Dad. Launched in 2002 by Brian Reid -- a stay-at-home father and freelance journalist living in the Washington, DC area -- Rebel Dad "puts the stay-at-home dad trend under a microscope." The site offers (almost) daily servings of Reid's running commentary on fatherhood, caregiving and society. Rebel Dad also offers advice on how to start a local dads' group and lists selected resources for at-home dads.

Reid sees himself and other rebel dads at the cutting edge of a larger social trend -- the slow, steady movement toward gender equality in the home. Man, I sure hope he's right. The MMO interviews Reid about Rebel Dad and what's happening with today's at-home fathers.

MMO: 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?

Brian Reid: 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.

MMO: When and why did you decide to launch Rebel Dad? You recently started offering podcasts on the site -- what’s next?

Brian Reid: Rebel 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.

MMO: 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?

Brian Reid: 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.

MMO: 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?

Brian Reid: 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.

MMO: 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?

Brian Reid: 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 own terms.

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.

MMO: Have you followed recent news stories about the fathers’ rights movement? What’s your impression of these groups?

Brian Reid: 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.

MMO: Any big plans for Fathers’ Day?

Brian Reid: 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.

Rebel Dad:
A father puts the stay-at-home dad trend under the microscope


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