by L. G. William Chapman,  B.A., LL.B.

People think nothing of painting housewives with the same brushstroke. Women who stay at home to look after the house and to raise the children are universally portrayed in a less than flattering light, frequently with condescension at best –  as though cooking, financial management and child rearing were somehow the task of an untrained servant class only.

While that may have been true at one time in history for a select few it certainly no longer washes for most modern families. Within the past twenty years or slightly more I have discovered that more and more families are making pragmatic financial decisions regarding who – the husband or the wife – stays at home with the children. Basically, if the wife’s job is either more lucrative or more predictable, then the husband is stay-at-home. From what I’ve observed the decision isn’t always clear-cut.  In one instance for example, the husband was a qualified public school teacher who could essentially anticipate the many benefits touted for that profession; the wife was a banker with an equally favourable outlook. They ended by deciding that the husband would stay in the home with the children and the wife went to work everyday with her briefcase.

A stay-at-home dad (alternatively, stay at home father, house dad, SAHD, house husband, or house-spouse) is a father who is the main caregiver of the children and is the homemaker of the household. As families have evolved, the practice of being a stay-at-home dad has become more common, and socially more acceptable.

Pre-industrialisation, the family worked together as a unit and was self-sufficient. When affection-based marriages emerged in the 1830s, parents began devoting more attention to children and family relationships became more open. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, large-scale production replaced home manufacturing; this shift, coupled with prevailing norms governing sex or gender roles, dictated that the father become the breadwinner and the mother the caregiver.  Beginning during World War II, many women entered the workforce out of necessity; women resumed the caregiver position after the war, but their new-found sense of independence changed the traditional family structure together with cultural shifts leading to the feminist movement and advances in birth control. Some women opted to return to the care giver role. Others chose to pursue careers. When women chose to work outside of the home, alternative childcare became a necessity. If childcare options were too costly, unavailable, or undesirable, the stay-at-home dad became a viable option.

Recognizing  a trend in this arena of society has taken me a number of years.  It is not the type of information I have ever courted for any reason and it is only by coincidence that I have encountered what remains largely a novelty – house husbands. Yet in the several instances with which I am familiar (including the casual encounter I had today) there are certain similarities which are emerging. Not surprisingly a distinguishing feature of all the alliances is that at the outset the parties are young (as are their children). It readily comes out that both parents are determined not to farm the care and upbringing of their children to a paid nominee (even where the arrangement might preserve the dignity of a nanny). Instead the parents have obviously addressed the balance of strictly financial considerations and the value of personally overseeing the upbringing of their children.

Though it is popular to imagine in this modern age of liberalism that concern about sexual inclination has all but disappeared, my perception is that while it may be willingly tolerated it is certainly not absently pursued. To suggest therefore that a woman who works out of the house somehow “wears the pants in the family” or that a stay-at-home husband is correspondingly feminine or submissive is a complete distortion (except perhaps unwittingly in the mind of a third party bystander). What I will say however is that it has been my experience that all of the house husbands whom I met tended to be “softer” (in the sense of sympathetic) and more intellectual than what one would expect to see on a television sit-com for example. This of course is an egregious comparison but it captures a scintilla of truth.

Perhaps my observation arises from a perception of the didactic bent which of necessity stimulates conversation and learning, clearly useful talents in matters of pedagogy generally. This trait is frequently combined with a manifest pleasure in particularity and precision which tends to stimulate quality and thoroughness. And there has always been an over-riding literary depth and intellectual acuity which many younger men either don’t possess or are won’t to divulge. The truth is that men outside or inside the home are often tied to misaligned preconceptions.

The young chap whom I met today, besides being a house husband, is a contractor and a meticulous one at that. Interestingly he reflected his innate hesitancy (and polar maverick attitude) by telling me on the one hand that he deliberately withholds disclosure of his East European ethnic roots until he is assured of its utility while on the other hand cavalierly volunteering to me that he is a stay-at-home husband. It was for me an interesting mix of secrecy and openness, conservatism and liberalism, hesitancy and brazenness.

I suspect that these men, being as they are on the cusp of a relatively new social trend, rather take pleasure in stunning their unsuspecting audience with unconventionality. And who can blame them?  One is never assured – especially in the midst of an entirely new acquaintance – just how the intelligence will be received.  No doubt the house husbands have encountered the usual platitudes and expressions of feigned buoyancy and familiarity which accompanies the disclosure of any singularity, whether it involves the potentially provocative subjects of sexuality, religion or race. It may be a prejudice of my own that I tend to view these social renegades as de facto geniuses in their own right. My instinct alerts me to tread gingerly when in the midst of these nonconformists. As with any “special” person there is always the scope for runaway imagination (perhaps not unlike that afforded the Suffragettes in their day). The stay-at-home father no doubt continues to battle stereotypic expectations due to traditional family structures. There are also the very real difficulties encountered by men attempting to access “parenting benefits, communities and services targeted at mothers”. In some instances the choice to be a stay-at-home father is tantamount to a self-inflicted wound:

Depending on the country or region, a stay-at-home dad might find more or less social support for his decision. In regions where traditional roles prevail, a stay-at-home dad might be shunned by stay-at-home mom’s peer groups. In order to find support for their choice, these men have created and joined many support networks.

Still, many men struggle to find acceptance within the role of stay-at-home dad despite the many gains that have been made. Many worry about losing business skills and their “professional place in line”. There is a common misconception that stay-at-home dads cannot get a job and therefore must rewrite the typical family roles, forcing the wife into the workforce. In the United Kingdom, some househusbands say their wives lost respect for them, divorced them, then won custody of the children.

The line between working/stay-at-home mom and dad may become increasingly blurred as technology continues to develop. The virtual office is now commonplace.  More and more organizations prefer to hire independent contractors.  There may foreseeably be a large-scale return to custom-made products whose fabrication encourages cottage industry. We’ve already seen the wholesale evaporation of the so-called “bricks and mortar” retail stores. It is hardly an inductive leap to imagine employers relying upon employees to “house” themselves in their own digs rather than office buildings or towers. There is of course the commensurate discussion of the tax treatment of residential and business allocations within the same property, not to mention the alleviation of at least some of the current housing problems.

Like the waves of so many evolving trends, the awakening of society to changing roles between men and women will likely precipitate many welcome and unanticipated alterations.  We mustn’t allow ourselves to be bound to the past for no reason other than fear of the future.