When I think of all the stay-at-home dads — or even really involved dads — that I know, none of them are parenting like the overachiever moms described by Judith Warner. These dads aren't overscheduling their kids or parenting in what Warner described as an “excessive, control-freakish way." They're not fixated on the choices of other dads (or moms for that matter), and don't feel the need to "prove" they are better parents.
Why is that?
Why would men, who are raised in and subjected to the same societal expectations and definitions of success, but who decide to stay home with the kids, have such a different parenting style?
My best guess is that it is all about different gender expectations and the different pressures men and women face in our competitive, individualistic society, and especially in the context of middle and upper-middle class America.
A dad who decides to stay home full-time with his kids has to make a major identity shift. He has to reject society's expectations of him as a male, and change his identity from one focused on "achieving" in a material sense to one focused on "caring." He's giving up a career, money, status and prestige, in short, everything by which our society defines success, in order to care for his kids.
(Of course he still has his male privilege, that is, he still knows that, push comes to shove, he's still a guy, that society values him as a guy, and he can choose to get back into the professional workforce somehow.)
The SAHD has already decided to reject society's definition of "achievement" and "ambition," he's already surrendered himself to a different mode of being. So his time with his kids reflects that different mode.
No need to be the perfect overachieving dad. No need to overschedule the kids, no need to compete with other dads (or moms), no need to prove in the realm of parenting that he's successful in those traditional terms. Dad can accept that parenting is not about ambition and achievement because he's had to move to a different place in order to be a SAHD.
If a mom decides to stay home full-time, it's also a serious, hard decision. Like the dad, she too is giving up career, money, status and prestige. For these moms too a key part of their identity is society's definitions of achievement and ambition. As Warner explains,
We saw ourselves as winners. We'd been bred, from the earliest age, for competition. Our schools had given us co-ed gym and wood-working shop, and had told us never to let the boys drown out our voices in class. Often enough, we'd done better than they had in school. Even in science and math. And our passage into adulthood was marked by growing numbers of women in the professions. We believed that we could climb as high as we wanted to go, and would grow into the adults we dreamed we could be.
She's clearly talking about a class-specific group here, but let's set that fact aside for the moment (since many SAHDs are from that same class).
For women from this class background, maybe it is much harder to make the shift that the SAHDs have made. Success for women of this class is defined in the traditional masculine, materialistic way: power career, climbing the professional ladder, high-status jobs, more money, high-status lifestyle.
This is a big change from the past, when expectations for women were quite different, when women were oppressed by a traditionally subordinate and dependent role. So we have progressed as a society because women can now be as ambitious and successful as men.
But do they have a choice? Can a woman feel successful if she does not meet the traditional masculine measures of achievement and success in our competitive, materialistic society?
I think maybe that it's hard for these women to do what the SAHD's do (that is, shift out of this achievement mode), because for women, more is at stake. Foresaking a career and the dominant definitions of achievement seems to mean reverting to that oppressed, traditional role described so well by Betty Friedan. And once you revert, there's no going back.
So maybe what's happening among some women is that they are hanging onto society's definition of ambition and success, and just transferring it to their roles as moms. That definition of ambition and success is so central to their identities, in part because if they give it up they fear reverting to the old, oppressed roles and identities described by Friedan.
So momming becomes competitive, it becomes focused on achievement, especially achievement of their kids as the measure of their own success.
I think since the stay-at-home dads have had to make a decision to downshift, and because they have that male identity to fall back on, they are in some ways more able to shift into that non-achievement oriented mode of caring, outside of and different than the competitive definition of "success" that dominates our society.
The question then becomes, how can women downshift without reverting to the past. How can they do what SAHDs have done, how can they come to terms with an identity that is not in line with society's definition of "success" and "achievement," how can they shift to an identity that values caring and defines success in noncompetitive and nonmaterialistic ways? I do know some SAHMs who seem to have done that, who are not parenting in the ways described by Warner. While they are highly educated, they also tend to be much more counter-cultural than Warner’s moms. I’m not sure, this seems like it would be a great area for some research.
On a final note, Warner is right about the need for societal support for families and children. But based on the above hunches, I don't think that alone would do anything at all to relieve the anxieties and overachieving parenting style of the moms she focuses on.
What it would do is provide needed support and relief to moms and dads who just want to spend more time with their kids. And that's an important first step.
Reposted in slightly revised form from daddychip2