Across the globe, growing numbers of men are staying at home to raise their children. For some men this is due to unemployment, for other men it may be because their partner earns a higher income, and for some men it may be because they want to have the experience of being a primary caregiver.
Whatever the reason that men stay at home and care for their children, many such men face challenges undertaking a primary caregiving role. Challenges can include feeling isolated from other parents in spaces primarily occupied by mothers, feeling inadequate in regards to providing primary care, feeling questioned by others about why they are not working outside of the home, and worrying about how they might return to paid work in the future.
In many ways all of these challenges relate to how we think about masculinity and carework. Traditionally, and still very much in the present, it is expected that women will stay at home and raise children. Men, by contrast, are still very much expected to engage in paid work outside of the home. These types of assumptions can be a challenge to men who provide primary care to their children, who may feel compelled to engage withnormative assumptions about masculinity.
Some men may remain in paid work alongside provide primary care (e.g., by developing a business that they can run from home). Other men take to the Internet, and engage in ‘daddy blogging’, as a way to talk about their experiences and also to potentially make money. Some men form or join groups with other men who provide primary care, creating spaces that are largely fathers and children only.
In terms of how men who provide primary care are depicted by others, media representations of such men are increasing, as we explore in our new book Men Caregiving and the Media: The Dad Dilemma. Yet in our book we suggest that despite the rapid growth in media representations of men who provide primary care, there is still very much a tension between normative accounts of masculinity and men's role as primary caregivers. Seldom do we see celebrations of the relationship between caregiving and masculinity. Rather, we found that men are still often compelled to justify why they are staying at home.
As a counter to the types of limited representations we identified, we have suggested that what is needed is a dual focus. First, we need to continue to acknowledge that carework is gendered: women do most of the household and childcare labor. The expectation that women provide such labor – for free – needs to change. Second, we need to normalize men providing care for their children. We need less ‘house husbands’, and more routine, everyday representations of men loving, caring for, and raising their children.
This twofold focus is important: it eschews ‘praising’ men who provide primary care (at the expense of women who are rarely praised for raising their children), and instead situates carework in a broader gendered playing field where inequities continue, but where they can be addressed by strategies to promote men’s engagement and representation.
As we argue, normalizing men’s role as primary caregivers helps to reduce stigma, thus allowing for the development of strategies that seek to engage men as parents, and for these strategies to be successful. Whether these be gender-inclusive parent groups, or groups just for men, for example, these need to be premised on the normalization of men’s role in caregiving. It is no longer enough to praise men for taking on what has traditionally been framed as ‘women’s work’. Instead, we need to think differently about how we understand carework.