Why men need to embrace their nurturing side

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

I was sipping my morning coffee while reading an article about stay-at-home fathers from the Journal of Men's Studies recently. Aundrea Snitker, a faculty member at Warner Pacific University, had conducted interviews with stay-at-home dads from across the United States, and the responses surprised and disappointed me.

The title of the article, "Not Mr Mum: Navigating Discourses for Stay-at-Home Fathers," points to a recurring conversation in the interviews. Snitker talked to dads about their feelings regarding being called "Mr Mum," and most of them distanced themselves from the label. One father explained, "When you are calling a stay-at-home dad 'Mr Mum,' you are saying that they are doing a woman's work. We don't use terms associated back to women."

I was confused. Why would men who engage in the nurturing work of full-time child care, a role traditionally associated with femininity, resist being feminised?

My time as a stay-at-home dad has taught me to embrace my nurturing side and other qualities traditionally associated with mothers. I expected other men in the role of stay-at-home father to be comfortable with the feminine, too. I had hoped that stay-at-home dads would provide a safe place to embrace feminine traits in our hypermasculine society. My disappointment turned from frustration to judgment. I looked down upon my gender with annoyance.

But a few days after finishing the article, I was reflecting on my first year as a stay-at-home father and remembered my response to my wife's attempts to get me to wear a baby wrap. I rejected it several times, dismissing it as a mother's clothing, not suited for a man. When I agreed to try it, I felt awkward with the long band of cloth wrapped around my torso. Men don't wear baby wraps. Maybe a backpack-type carrier for a hiking trip but not a thin, cloth wrap. What will other guys think?

And then another memory, of a blog post I wrote for another parenting website: "8 things not to say to a stay-at-home dad." I cringed when I recalled my words, particularly my response to being called Mr Mum. "No, I am not Mr Mum. That title was funny 20 years ago, but now it's dumb. I am a man, not a woman. As a stay-at-home dad, I don't need to alter my gender to want to care for my children. Stop asking that question." I can hear resistance pulsating in my words.

Why did I resist being feminised? The best answer I can give is fear. I feared being seen as weak by other men, feared being rejected and ostracised. Putting on a baby wrap or allowing others to call me Mr. Mum would have gone against traditional expectations of what is masculine: toughness, emotional stoicism and bread-winning. Our social structure privileges men who embrace traditional masculinity and takes power from those who threaten it. I did not want to risk losing even more power because I felt I had lost enough by becoming a stay-at-home father.

Many stay-at-home dads, including myself, are guilty of trying to have it both ways - to maintain the privilege and power given to us by our male-dominated society while performing a role traditionally done by women. Snitker describes this dynamic: "Although by staying home, in some ways, these stay-at-home fathers continue to challenge traditional gender expectations around caregiving, in many ways, they continue to benefit and affirm the power and privilege associated with masculinities."

I know many fathers who see no harm in maintaining a traditional masculine identity. They don't see the power imbalance between men and women as problematic, and they believe undoing it will harm men. Possibly. But I don't think they are considering the larger cost of subscribing to the traditional ideas of what is masculine - the damage done to our sons.

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When fathers reject the feminine we deny our sons access to the full range of their humanity. Teaching them to suppress feelings and assume a tough facade undermines their emotional well-being. We are, essentially, asking them to be something other than human.

When you see boys taught to hide sensitivity and put on hardened masks; when you hear someone telling a 4-year-old to "take it like a man"; when you see boys explode with violence because they have no constructive way to express emotions; when you see girls encouraged to embrace things that are traditionally masculine but boys given no leeway to do things that are traditionally feminine; when you see the suicide statistics of males vs. females - then you will understand why it is necessary to embrace the feminine.

I want my sons to have the opportunity to access their whole selves. It baffles me that we teach boys that nurturing, empathy and emotional expressiveness are the traits of women. I would argue that these are the basic traits that make us human. Both men and women have the capacity to access these traits if given an opportunity. So, to facilitate a generation of men who feel free to embrace these traits, we need a generation of fathers who are willing to undo their resistance.

A few weeks ago at the grocery store, I scanned the checkout lanes for the least busy one in hopes of quickly passing through and avoiding a meltdown from two impatient boys.

"Ya'll come over here, honey," said an elderly woman in a green apron, waving us toward her register. "Do you want some stickers?"

Henry, my 4-year-old, grabbed them and plastered them on the back of his 11-month-old brother. As she scanned our groceries, Henry shouted and slung open the cooler door, while Theo mashed banana on his face and rubbed the remains on the cart. I jammed my debit card into the machine and entered my PIN, hoping to get them strapped into car seats soon. I stared at the debit machine, mostly ignoring the cashier, until she asked, "Are you Mr. Mum?"

I raised my head and saw her warm smile. If she had asked me this question a few years ago, I probably would have felt annoyed but politely said, "No." But I stopped myself from reacting negatively. I looked her in the eye. Smiled.

"Yes," I said."That is my official title."

The Washington Post