Initially, my husband joked that his definition of a “feminist” was someone who hated men and burned bras. When he saw I was displeased and was hoping for a serious discussion, the grin on his face disappeared and he went on to explain his true thoughts. In his opinion, feminists are simply people who want women to have equal rights to men—period. (I was actually pretty impressed by his response because this was an off-the-cuff response and unlike me he had not even had to consult the dictionary.) I followed up, “So, would you consider yourself to be a feminist?” He crumpled his brow and squinted. He explained technically he fit the definition, but the term has been warped and has different connotations these days. As a result, he indicated he wasn’t offended by having the label applied to him, but he didn’t exactly embrace it himself. I told him that I agreed the term had been warped, and for example there seemed to be a popular idea that feminism and the promotion of abortion were linked. He thought that was an unfair association. In his opinion, feminists did not want or encourage women to have abortions, but he conceded that access to safe abortions was an important issue to many.
Then my husband asked, “What about men’s rights? What about masculinism?” I laughed and sarcastically asked in what ways men suffered discrimination. After I posed the question, I immediately realized what an incredibly insensitive remark that was for me to make to him in particular. My husband has actually been a real trail-blazer on gender issues, and has not always been warmly embraced as a result.
My husband was a successful corporate accountant for over a decade. By all accounts, he excelled at his profession and was a valued employee. He was promoted consistently and rewarded generously. Before we became parents, we always assumed we’d be a dual career family. Both our moms always worked outside the home. It never occurred to us that our kids would not be in day care or with a nanny during the work day. But when we actually became parents, finding decent child care was a bigger struggle than we had ever imagined.
We went through several options, but they were very expensive, not what we had hoped for, and at the time our only child was frankly not thriving. It broke our hearts and led to a lot of soul-searching. We finally came to the surprising conclusion that one of us needed to stay home full-time, particularly since we were about to become parents to another child. We talked about it at length, pondered the matter carefully from all sides. We were both willing to put our children ahead of our career. Finally, for a host of reasons, we decided the best solution for our family was for my husband to quit his job. It was a scary decision on many levels. It also seemed a little revolutionary. We did not know any stay-at-home dads. Heck, at that time, we did not know that many stay-at-home moms!
When my husband turned in his resignation, shock and disbelief were the chief reactions at his company. He had just been offered (and had turned down) a promotion to management. Because he had cited the needs of his young kids as the reason for declining it, some managers already knew his priorities. But even they never thought he would do something so extreme like stay home as the primary caregiver to his kids. After the big announcement, some of his colleagues quietly came to his office, shut the door and asked him to confide in them. They thought he had accepted a great job at a competitor company and wanted to know if they could go work for him. They couldn’t believe a smart guy with a promising career would “throw it away” to take care of his kids.
I was incredibly proud of my husband’s tremendous courage to defy stereotypical gender roles and buck societal expectations. And I was awed by his dedication to our young family and his great love for our kids. I was euphoric that our children were going to be nurtured by the constant presence and love of their father. But when I shared with friends our exciting news, the reaction was polite and subdued. People did not express the enthusiasm I was expecting. “Good for him” was about as much excitement as anyone could muster. Certainly no one ever said it, but my sense was that they secretly thought my husband had been canned or they looked down on him for not having more drive. On a personal level, it was quite disappointing and surprising.
When he began staying at home full-time, my husband pretty quickly realized he and our kids were in a rather isolated situation. There weren’t other stay-at-home dads around. To my surprise, the stay-at-home moms were not very welcoming in most cases. I had had plenty of male friends over the years; in our generation, I didn’t think there would be a gender divide in social settings. I was wrong. Dads were explicitly not welcome at some of the play groups in our area.
In other contexts, the same attitude was conveyed implicitly. While waiting for the kids at dance or karate classes, the moms often complained about their husbands to one another, and refused to make eye contact or speak with my husband. Initially I thought he was being paranoid or exaggerating, but after a good deal of evidence, I came to agree with him that he was being shunned. He eventually found a local stay-at-home dads support group, but there were only three other families. Unfortunately, each family lived in geographically divergent parts of a large metropolitan area, which made it impracticable to get together much.
When we moved to Arizona, things were not much easier. Many stay-at-home moms seem to view my husband with suspicion. He takes our kids to regular park get-togethers with big groups, and most of the mothers will not even speak to him. It is very isolating and sad. But fortunately at one group there is often another dad or two that shows up. One has a job where he works nights. Another has his own business. They have a terrific guy-camaraderie.
As our kids get older, my husband would like to go back to work, at least part-time. He had a lot of success as an accountant, but it was never his passion. However, he has always had an interest in nursing. He loves science and helping people one-on-one. When we first met, we were volunteers for our church at a local hospital. Unlike me, he was very comfortable ministering to people with serious illnesses and seemed to put them at ease. He now wants to go back to school to be an RN, and hopes to eventually work in a hospital setting. Of course, nursing is a profession traditionally dominated by women. He has been reading for several years about the discrimination men experience on the job. It is rather discouraging, but if that is the field he wants to enter, he has no choice but to be a trail blazer—again.
In conclusion, I think my husband is right that men suffer gender discrimination, too. I think that the term “feminist” does not seem to acknowledge that explicitly, but it should. Or perhaps a whole new term (without the negative connotations of “feminist”) is needed to denote support for equality of both genders, and for the abolition of all gender-based stereotypes. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what term would encompass all of that. I’m open to suggestions.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.