Have we moved away from “Mr. Mom” portrayals of stay-at-home dads? Well, sort of

A new paper in Gender & Society looks at how portrayals of stay-at-home dads in print media have changed over the last 29 years — and finds that support for fathers who stay at home to take care of their kids is “conditional,” depending on whether those dads lost their jobs or whether they chose to stay home.

Arielle Kuperberg, associate professor of sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Pamela Stone, professor emerita of sociology at Hunter College, and Torie Lucas, then a graduate student at UNC Greensboro, used LexisNexis Academic to search news articles published about stay-at-home dads between 1987 and 2016, coming up with a collection of 94 articles published in magazines and national and local newspapers. (13 of the articles, or about 14%, came from The New York Times, the most of any outlet. Eight were from The Washington Post, and the rest are scattered among around three dozen other newspapers.)

Kuperberg and Stone previously researched print news coverage of stay-at-home moms, and Kuperberg’s husband became a stay-at-home dad a few years after that article came out. She noticed that people’s reactions to her husband staying home were “strange.”

“This was a few years after the Great Recession and I knew a lot of people who were becoming stay-at-home dads besides my husband,” she said, “but also, once I told people, a lot of people kind of, like, came out of the closet about having a secret stay-at-home husband.”

Kuperberg and Strong found that coverage of stay-at-home dads increased over time: In the 1980s and 90s, “there were very few articles that focused on stay-at-home dads at all, and the ones that did very much focused on the stigma,” Kuperberg said.

After the Great Recession of 2008, though, they found “a tipping point”: The numbers of fathers staying at home for economic reasons increased, articles about them increased, and there was “a qualitative change in terms of how these dads were being discussed,” Kuperberg said — but only when men were staying home because of economic changes, like losing their jobs.

Dads who weren’t staying home because of unemployment, but because they’d chosen to, “were still the group most likely to be described as experiencing stigma,” Kuperberg said. “We conclude that society has become more forgiving of men who are losing their jobs and choosing to become stay-at-home dads, especially right after this period when that was a very common experience, but that stigma is still there for dads who voluntarily opt out of [working outside the house].” From a blog post that Kuperberg and Stone wrote about their paper:

News articles about stay-at-home dads often focused on the stigma and hardships that these dads faced in their everyday lives. In the 94 articles we analyzed, stay-at-home dads discussed being laughed at, dismissed, or even accused of being a pedophile while at the playground with their child. They were often described as being shunned by mothers and ridiculed by their friends. Fathers discussed feeling like “less of a man” because they could not financially provide for their families, and over half were described as feeling isolated and experiencing stress because of their role. Many recounted being called “Mr. Mom”, the title of a 1980s movie about an inept stay-at-home dad. This phrase reinforced the idea that active parenting was something that women do, not men. Further reinforcing this idea, some dads were instead excessively praised for doing the most basic chores with their child (like bringing them to the grocery store).

But the focus on stigma lessened over time, as more dads began to stay home with children. After the Great Recession resulted in high rates of unemployment, dads who had lost their jobs and took on caretaking roles at home were no longer described as experiencing stigma, and were discussed sympathetically and supportively. Accounts of stigma experiences didn’t disappear, however; instead they were mostly confined to another type of stay-at-home dad — those who had chosen to stay home with their children, and hadn’t been forced into the role by lay-offs.

Here, from the paper, are some of the ways that staying home with children was framed as a “choice”:

Staying home was usually described as a “choice,” in language echoing articles about at-home mothers. Titles of articles included “For more fathers who stay at home, it’s a choice” and “They’re stay at home dads, by choice, and loving it” (emphases added). Eighty-two percent (87) of reports of fathers and 76% (71) of articles included rhetoric about “choosing” or “making a decision” to stay at home — sometimes at odds with other details. Five fathers who initially went home because of unemployment framed this as a choice to not look for new employment. One article was titled “More fathers choosing to stay home with kids after job losses” (emphasis added). Another father unable to work outside the home after work-related injuries was described as staying home with his newborn because he “jumped at the chance.” One article, describing a father laid off right when their daycare provider left the country, stated “Staying home was a choice he and his wife made together. ‘We knew it was the best decision, and we knew he would do a great job at it,’ [his wife] stated” (emphasis added).

The researchers also found that news coverage of stay-at-home dads — like much coverage of stay-at-home moms — tended to focus primarily on wealthy families and highly educated men who were leaving either highly paid careers or “high-prestige,” artsy, creative jobs.

But less-educated parents of both genders are more likely to be stay-at-home parents. “The media tends to focus on elites,” Kuperberg said. “And part of that is who is in the media, and who they have access to, and who they know” — journalists, in other words, may be more likely to know, and cover, the “high-prestige” stay-at-home parents, and those are also more likely to be the people who read the coverage.

The full paper is here.

Photo by Donnie Ray Jones used under a Creative Commons license.

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