We need a new vocabulary to describe men who choose to be at home as caregivers all or part of the time. In my last post I linked to Abigail Rine's description of her "feminist housedude," a term that is catchy but unlikely to spread beyond the hipper spots on the West coast. Mr. Mom is obviously out, as is househusband. Stay-at-home dad is neutral but not exactly enticing.
One alternative is the phrase that a number of men are using, calling themselves "work-at-home" dads. Most of them mean that they are working on income-generating projects out of the home while also taking care of kids, but we use work-at-home mothers and work-at-home fathers for any parents who are not actually going into an office, whether they are working for pay or not? Or we could try to ignore gender altogether and call men or women spending time at home caring for children, aging parents, or any other family member needed care full-time or part-time caregivers, while calling anyone who works for pay, whether from home or an office, a full-time or part-time breadwinner.
Caregivers and breadwinners is the right frame of reference for thinking about work-family issues as a whole, as it takes account of both straight and gay men and women in a wide variety of roles. But it feels too abstract—dare I say it, too academic—to be part of everyday conversation. Similarly, work-at-home mothers and work-at-home fathers seems too politically correct and simply does not provide the information that the questioner wants to know, rightly or wrongly, which is whether you work for pay or not. The deeper problem, of course, is that when someone asks you "what do you do," unless you tell them you work for pay they will conclude that you don't actually "do" anything. Caregiving doesn't register as an occupation, no matter how demanding and rewarding it might be. But that's a much bigger conversation for another day.
My point in raising the entire question of a vocabulary to describe men at home is to find a way to make male caregiving attractive to men—indeed to make it cool. Any term that is just a male version of a female term, like househusband instead of housewife, won't do it. It is easier for a woman to be masculine than for a man to be feminine, the gay rights movement notwithstanding. Stay-at-home father does not have that problem, but in a society that prizes dynamism and movement as much as Americans do, any label that starts with "stay" is not going to be cool. Contrast "stay at home" with "go out into the world": which would you prefer?
I thought of "full-time father," because "father" and "fatherhood" have positive, powerful connotations in our society. The problem there, however, is that it implies that men who work for pay are part-time fathers, a label that I would vehemently reject if applied to me as a breadwinner. No matter where I am or what I'm doing, I'm always a mother (and a daughter, wife, sister, etc). But how about "hands-on dad"? It sounds active and ties into the positive male value of being "handy," meaning a man who can fix things. In the same vein, I've been playing around with the idea of "maker." Women have long preferred "homemaker" to "housewife," for good reason, because "homemaker" describes at least part of what they actually do—making a house into a clean, provisioned, well-maintained, efficient, attractive, nourishing, and nurturing place to be.
Suppose men who are home were to call themselves "makers." The maker movement has been primarily focused on DIY techies who tinker and make new products out of used computer parts. But it can also include the revival of traditional crafts, many of which were a male preserve like wood-working, metal-working, or small-scale farming. Richard Sennett's book The Craftsman takes this vision one step further, arguing that craftsmanship is "the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake," focusing on the satisfaction of competence and the work itself rather than on compensation for it. That is precisely the satisfaction I get when I cook a meal, organize a closet (something that happens all too rarely), or make a space beautiful. Based on my husband, an admittedly limited data set, men who take over a household may take enormous pleasure in surmounting logistical challenges, developing systems that work smoothly and efficiently for everything from getting the kids out of the house for school to buying staples in bulk over the Internet. Women could of course call themselves makers as well.
What do you think? Could men at home caring for their children and running a household call themselves makers? Hands-on dads? Write in and suggest your own preferred terms. Language shapes the way we think and thus the way we act. So let's start changing the choices available to men, and thus to women, with the words we choose.