Stay-at-Home Dads Are Reshaping American Masculinity

Abstaining from the breadwinner role offers fathers an opportunity to redefine manhood for themselves.

Jaunty Junto / Getty

Traditional manhood, the kind that many young boys are taught at an early age, is made up of two ingredients: bodily strength and control, and breadwinner status as a husband and father. That’s the conclusion of Scott Melzer, a sociologist at Albion College who asks in his new book, Manhood Impossible: What happens when one or both of those ingredients are missing?

Melzer has spent his career studying how men respond when their masculinity is threatened, both individually and collectively. (His first book, Gun Crusaders, is about the National Rifle Association.) In Manhood Impossible, Melzer observes the behaviors and habits of four groups of men who are acutely aware of whether they’re living up to the manhood ideal: members of a Bay Area fight club, men in an online forum who chat about their anatomy and sexual performance, unemployed men, and stay-at-home dads.

Melzer claims that men tend to respond to their perceived failure at living up to the body and breadwinner ideals in a combination of four distinct ways: internalizing the perceived failure, attempting to repair the failure, compensating for the failure, or rejecting it and redefining what it means to be a man. In Manhood Impossible, he characterizes the stay-at-home dads, and in particular those who stay home voluntarily, as men who’ve recalibrated their personal definition of what manhood really means.

I spoke to Melzer about the unique plight of the stay-at-home dad and how the two-pronged “manhood test” has evolved—and not evolved—over time. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Ashley Fetters: How did you arrive at the conclusion that traditional masculinity is basically breadwinner status plus bodily strength and control?

Scott Melzer: What we find is that men rank these as the most important aspects of their identities as men. My research is mostly about how men respond when they fail to live up to expectations, and when they fall short on these two particular measures of manhood, this is where we see the most dramatic reactions.

Some of my research has examined how men who are in relationships with women are much more likely to engage in intimate-partner violence when they are failed breadwinners, and also when they’re doing what some might call “women’s work.” When their jobs are not providing them with a sense of masculine identity and status, they’re more likely to engage in competitive masculinity or compensatory violence, and use violence against women and partners to reassert their masculinity.

Fetters: Is there much research on how common it is to be a stay-at-home dad?

Melzer: There’s a small but growing body of research, starting in the past 10 to 15 years or so. I think these folks have been flying under the radar for a long time, even though with the Great Recession there was a pretty significant increase in the number of stay-at-home dads, many of whom were forced into that situation sort of against their will. By all accounts they’ve declined since the recession ended and the economy recovered. A lot of those men who were forced into being stay-at-home dads returned to the workforce if they desired to do so.

Fetters: What are some of the indicators that a stay-at-home-dad situation is going to work out well?

Melzer: Certainly resources matter. Whether parents have the financial resources to be able to choose to stay at home—and that usually means having a partner with a good income—matters. The politics and beliefs of the [potential stay-at-home dad’s] parents matter a lot, too—whether parents believe that it’s okay for the dad to be a stay-at-home dad. And the support and expectations that they receive from their families matter quite a bit. All those things are essential in determining whether someone can choose to be a stay-at-home dad and essentially withstand the inevitable critiques and questioning from others.

Fetters: In a lot of your anecdotes about the stay-at-home dads you spent time with, it seems they “found their groove” when they met other stay-at-home dads or joined groups for stay-at-home dads. Why does that help?

Melzer: Parenting young children in general can be a very isolating experience. And the men I spoke with feel that’s especially the case for them because their numbers are small, and many of them felt marginalized, or even distrusted and feared, by moms. So it’s an alien experience for many of these dads, and there are some unique gendered aspects of this experience that only other men would be able to relate to and understand. And so having that support is essential.

And I think because they’re challenging this ideal, right? Men are expected to be breadwinners, to work, not to be stay-at-home dads. To take on this huge social norm, it’s good to have a support network to lean on and to reinforce that you’re making a good choice. That’s really important when bucking social trends.

Fetters: It surprised me how many men told you that stay-at-home moms and the stay-at-home-mom community were not welcoming to them.

Melzer: I wondered how much of this was in their heads and how much was just that those are the experiences that stood out to them, and they were downplaying and minimizing all the times they were invited to playgroup and so forth. There were a range of experiences, but it does seem to be the case in my research and others’ research that many of them have multiple experiences of just not feeling welcomed by stay-at-home moms, for a variety of reasons. I would anticipate that changing as stay-at-home dads become more prevalent and passersby don’t look at them and think, “It’s Daddy’s day off,” or question whether they have some sort of ulterior motive, like picking up moms on the playground.

Fetters: Do you think stay-at-home dads will rise in number over time?

Melzer: Long term, yes. I think that’s going to take some time and some significant shifts in our thoughts about work and gender roles. We saw a huge spike with the recession and then a significant decline, but I think all the long-term social trends indicate that yes, we should see more growth based on women’s desire to be breadwinners, based on increasing numbers of same-sex couples who are getting married and having kids, and some shifts among men and their desire to be engaged parents.

If you look at younger generations, boys and men just express a much greater desire to prioritize family over work. But because they then encounter workplace cultures, an economic system, and a lack of family leave benefits that discourage them from prioritizing family, the change is slow. Perhaps when we start changing some laws, the U.S. might look more like northern European countries, and it’d be much easier for men to prioritize family a bit more and not feel like they’re failing as men when they make those decisions.

Fetters: It surprised me how much difference a supportive partner makes in whether men feel competent or fulfilled as a stay-at-home dad, particularly men who don’t end up staying home with their kids by choice.

Melzer: Partners really bolster unemployed men. Some of them talked about finding outlets including therapy or writing, but men are less likely to seek those sources of support. They’re more likely to be isolated, and have weaker social-relationship networks. So partners probably have an outsize presence for men in particular. Some partners are essential to help men stave off more serious depression and to—I don’t mean this in a condescending way—prop them up or pump up their egos a little, or just remind them, It’s not your fault, we’re in the midst of a recession. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the economy.

The healthier way to cope would absolutely be to find networks, support groups, and friends and family to talk about these issues and try to mitigate some of the consequences—of long-term unemployment, in particular. But we tell men to do the exact opposite, right? “Suck it up.” If you need or rely upon others, especially counselors, to help you, then that’s a sign of weakness—and weakness is typically the antithesis of masculine. You’re out of control, you’re weak, you need help: those are things that we socialize boys out of beginning at the earliest ages.

Fetters: Do you think this two-pronged ideal of masculinity—bodily control and power, plus breadwinner status—has relaxed its hold on men in recent years, or has it intensified?

Melzer: We’re in this period of time where there’s both progress toward gender equality in some ways and in other ways we’re stalled. Women have entered the paid labor force and their rate of participation looks somewhat comparable to men’s. There’s been huge transformations thanks to various social movements, women’s rights, and so forth. So in some ways we would expect that things would begin changing and some of these old ways might die off. But they’re fundamental, key aspects of men’s sense of identity, and they haven’t changed. There’s been no reduction in the importance of work for men.

Sure, it’s okay for men to kind of be co-breadwinners these days, but involuntarily unemployed men, or even some men who are stay-at-home dads, really struggle with not having a paycheck. That hasn’t changed much, despite the fact that women are taking on breadwinner responsibilities.

The body ideal may be more entrenched. There’s so much rapid change economically and technologically that all of us feel a bit out of control—and the easiest thing to control, in the grand scheme of things, is our bodies. So that’s something that we can maintain greater control over than, for example, our employment status.

That cuts across gender, too—we’re seeing all sorts of exercise revolutions from jogging and aerobics back in the day to bodybuilding and weight lifting, and, more recently, trends like paleo and CrossFit. Controlling our bodies seems like a kind of visceral response to a lack of control that we’re feeling in a society where the ground is constantly moving beneath us.