One Friday night, seventeen years ago, I left my job as a technical author with a software company in Cambridge, England. On Monday morning, I was in a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, knowing nobody, with no access to house, schools and a four-year-old and a one-year-old in my sole charge. We had just waved good-bye to Mummy as she left with her new briefcase for her new career. Then the emotional limpets turned on me and have not let me go to this day, seventeen years later, although their grip is starting to lessen and it is time to move on.
When I took on the mantle of a nurturing, supportive home-maker, I generally preferred the company of women. I assumed in a warm, fuzzy, and uncritical way that women were, with a few exceptions, essentially far nicer, more complete creatures than men. This was an assumption that the female members of my family had long maintained was not true.
Unprepared for any social difficulties and prejudices in my new life, I was propelled into a world of mothers. It was a difficult lesson to learn, as I had assumed, with my credible belief in feminism, that women, en masse, would welcome what I was doing and who I was. After all, weren’t women supposed to be more expressive and in touch with their feelings? Didn’t they like expressive men? Wouldn’t they be pleased that my wife had the opportunity to have a career?
I was ripe for enlightenment.
Even today, having set up homes on three continents, deeply submerged myself in the lives of our two children, supported my wife’s career, cooked countless meals, ironed thousands of blouses, and been the constant domestic center of our family, I still encounter prejudice from both women and men.
There are many reasons for this.
Overall, being a man in a world of children and mothers challenges the existing social order. Some women do not trust their husbands (let alone other men help) to bring up their own children. Husbands do not trust their wives enough to allow them friendships with at-home-dads.
Female prejudice first.
I was standing alone outside the school gates in Nairobi trying to look encouraging, non-threatening, and asexual — difficult with a beard — desperate to escape from loneliness and isolation. As new arrivals, my boys needed access to playmates. After a time, a short mother detached herself from a group of women and came towards me. She looked me up and down and said in her regional English accent: “my Brian’s not afraid of a hard day’s work,” turned on her heels, rejoined the perfumed pride, leaving me utterly speechless.
As I distanced myself from the deeply hurtful woman, I came to realize that her outburst raised far more questions about her and her sense of self-worth than it did about me. Did she think her own life was that worthless? Did she really imagine that what she did — raising her children, running her household — had no value? But then the career of a homemaker is, like teaching and nursing, undervalued by society. It is easy for those of us who undertake the rearing of our children to underestimate our own worth and contribution.
I was different, certainly. Unlike the woman’s manly husband who spent his life training Kenyans to kill other Africans, I was involved in nurturing and loving two little people instead. Somehow this made me less of a man in her eyes. To her I was not the gentle, pleasant, and benevolent kind of guy I thought I was, but a nasty threat and probably a pervert as well.
Not all mothers have been that bovine or vituperative. They have either overcome their own prejudices, or simply been blessed with generous natures that have allowed them to have confidence in me. Two became staunch friends and long-term allies. Others have been quietly loyal, supportive, and helpful.
Male prejudices are present too, from the slight bristle, suspicion, and defensiveness evident in less secure men (usually of the jock persuasion), to out-and-out jealousy that drove a friendship underground.
A female acquaintance of mine was ordered to stop her friendship with an at-home-dad. The husband was between jobs and discovered his wife had a life of her own and a supportive friendship with this man. Yet, this was a person who traveled with female colleagues, stayed in the same hotels as them, swam with them in the pool, and enjoyed late dinners and business receptions together.
‘But that is work,’ the man apparently protested.
‘And what at-home-dads and moms do isn’t work?’ I wanted to say.
’What about his friendships at work with women? He is allowed them, she isn’t?’ Hardly seemed fair.
Sometimes male jealousy has been simply surreal. D was the mother of four children. Her youngest and mine became the best of friends and were constantly at each other’s houses. I liked to encourage this friendship; the mother read and was intelligent and likable. Once a month or so, I would hold a lunch party for four or so of my fellow mothers. It was natural that I should invite D. Her husband initially refused to let her come. In the end, a compromise was reached and she was permitted to attend as long as she left before the dessert. To this day, I still wonder quite what kind of behavior D’s husband imagined the arrival of the profiteroles would provoke in his decent, loyal wife.
There were rare women indeed who trusted me — a man, and therefore a potential pedophile — to bathe their children, and whom I trusted in return, to let our children sleep over when our spouses were traveling. Those who understood I was responsible enough to watch over the kids at the pool, or take them with my boys on a day out, or answer an emergency call.
At-home-dads have come to share and understand the difficulties, frustrations, and need for self-sacrifice that traditionally have been the province of women when it comes to child rearing and running a home. We have also found a rich quality of life, an intensity of relationships with the little marvels who grow before our eyes. No wonder some women are so protective of their role. It is special.
I was in a position to see behind the veil, to look at the world that is very largely obscured from husbands, just as their work and relationships are largely hidden from their wives. I learned something of the husbands too from women who would share their lives with me. The picture was not always pretty. No wonder a few men felt threatened. But mostly the hostile, subjugated mothers and their prickly husbands could not see that I was an at-home-parent, raising two children and that I needed all the support and help they did, including friendships.
I have done my job more successfully than some mothers, but also less satisfactorily than some at-home-dads. Gender, performance, suitability are not the problem here, people are. Prejudice against men bringing up children is a reflection not on the men, but the inadequacies of those who are unable to surmount their prejudices. The initial treatment of me outside the school gate could not have been more hurtful had I been of a different race, skin color, or sexual orientation. Even today, in the land of Betty Friedman and Gloria Steinem, in this small community we call home, where we have educated both our children, prejudice remains.
A mother from my son’s grade, who knows me, studiously ignored my smile of greeting recently in a store where it would have been perfectly acceptable at least to say hi! My wife said maybe the woman simply didn’t remember or perhaps didn’t recognize me. My campaign medals tell me something far more insidious was happening in that one-way exchange. Mothers treat one other with similar hurtful tactics so I guess I should feel flattered. After such an encounter, I remind myself that I, largely successfully, have undertaken a career that traditionally has been seen mostly as the province of women. Regardless of my gender, I have contributed fully to the raising of two healthy, intelligent, and independent young men while supporting the full-time career of a talented, unfailingly supportive spouse and pursuing my own work as a writer. Not bad for a man, or a woman.
Some women have no problem with what I do at all. “I would like one of those,” the woman dressed in business provocative said directly to me across the dinner table when I said I was an at-home-dad. With a smile I realized then that what I have done is a desirable and wholly natural way for a man to earn a living. Despite the problems, I wouldn’t change the last seventeen years, nor take away a single minute of the time I have been blessed to spend with my children. Nor would I have missed the friendship of women. One of those gems once called me an ‘honorary woman’. Touched, I thanked her, and those like her, who have helped me see men and women for who they truly are, for I have been truly privileged to live behind the veil in the company of my children, and to have grown with them in a world of women.
– James Oglethorpe