Michelle Cleary did not intend to become a high-powered professional woman. Ten years ago, when her son was just a year old, she started a Montessori school in the basement of her Halifax home. The demand astonished her. The school thrived. Maple Tree Montessori moved into its own commercial space in the city's west end five years ago and today cares for 36 children, with a waiting list of 200.
Ms. Cleary's school is successful by any measure – but her success has caused her some guilt about the way it affects her family duties.
While she races to Maple Tree each morning for 7:30 a.m., her husband, Shawn Cleary, gets the kids dressed, feeds them and takes them to school. He makes most of the dinners and handles most of the laundry. In between all of that, he teaches part-time at Mount Saint Vincent University's faculty of business management.
Ms. Cleary says her husband is definitely the family's primary caregiver. “I wouldn't be as successful as I am if he wasn't the world's best father and husband,” she observes. “And I probably don't tell him that enough.”
Women like Ms. Cleary may be grateful for husbands like Mr. Cleary, but elsewhere the spouses of such “breadwinner wives” are under assault. The latest indication that they have become the punchline to a grand societal joke arrived in last weekend's Wall Street Journal under the headline “A New Generation of TV Wimps.” The article observed that an unusually large number of sitcoms making their debut this fall – six – “centre on lead male characters contemplating their masculinity in a changing world, especially in terms of the successful women who surround them.”
“This isn't just a recession we're in,” says one character. “It's a man-cession. Women are taking over the work force.”
Network sources reported that many writers were pitching variations on themes involving how “men are taking a more active role in child rearing, with more women serving as the primary breadwinners.” The article that kept coming up – cited in 20 different pitch sessions, according to one CBS executive – was Hanna Rosin's summer, 2010, essay in The Atlantic, “The End of Men,” which contrasts the “breadwinner wife” with whom she calls the “omega male,” who “ranks even below the beta in the wolf pack.”
But, on this weekend of all weekends, it seems appropriate to point out the benevolent silver lining in the phenomenon. These “omega male” partners of “breadwinner wives” are exactly the people who are transforming the gender dynamics of family and spurring a revolution in engaged fatherhood. In fact, the much-maligned qualities that qualify men as “omega males” – an apparent absence of testosterone, a childlike affinity for fun, a surplus of disposable time – are exactly the qualities that can transform men into remarkable fathers.
A growing body of research indicates that men are spending more time than ever before participating in the lives of their children. A lot of the really good work being done on this phenomenon in Canada is published by the Fatherhood Involvement Research Alliance, a kind of information clearinghouse for academic research on the topic.
FIRA's communications co-ordinator, John Hoffman, cites Statistics Canada data in noting that last year 11 per cent of all stay-at-home parents were fathers, compared with just 1 per cent in 1976. Mr. Hoffman suggests that the true scale of father involvement in child rearing may be much greater than these figures indicate because qualifying as a stay-at-home parent in these statistics requires an income of zero. He notes that stay-at-home fathers tend not to have fully relinquished their ties to the work force.
“The number of fathers in dual-earner couples who work part-time rather than full-time has increased steadily, from 6,555 in 1976 to 52,765 in 2010,” Mr. Hoffman says in an article on FIRA's website, noting that in the same period the number of families has stayed about static. “…[I]t's safe to assume that some of these men spend part of their non-employed time caring for children and think of themselves as stay-at-home fathers.”