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December 21, 2012: Stay at home dad Yariv Wolfe out shoveling the drive way after a storm with his children Ma'ayan 8, Tzipi 6, Ari 3 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
December 21, 2012: Stay at home dad Yariv Wolfe out shoveling the drive way after a storm with his children Ma'ayan 8, Tzipi 6, Ari 3 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

The decline of men? Actually, it’s a release Add to ...

Masculinity is still a complex and conflicted cultural creation (which hardly sets it apart from feminine identity), and there’s a pragmatic financial incentive to all this equal thinking: These days, families need two incomes to get by. But men too want a better work-life balance, happy, equal relationships, and stronger role as fathers. In more egalitarian households, studies have shown, the kids get better grades, wives are happier, and men themselves have lower rates of smoking, higher rates of marital satisfaction and are less likely to be diagnosed with depression.

Those modern values are clearly articulated by men under the age of 35. Dr. Kimmel, who believes the post-secondary education woes facing young men is just a temporary societal adjustment, likes to tell this story: in 1989, when When Harry Met Sally came out, he would ask his students who had friends (without benefits) among the opposite sex. A few hands might go up. Now when he asks that question, everyone puts their hand up. While that might not be surprising, it’s significant: it’s hard not see a friend as an equal, at home and at work.

A different work-life conflict

Workplace data also suggests that it’s unfair, and unproductive, to exclude a male perspective from the “have-it-all” discussion. Canadian men and women now report the same level of work-life conflict, not because women are necessarily more stressed, but because more male workers say they are struggling to find a balance. Even as workplaces develop a culture where time off for family (or dashing out early for the kids) becomes more acceptable for women, it remains less so for men. “If everyone sees the vice-president of marketing has a baby and doesn’t take time off, that sends a message.” says Jeremy Smith, the author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are transforming the American Family. (Indeed, while there was great tut-tutting when Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, Inc., took just two weeks off after having a baby, where are the stories about male executives using their paternity leave to help change diapers?)

“When my wife and I married, we never assumed that one of us was the natural breadwinner and one of us was that natural caregiver,” says Smith. “Now Plan A for a young couple is that both are going to work and both are going to share everything. Sometimes that doesn’t work out, but plan A is what they are shooting for. The important shift is that a lot of men see this in their best interest.”

For Kyle Margenau, a 35-year-old father of three, his wife Lindsay’s job with Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs take precedence. Right now, they live in Hawaii, where Lindsay is staying home with their new baby and Kyle is working as a teacher – but another posting is in their future. “I have always been comfortable with it being that way,” says Margenau. “Without a doubt the relationship that I get to have with my kids makes any loss of career potential not matter.” Looking back, he says, a time-consuming career did not “fit into my idea of how I wanted to be as husband and father … I am not a father figure. I am a daddy.”

If balance is the goal, then it’s absurd to frame work and family issues as women’s conversation. Gender bias is a two-way game: as survey data reveals, all those keenly educated women aren’t exactly rushing to the altar to grab Mr. Mom aspirants.

Perhaps, Smith argues, that’s because women are also conflicted about men’s roles. He cites surveys that show, for instance, that wives aren’t superkeen on stay-at-home husbands. “If you want to know why progress seems frozen,” observes Smith, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “look no farther than that statistic.”

At the same, men who stay home with the kids or earn less than their wives have become less conflicted about it (just as women have become more conflicted about those traditional female roles). In a qualitative study, Noelle Chesley, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin interviewed men in those marriages who “felt very liberated about giving up employment, especially a lot of the pressures.” When many of those men returned to work, she says, they found their priorities had shifted: “Some of the men turned down promotions because they didn’t want to lose time with their families.”

The one hold-out on a half-century of progress: Working women still do more laundry. But will that domestic debate ever die? Last week, while my husband made his regular trip to Costco with the kids in tow, my bored 7-year-old son announced at the meat section, “When I get married, I am going to make my wife do the groceries.” A female shopper, old enough to have read an early edition of The Feminine Mystique, laughed knowingly. As Kimmel would tell him, and, as my husband said, “Good luck with that.”

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