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."
Ms. Cleary, the Halifax Montessori school director, attests to all this. "We hear about it a lot from the children themselves. One of the kids yesterday was talking about how she got into trouble for cleaning her toilet with a face cloth," she says. "The interesting thing was that she was cleaning her bathroom with her father. We hear that sort of thing a lot: 'Oh, last night I helped my dad make supper while we waited for my mom to come home from work.' "
The gender balance she sees at her school's drop-offs and pickups is about 50-50, which is a lot different than when she started her career as a teacher 17 years ago. "Dads have evolved," she says. "They're a lot more hands-on now."
The much-criticized "omega males" are the ones who are leading this societal change – a phenomenon that is just beginning to appear in the academic literature. "[S]ome of the increase [in males engaged in fatherhood] may be due to the fact that women are more likely to outearn their male partners," Mr. Hoffman writes. "When families wish to have one parent at home while children are young, the decision about which parent stays home has always been partly economic, taking into account who has the highest salary, benefits and job security."
In her seminal article, Ms. Rosin doesn't spend much time examining how the "omega male" phenomenon has affected family life. But one of her sources alludes to what's going on: Victoria is a biology major who wants to become a surgeon. She complains about her boyfriend lacking motivation, then finds the silver lining when she predicts that she will end up as the hot-shot surgeon while her boyfriend is "at home playing with the kiddies."
Carleton University sociology professor Andrea Doucet, the author of the book Do Men Mother?, says she has lived a version of Ms. Rosin's story for the past 20 years: She is a professor and her husband is a naturopathic doctor "whose work schedule goes up and down according to the economy." Together, they have raised three kids. "It used to be dad was the breadwinner while the mom mothered," Prof. Doucet says. "Now, it can be the opposite – but this isn't like the 1950s, when the roles were really defined. Things are more amorphous today. Dad isn't the housewife – he's just a little more relaxed about his job, or working more flexible hours."
I called up Ms. Rosin to ask her how she thinks the shift is affecting fathering. She had just finished researching a chapter for a book she is writing about the phenomenon. The chapter is about families in lower-income situations where neither partner has a university education. There, Ms. Rosin said, the most common scenario starts with a young couple having a child. They don't get married. The mother takes care of the child, finds work, maybe even goes back to school to get a degree.
"She figures out a way to make it work," Ms. Rosin says. Meanwhile, the father cycles in and out of the family's life, unemployed, disinterested, possibly depressed. "One thing's for sure," she says. "Those guys aren't taking care of the kids."
Ms. Rosin was just about to start research on the way the "end of men" phenomenon affects the dynamics of the educated classes. We spoke a little about her own circumstances. The contributing editor for The Atlantic lives in Washington, D.C., and is married to the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Slate, David Plotz. They have three children, aged 10, 8 and 2; she acknowledges that she sees a lot more dads at the preschool pickups and drop-offs for her third child than she did when she was dropping off her first child. In fact, Ms. Rosin says, she and Mr. Plotz have about as equal a parenting arrangement as she has seen.
By decrying the less-motivated men as couch potatoes and "omega males," Ms. Rosin and the men-are-schlubs school are contributing to a stigma that already exists around primary caregiving dads. I've dealt with this in my own life as a self-employed writer married to a midwife. If my wife doesn't respond to the beeping of her pager, someone could die in childbirth. So I'm frequently the one picking up the kids from school at the end of the day – then making up the time I've lost by working long into the night.
Five years into my career as a father, I cherish my time with my kids. But at first I struggled with the effect all this child care had on my identity as a full-fledged male. There were times I felt that pushing a stroller was as emasculating as carrying around my wife's purse.
What changed? Part of it is personal. I've become so confident in my parenting that I only kind of feel like a wuss when I'm surrounded by mothers at the playground.
The other component to my transformation is that I often don't find myself the only dad at the playground. In fact, I've accidentally created a wolf pack with a couple of other dads from my kids' school – one a rock musician, the other an architect. Most days find us doing manly things with our children, such as tearing into raw flesh with our teeth and punching ourselves in the face. So do we qualify as "omega males"? Do all the other guys we see at the playground?
If we do, then I'm proud of the label. Many other dads are too. "The 2011 sitcom man may be effete compared with his predecessors, but he's confident, devoted to his family, happy working around the house, pretty good at child rearing," observes the Wall Street Journal article about the new class of sitcom dads, such as Will Arnett in Up All Night. Possibly, that's because the new child-rearing men realize they're exactly the ones leading the revolution in male attitudes toward fatherhood – they're changing stigmas while changing their kids' diapers.
Think of the Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up, which forms such a cultural touchstone for this school of thought. The film features E! Television personality Alison Scott, played by Katherine Heigl, and Seth Rogen's character, Ben Stone, a pot-smoking, porn-consuming layabout. Ben gets Alison pregnant, introducing the tension that propels the film to its inevitable conclusion – she has the baby, he sticks by her side.
Film audiences may have an opportunity to find out what happens next when the Judd Apatow-written-and-directed spinoff, This Is Forty, premieres in June, 2012. In the meantime, we can speculate – because many of us know guys like Ben. Alison's maternity leave ends and she goes back to her job at E! Entertainment. The baby grows out of infancy and heads to preschool. The hapless Ben falls head over heels in love with the kid, cleans himself up and ends up as his child's primary caregiver alongside his more career-oriented wife.
What happens to Ben Stone and the much-maligned "omega males" like him? Many of them end up becoming damn fine fathers.
Christopher Shulgan is the author of Superdad: A Memoir Of Rebellion, Drugs and Fatherhood and is a parenting columnist for The Grid.