Dirty Harry Meets Dirty Diapers: Masculinities, At-Home Fathers, and Making the Law Work for Families

Article excerpt

Who is the "man"? Implicit in this question is whether the man at issue demonstrates traits traditionally associated with masculinity: traits such as power, rejecting all things associated with being female, aggression, and being the family breadwinner. If a man, then, abandons paid work and stays at home full time with his children, is he still a "man" as typically defined? The answer to this question bears both on whether families are truly evolving away from the traditional, gendered construct that places men as family breadwinners and women as caregivers and whether work-family balance law meets the needs of these-and all-families.

This Article analyzes 425 media stories about at-home fathers written over an eight-year period. Specifically, it looks at whether these fathers accept or reject socially constructed notions of masculinity. The results suggest that some at-home fathers adapt their behavior in ways that allow them to function as primary caregivers while keeping their masculinity intact. As masculinity appears to be salient even to gender-subversive fathers, understanding these adaptive strategies is important to making work-family balance law more responsive to all fathers.

INTRODUCTION 2

I. Masculinities and At-Home Fathers 6

A. Who 's the (At-Home) Man?: Identifying At-Home Fathers 6

B. From Masculine to Masculinities 8

II. The Study 11

A. Study Design 12

B. Results 14

1. Economic Indicators 16

2. Caregiving and Work-Family Balance Indicators 18

III. Adaptive Masculinities in the At-Home Father Community 20

A. Breadwinner Adaptive Masculinity 21

B. Caregiving Adaptive Masculinity 26

IV. Putting Adaptive Masculinities to Work 29

A. Adaptive Masculinities and the Family and Medical Leave Act 30

1. Making the Current Leave Structure Paid 34

2. Adding Paid Short-Term Leave 36

3. Expanding FMLA Coverage 38

B. The Dangers of Applying Adaptive Masculinities to the Law 39

C. Study Limitations 40

CONCLUSION 43

INTRODUCTION

Men's job losses are women's employment gains, or so some media suggest. During the recent recession, women lost fewer jobs and earned more advanced degrees than men; many women are not only making breakfast, as they traditionally did, but are now paying for it too. ' But these changes are not without costs: for example, women suffer from tremendous work-family balance-related stress.2 Enter the stay-at-home father. A significant number of men are staying at home with their children - nearly two million, according to one demographer.3 These men, who are primarily responsible for diaper changing, bottle washing, and child-related comings and goings, face a pressure of their own: to prove that in spite of their caregiver role, they are "real" men. Caregiving, after all, is not masculine.4

Men are central in the law and, therefore, so is masculinity.5 In no area of law is masculinity - and gender more generally - more significant than in family law. In family law, acceptance or rejection of gendered family roles can impact individual legal rights.6

Like all men, fathers are expected to demonstrate "hegemonic masculinity," a dominant, socially constructed masculinity defined by economic supremacy, physical power, and rejection of all things related to femininity and homosexuality.7 Hegemonic masculinity is obvious: we know it when we see it.8 At-home fathers, with their public caregiving and rejection of the primary breadwinner role, ostensibly reject gender roles traditionally seen in the family.9 But this Article suggests that these men may demonstrate elements of hegemonic masculinity even as they reject it by being at-home fathers. Therefore, at-home fathers may be "actively reconstructing masculinities to include aspects of traditional feminine characteristics,"10 or they may be complicit in maintaining hegemonic masculinity by adapting it rather than challenging it head on. …