There used to be a time when the ideal father was Leave It to Beaver’s pop, Ward.
Each morning, he went to work while his wife remained at home. In the popular TV sitcom from a half-century ago, June considered herself lucky and fulfilled, having found a good provider in Ward. Never mind that she might have a greater ambition.
“A real man was kind of a no-nonsense sort of guy who did his job and didn’t complain very much. He was stoic and didn’t express much in the way of emotions,” said Ronald Levant, professor of psychology at the University of Akron and editor of Psychology of Men and Masculinity, published by the American Psychological Association. “He really didn’t have much to do with his kids — unless they were really bad and then he was the chief disciplinarian.”
Those who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s really can’t blame Dad for not knowing what to do around the house. When schoolgirls were attending home economics, the boys were shuffled off to wood shop. Sometimes a group of guys, like a handful of Springfield High School seniors around 1970, bucked the system and signed up for cooking class. But it wasn’t done to perfect their culinary skills; it was just a joke, so that they could eat instead of building a birdhouse.
For girls who grew up in that era, Dad was the first love of their lives. For boys, he was a hero. But no one told Dad then how important skin-to-skin contact was to form a bond with their newborn. That it’s OK to shed a tear. And that taking a day off work to watch Johnny hit one out of the park would mean a whole lot to the little guy. Most men were trained to be workers, not nurturers — though some most certainly were both.
Today, much of that is changing.
What we are experiencing, Levant said, is an explosion in different ways to be a father. Because of divorce, something that rarely occurred in the ’50s and ’60s, there are now stepdads, dads who share custody with their ex-wives, and many other family dynamics.
“I think what is most interesting is the stay-at-home-father, because the structure is very similar to the ’50s and ’60s family, though the roles are reversed,” said Levant.
A new report, released this month, shows that fathers who don’t work outside the home rose from 1.1 million in 1989 to 2 million in 2012. Many of those had to stay home because of illness, but others are men who embrace their wives’ desire to work and would rather be the main caregiver. That number is expected to increase. In fact, Levant estimates that in 20 years, that number will increase tenfold, to 20 million stay-at-home fathers.
That is a “dramatic change from the way things were in the ’50s and ’60s. And a dramatic change in terms of what it means to be a man,” said Levant, who was head of the Boston University Fatherhood Project between 1983 and 1988, a program designed to teach parent education to fathers.
The doctor’s husband
Phil and Diana Brewster of Jackson Township have flipped roles and couldn’t be happier.
They have two children, Zoe, 8, and Zane, 5, and are expecting their third on Valentine’s Day. She’s a doctor, the solo practitioner at Brewster Family Wellness in Jackson Township. Phil, a bright guy who used to hold a management position at a plastics factory, is considering a PhD in psychology and counseling in the future. But right now, he’s enjoying time at home with the kids.
“I found being home with my children to be an opportunity which I couldn’t pass up,” said Phil, 37. “Over the years, I’ve really had to adapt how I see things to suit this constantly changing role. I no longer provide financially for my family, but rather provide support in every way I can so that they can concentrate on being the best ‘them’ that they can be … What it’s meant to me is … I’m actually there for them whenever they need me — for whatever it is that they need at any given time.”
The Brewsters acknowledge that the role reversal hasn’t always been easy. It has meant a lot of hard work and communicating to get through issues over the years.
“We are in a beautiful place in our marriage now,” said Diana, 39. “I built my practice with tireless support of my husband. I feel that I owe much of my success to the support. I have to work long hours, often 60-plus hours a week, and I can do this only because I know our children are home with someone who loves them as much as I do.”
Phil and Diana agree that his being home with the kids has had a huge impact on the children. They see the world; they don’t see the strict, cut-and-dried gender roles that society has imposed for most of history.
“They’ve come to recognize that ‘normal’ just doesn’t work for everybody, and often ‘normal’ can’t really be described,” Phil explained. “For them, I am not just a stay-at-home dad or a provider; I’m the one who kisses the boo-boos and puts on the Band-Aids. I’m the one who feeds them, bathes them, helps them with difficult homework, provides a shoulder to cry on, and always has a hug when one is needed. In the long run, as they grow I think that we will have a much closer and more open relationship than we could have had otherwise.”
For Diana, her sweetheart, who has selflessly put his career on hold, is the family’s teacher, caretaker, comedian, mechanic, landscaper and support.
“We do love and appreciate him so much.”
What a couple of lucky kids. When so many children have no one who cares for them, Zoe and Zane have two extraordinary parents.
And to all dads, Happy Father’s Day.