We Need To Change the Way We Talk About Stay-at-Home Dads

Stay-at-home dad jokes are misogynistic and unoriginal. So why do so many people still make them?

Asian man holding his newborn baby girl on the sofa and his two other kids play together
Bo Bo/Stocksy. Photo: Stocksy

If you are a stay-at-home dad, you will likely come upon terrible jokes. Normally, they are just trite, going on about how you are "playing dad" or providing daddy-day care. But other times, friends or affiliates will use friendly tones to degrade you, referring to the SAHD as a house husband with a slight smirk, as if it was the ultimate zinger.

I know this because I'm one of those dads.

At points in my at-home dad journey, it felt like I was getting bombarded with tired jokes daily. I'd be walking my son in his stroller and a stranger would feed me over-the-top compliments about how great it was to see an involved dad, as if fathers were all expected to be worthless. Then they'd tack on a wisecrack about me being Mr. Mom. Other days, I'd be having pleasant conversations with male buds, and when they were making plans to hang out in the future, they'd casually snicker that I probably had to babysit the kids again.

Let's finally retire these gags. The number of dads staying home with their children has been on the rise. According to the Pew Research Center, 16% of stay-at-home parents were fathers in 2012, compared to 10% in 1989—and 21% of them say the main reason they decided to stay at home is to take care of their home or family.

So why are these harmful jokes still commonplace—even among men themselves?

Why Jokes About Stay-at-Home Dads Still Linger

"We're just doing tradition," says Tony Porter, author, educator, and the chief executive officer of A Call to Men, an organization that promotes healthy, respectful manhood. "Telling jokes to maintain male domination is what we do, that's been passed on down. We didn't even make up the jokes that we tell."

It's so ingrained in our culture that many women participate in these tired wisecracks, too, never questioning why. One of my most groan-worthy experiences occurred when I was chatting with an older female friend who innocently referred to me as Mrs. Doubtfire, but I rolled my eyes immediately. Her seemingly harmless joke was steeped in dated stereotypes that reinforced oppressive societal norms.

The collective socialization of manhood teaches that masculinity is defined by men distancing themselves from anything deemed feminine, says Porter. That includes being nurturing, loving, kind, gentle, tender, caring, patient, tolerant. "What are we saying about ourselves as men?" he asks.

Another reason for these ongoing jokes? "Domestic labor has been historically undervalued, not even counted as productivity by most economic measures," says Jordan Shapiro, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Temple University with a background in archetypal psychology and phenomenology and the author of the book Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad. "Now that it is becoming more common for men to take on more, and sometimes the bulk, of the child care and other household duties, the misogynist status quo is threatened. Put bluntly, if men do it, we can't justify inequality with blatant sexism because it's not just women's work anymore. Therefore, it's safe to assume that the bad-jokes, taunts, and insults hurled at stay-at-home dads serve, at least in part, to defend and fortify a system of economic oppression. It's easier to ridicule dads than it is to rethink the entire foundation of global economic production."

Man boxes—formed by the rules society places upon guys—force men to put on fronts of being tough coaches with our children, robbing us of our connection with them, says Porter. "When individual men go up against that collective socialization, then they catch the wrath of doing such," he adds. So instead, many give into the norms and, in an attempt to feign the image of power, mold themselves into being dominators, shunning anything deemed feminine or caring or empathetic. They become stoic tyrants who negate any possibility for authentic bonds with their children and partners. Of course, this also forces moms to take on most of the burdens of parenthood alone.

How To Handle Stay-at-Home Dad Jokes

As a stay-at-home dad, "you're gonna confront these [jokes], no matter what," says Dr. Shapiro, "because we have a culture that is deeply, deeply committed to its problematic gender assumptions." But finding healthy ways to deal with the jokes can be helpful.

Forget the status quo

"It's pretty easy to just conform with the status quo. Everything in the world is set up to help that and make it easy," says Dr. Shapiro. But that doesn't show strength or courage, he adds. Instead, stay-at-home dads who are confronted with the jokes should remember one thing: "You're the stronger one."

Stay-at-home dads are simply tapping into emotions that men often stifle, acting as a more authentic version of themselves, says Porter. "All the stay-at-home dad is doing is promoting healthy respectful men at the end of the day."

Find your community

This generation is the first generation of men to really rebel against the man boxes we're trapped in, says Porter, so "we have to find like-minded men to connect with, to share with, to talk with." That can mean contacting organizations like A Call to Men; it can mean Googling fatherhood groups; but it can also mean just keeping your eyes open for other men who are promoting healthy manhood, valuing the experiences of women and girls, and dismantling gender roles. "In this day and age, if you want to find like-minded men, you don't have to look far," says Porter. "But you've got to look."

Challenge these jokes

The best way to react when someone makes a bad stay-at-home dad joke, says Porter, is to prompt them to question why they are making the joke. "What really fits in the man box is to just come back at them," he says. "But if you flip that up and say, 'Help me understand. Why is it funny if I want to spend as much time as possible with my child?'"

Then, if you prefer, speak from the heart and explain why you choose to play such a role in your children's lives. Tell them how much you love your kids. How much you value making memories with them. In my case, I talk about the pride I take in the fact that when my kids stub their toes, it's me comforting them, kissing their boo-boos better. When their eyelids grow heavy, I'm the one cuddling them. My connection to my babies is more important than anyone's ignorant judgements.

Even if you aren't a stay-at-home dad, if you hear someone making these misogynistic jokes, it's on you to say something, says Dr. Shapiro. He recommends reminding the person making the joke that you "don't really think gender has anything to do with it; we're all caring for children."

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