Don't worry, this isn't another defiant confessional about resenting one's kids (cause doesn't everyone?!) No, the author clearly adores his children, and when it comes to the stay-at-home thing, initially, he's all about it:
The decision to stay home was a fairly easy one. My 1-year-old son displayed early warning signs of being part tornado, and our household was beginning to crack like a trailer home under the strain of 175 mph winds. My wife had the degree, the full-time job, the benefits, and most important, desire and ambition. When you compared that to my mishmash of part-time contract work and my unique inability to function around other humans, it was clear who would be the one on the front lines in the constant battle against diaper rash.
And it works: things run smoothly, their son is happy, the house is clean and organized. Traister has, perhaps, found his calling.
Being Mr. Mom was turning me into the man I had always aspired to be; I was becoming dependable. If I was at all concerned about how other people saw me, or if I experienced a vague sense of unease as I watched my male contemporaries cultivate careers, as opposed to the professional false starts I had shared with them in our early 20s, those feelings were quickly stifled by the sense that a) I was learning tools I desperately needed, and b) this was only temporary.
But then it's not temporary: a second baby and a crumbling job market mean that Traister can't so easily get back in the work force " for the sake of my own masculine vanity." And now that it's actually his life - not temporary, not novel, not an exception to his real existence - he falls into what sounds a lot like a depression.
Realizing that I was stuck brought about an ugly change in me. The financial penis envy that I had so assiduously avoided began to creep into my relationship with my wife. I got shitty and sulky when she told people in passing that I was staying home with the kid. I qualified her statements by letting whoever she was speaking to know that this was a temporary thing, and that I had held several very butch jobs up until the last year. For instance, did I mention that I worked in a prison, or that I was a bouncer?
He falls into a miasma of net-surfing and drinking, absorbed in his "crushing sense of emasculated loserdom." The household routine collapses, his son's behavior suffers, and the home becomes disorganized and fraught. "I sucked, and so did my life, and I made sure everyone knew it."
His resignation - or revelation - comes while shoveling snow with his toddler son's "help." Ironically, it's a sense of basic masculine accomplishment - "I'm big and I'm strong and I can shovel snow and install air-conditioners for people who can't shovel snow or install air-conditioners for themselves. I can do this, and my son wants to help." - that makes him realize the value of his less-traditional contribution. While some readers will surely chafe at the need to contextualize his contentment in these terms, it actually seems important for some people to recognize that being a stay-at-home-dad is more than a wimpy punchline; it's not that someone's a "Mr. Mom" - he's a dad, staying at home, providing a different set of gifts altogether along with the basic nurturing. Traister points to this need to, not abandon any sense of masculine pride, but learn to understand it along less narrow lines:
We keep hearing that women will surpass men in the workforce during this recession. As many of us (for whatever reason) find ourselves in a fiduciary timeout, we should not only think about how to repower the American worker but how to reimagine the American man. The moment our mothers entered the workforce and shattered expectations, the rules about gender roles in this country changed completely, even if our perceptions didn't. Trying to live like our grandfathers is no longer an option....As we step, or are forced, into the new roles that are presented to us, perhaps we should not lament, or vainly grasp at the responsibilities we feel we should have, but instead sack up and embrace the ones that are right in front of us.
But one of the things that's most striking about this essay is that it's not all about his masculine identity; rather, the evolution he describes - of the risk of losing sense of self, and the sense that one is entitled to some kind of recognition from the larger world - sounds much more like one we normally hear from stay-at-home moms. While notions of masculine ego certainly put a different spin on the issue, this isn't the essay we would have read five years ago: now what he writes has universal application. Whether that's a good thing, or merely complicated, is an open question.