God the father, Or The history of fatherhood

Recently, Tide ran an ad you may have seen, in which a stay-at-home dad is seen folding laundry. He refers to himself as a Dad-Mom. The ad has sparked a lot of conversation across the parenting blogosphere. Some bloggers chose to focus on the way media depicts parents, stereotyping moms and dads alike. These folks have largely praised Tide for recognizing that more dads are staying home, while making fun of Tide’s ham-fisted use of a word like “Dad-Mom.” Tide, after all, is a business; expanding market share by advertising to fathers is a smart move.

But the ad has sparked a different type of conversation within evangelical Christian circles, and that’s the role of the man in a household and family. I’ve seen a slew of blog entries and articles lately about various aspects of this conversation — some religious-oriented and some not — so I’m going to spend a few posts unpacking some of these ideas. Now, this blog exists as a place for me to learn to write and think about fatherhood, which means that I’m still grappling with some of the ideas I’ll be discussing. So expect some sloppiness in logic, writing style, and so forth.

So, the first thing I want to address is a post from Babble’s Dadding blog, from almost two weeks ago, Worse Than a Non-Believer: Dad-Moms Are An Abomination to God. Ron Mattocks, who also blogs at Clark Kent’s Lunchbox, wrote an entry about a debate between two evangelical Christians, about the role of a man in a Christian family. Now, Jen and I are not a Christian family, and we don’t believe the Bible is divinely inspired, so we don’t feel a need to follow its teachings. So I don’t want to dwell long over the specific theological points these folks were discussing, but the gist is, what does it mean for a man to provide for his family? Does it mean he needs to work exclusively outside the home? Or can it mean that he cares for the children while his wife works?

One side uses Scripture to support the idea that a man needs to work outside the home in some capacity, while the mom stays home as the primary caregiver for their children. The other side uses Scripture to support the idea that a man can stay home if he and his wife have prayerfully decided that that’s what God is leading them to do. Ron Mattocks, the blogger at Dadding, is a work-from-home father and, apparently, a Christian. So you can probably guess what side he takes. But again, it’s not the theological discussion in itself that interests me, it’s what Ron chooses to do in his follow-up posts.

He doesn’t make an explicit connection, but a little over a week later, he posted an entry, The History of a Househusband. In it, he links out to, and discusses in depth, a great article at the website of the Guardian newspaper. The article, which appeared in the print edition of the Guardian as well as online, is called Man about the house. The author, Roman Krznaric, examines the history of fatherhood, and learns to his surprise that this idea of dad working outside the home is not so traditional after all.

Krznaric unpacks the etymology of husband itself; originally it meant housebound, a word it still closely resembles. The idea was that a man was bound to his home and family — working on a home farm; mending fences; making furniture, tools, shoes, and clothing; and even caring directly for their children. Men, in those days, also were more likely than in our time to become single fathers, if their wives died in or shortly after childbirth. A man might remarry or employ a servant, but Krznaric cites statistics showing that one in three single fathers had no other live-in support.

What changed fatherhood were, first, the move to coal as a heating fuel and, more importantly, the Industrial Revolution. Once coal stoves became the main source of heat in a house, it was no longer possible to simply go out and chop down a tree on your property to get fuel; a man had to go out and work to earn money to buy coal. Men, he says, were also deskilled by industrial technology. It was easier to buy shoes than to make them. Their role at home started to diminish, so they moved out into the world to earn cash.

The Krznaric article is excellent, and if you haven’t read it, you should, but I’m going to move on from it, and back to Dadding because Mattocks raises a point that Krznaric overlooks. Krznaric’s article inspires Mattocks to do a bit of digging into the history of parenthood, specifically in the United States. In two posts on Dadding — 1700 to the 1900s, and the 1900s to today — Mattocks examines that history. What I specifically want to talk about is this:

5. The Virtuous Mother

In Western Europe, England, and soon the United States, the idea of Republican Motherhood takes hold. This ideology holds to the belief that women are more virtuous than men because they are less susceptible to the corruption and vices associated with politics and business to which men are exposed to regularly. As a result, mothers are viewed as being the best parent to pass along such virtue and upstanding character to their children.
And I think that’s the missing link that Krznaric overlooked. So this idea that a man’s Biblical role is to work outside the home, because that’s what he’s designed by God to do, and that a woman’s Biblical role is raise the children, because that’s what she’s designed by God to do — that appears to be a 20th-century innovation, and not necessarily a “Biblical” principle after all.

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