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Building Credibility for Stay-At-Home Dads

by Craig Thompson Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Although it is becoming more common, the choice to be a stay-at-home father is still rare—there are an estimated 176,000 stay-at-home dads in the United States—and it is still socially stigmatized.

In a research study that will be published next month in the Journal of Consumer Research, Gokcen Coskuner-Balli and I analyzed in-depth interviews of stay-at-home fathers, observations of stay-at-home dads’ play groups and conventions, and content from stay-at-home dads’ websites and blogs. (Coskuner-Balli, Ph.D. ’08, now an assistant professor at Chapman University, conducted this study for her dissertation, which I advised.) The fathers in our study reported experiencing scorn both from men who work outside the home (who belittle the choice to parent full time) and from stay-at-home moms (who treat them as outsiders or assume they are incompetent parents because they are male).

In general, my research explores how people create identity through their consumption decisions and practices. In this study, we documented the tactics stay-at-home dads use in their pursuit of cultural legitimacy in performing a family role, and what sociologists characterized as domestic labor, that which had traditionally been defined as feminine. Through these strategies, these men are seeking to redefine conventional cultural categories that frame normative expectations of mothers and fathers. In so doing, they are placing a decidedly masculine stamp on caregiving and homemaking activities that are generally associated with motherhood.

These men have given up the stereotypical male role of breadwinner, but we observed that they take great pride in providing economic value to their households by being thrifty shoppers. “This is what my life has somehow become: chasing food sales with a vengeance,” one subject told us. “I am the Van Helsing of grocery shopping.”

This masculine brand of parenting focuses on outdoor experiences and a fraternal spirit: our study subjects emphasized excursions to theme parks and playgrounds. To differentiate themselves from stay-at-home moms, at-home dads also play up their skill with technology (such as finding the best digital camera and photo-sharing site to capture family memories) and do-it-yourself projects (such as building a child’s bed, dollhouse, or playground equipment). Few aspects of domesticity carry stronger feminine connotations than meal preparation and cooking from scratch; thus, it didn’t surprise us to find that our subjects downplayed cooking among their responsibilities. Very few described cooking as an area of interest; more commonly, they expressed pride in how quickly they could get meal preparation out of the way to focus on other activities.

Online communities have emerged where stay-at-home dads can share information and find camaraderie; there is also an annual convention for where at-home fathers gather. A fledgling industry of products has sprung up geared toward this demographic: for example, DadGear, founded in 2003 by two stay-at-home dads frustrated at the lack of child-care products that weren’t overtly feminine in appearance, sells messenger-style diaper bags and other accessories made with men in mind. Such resources help create a sense of community, but stay-at-home fathers as a group still lack cultural capital in our society.

Cultural capital, a concept introduced in the 1960s by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, helps to explain the ways in which people express their status within a society. For example, belonging to a yacht club, attending an elite school, and wearing certain clothing are all markers of belonging to a high social class in American society. In Bourdieu’s view, the people in the top echelon of society are the tastemakers, and the system perpetuates itself across generations, since upper-class parents are able to pay for the sailing lessons, school tuition, and clothing that permit their children to travel in elite social circles.

For 1960s France, Bourdieu’s vision was correct. But in other places and at other times, the picture turned out to be more complicated. Other scholars have added to Bourdieu’s theory, documenting the ways that some groups explicitly reject the consumption practices of the dominant elite. For example, when “hipsters,” typically educated middle- or upper-class individuals, drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and wear trucker caps with a sense of irony, they are appropriating working-class symbols to help forge their collective identity as hipsters.

We believe that stay-at-home dads add another new layer to this theoretical picture. By giving up high-powered careers, these men are actually moving themselves from a higher-status to a lower-status position in terms of their economic standing. But beyond giving up income (economic capital) and the connections that come from workplace interactions (social capital), they are also giving up cultural legitimacy (symbolic capital). So, in addition to the ethnographic aspect in which we documented stay-at-home dads’ strategies for forging collective identity and seeking legitimacy, we believe this study also enriches our theoretical understanding of cultural capital.