The Obligatory "Mr. Mom" Post

05/10/2008 By Shawn Burns

Emily and her mom have gone out to the nail salon for the afternoon. Erin is napping contentedly, and will continue to do so for another hour. So, that leaves me with an hour to kill before the girls return, my daughter wakes up, and I hand her over to them so that I can watch the Wings pummel the Stars again.

In that time, I can probably fulfill one of my SAHD-vocate duties: writing about Mr. Mom, that role-switching Michael Keaton vehicle from 1983 that seems to immediately spring to mind whenever a dad mentions that he stays home.

Being called "Mr. Mom" offends some at-home dads. And probably understandably: either the person who makes the comparison is suggesting that the dad is doing mom’s job, in which case the dad takes offense at the job being categorized in that way in the first place; or the person who makes the comparison is referring to the haphazard, bungling, and incompetent way in which a dad would raise his kids, were he home full time as Michael Keaton’s character is in the film.

This is the one that rankles, usually: the assumption that dads just won’t do as good a job. It gets under SAHD skin and itches. If we encounter this attitude at the grocery store we bring it home with us along with the hot dogs and beer (dinner for the kids, you know).

It is this vision of the Stay at Home Dad that makes many SAHDs despise the movie. But not me. I love Mr. Mom.

I love it in the way that I inexplicably love other Michael Keaton movies: Johnny Dangerously, Gung Ho, Beetlejuice. But I also love it because it tells it a little like it is: there is a pretty steep learning curve when you are new to the parenting/at-home gig. A brand new mom faces all of these problems as well, and is probably not very much better equipped to deal with them. Teri Garr’s character in the film is a competent parent, but she’s also been doing it for a while: the oldest child is old enough to talk to and to help out, and that’s a lot of parenting years behind her. So anyone coming into that situation fresh is bound to take some time to adjust, and it would be absolutely unreasonable to think that they would get it all right in their first week, month, or even year.

He’s incompetent at first, and maybe this bothers dads because they think "How could he have gone several years without knowing the least little bit of what goes on at home on a daily basis?" I don’t know. Maybe he and his wife don’t talk that much about the mundane details; he probably doesn’t go on and on about his job either. In any case, exaggerated as this segment was, it is not unfathomable to me that he wouldn’t be very good at the daily stuff at first, or that he would feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that actually go into making a home operate. In fact, had a movie been made that ignored this learning curve it probably would have been deeply insulting to everyone who stays home full-time. Our job is not easy. (Well, mine is, but that’s because Erin is brilliant and causes me no trouble whatsoever.)

He is depressed at first, and seems to give up and to let the house go to pot and leaves the kids to their own devices. This is probably the Mr. Mom image that dads worry is hanging over their heads, but frankly I don’t blame the movie for the stereotype. This part of the film is actually presenting an honest, if exaggerated, problem for many at home dads: Depression is not a small thing, and every few years a new study is done that talks about depression in dads. For an at home dad, in a new, unfamiliar, and sometimes un-welcoming environment depression is something we always have to be wary of. It’s too easy to isolate ourselves with our kids and pretend as though the moms don’t want to be our friends and our old friends don’t want to see us any more now that we have kids.

He is challenged by infidelity. And this worry comes up a lot for at home dads who spend most of their time in the company of women. Unfortunately this is a worry that doesn’t go away easily, and movies like The Little Children don’t help. But infidelity is a problem generally, and probably less prevalent among at home dads than among dads who are never home (I’m just guessing here). And also, Mr. Mom is not to blame for this at-home dad trope. In fact, in the movie Michael Keaton is so worried about being pursued by someone else that he has nightmares about it; he tries not to cross the friendship line that he is very conscious of. In fact, in the movie it is his wife’s boss who is the real dirt bag, but Mr. Mom is not blamed for ruining the reputations of male supervisors. Instead it is wrongly associated with infidelity among at home dads.

Importantly, Michael Keaton’s character does figure it out. He does realize how to take care of his kids on his own, how to manage their schedules, cook their meals, take care of the house, maintain friendships with the moms around him. He gets it. Men can get it is the actual message of the movie.

But the message that’s taken away from the film is that men are incompetent at home. While this may be a real attitude among some people, it is not one that anyone can lay at Michael Keaton’s feet.

The only real problem with the movie is that he goes back to work without a backward glance in the end. This says "I was just filling in for a while", and that stereotype, the dad-as-babysitter stereotype, is one that can legitimately be blamed on Mr. Mom. (Not that it originated there, but it’s one that actually shows up in the movie and is never corrected.)

But at least he was a competent babysitter. And that’s why I can watch Mr. Mom without cringing, why I can admit that I actually like the movie, why I say that it does no genuine harm to at-home dads and the way they are perceived.

That doesn’t mean that I like being referred to as "Mr. Mom" by people who don’t know me. Because as I said, to them they probably either mean that I’m doing mom’s job, or that I’m probably incompetent, or both. So, if you do want to address me as something I’m willing to answer to "Trophy Husband".

Or "Prom King".