I’ve written previously about how I have no problem being called Mr. Mom, the name of the 1983 movie starring Michael Keaton. In short, I find it quite endearing.
In the movie, Keaton plays Jack, an engineer who gets laid off. Struggling to find another job, his previously stay-at-home wife Caroline (Terri Garr) successfully restarts her career. The working dad becomes Mr. Mom.
I have fond memories of the movie, but probably hadn’t seen it since the eighties. Browsing Netflix for something, my wife suggested we watch it. I warned her it was pretty silly, and she probably wouldn’t like it. Well, as it turned out, she didn’t like it and gave up less than halfway through. I stuck with it though.
It was interesting to revisit what was probably my first exposure to a dad staying home with their kids, something I am now doing myself. I was struck that the movie did in fact cover a lot of interesting and relevant themes around the swapping of traditional gender roles in the household.
This is essentially a situation comedy, and for comedic effect Jack doesn’t choose his new role, it is thrust upon him by becoming unemployed. It’s interesting that one of the reasons for the rise of the number of stay-at-home dads is the recession. Many fathers have lost their jobs, while their wives either haven’t or have found work instead (just like Jack and Caroline). These dads may have found themselves taking on a role in the home they never intended to.
Initially our decision for my wife and I to swap at-home and working roles was made because each of us wanted it. When we relocated from NZ back to the UK, my wife landed a great job quickly, while I picked up freelance work here and there. So there is a mirroring of the situation, inasmuch that my wife is more employable than me, and that is one of the reasons I am home with the kid.
I was struck by a scene where Jack goes to see a temp agency, and gets involved in a conversation two other male jobseekers are having. Turns out they are enthusiastically sharing recipes, the implication being that they too are in the same situation as Jack. I’ve had a similar situation – where another dad and I were moaning about laundry. On this occasion, a mum overheard us and sarcastically commented “Well, what a manly conversation you two are having”.
One of the myths of Mr. Mom (as far as I’m concerned) is this – the storyline of a mother trying to seduce Jack. I can reliably report that there hasn’t been a hint of sexual tension in any of the various baby groups, classes, playgroups, etc. that I have attended in my years as a stay-at-home dad. Even if my mother friends and I weren’t all happy in our respective relationships, it strikes me that the life of the lead parent of a baby/toddler is too tiring to go to the effort of having an affair.
But like Jack, I’ve also let my appearance slide while being home. I was never a smart dresser anyway, but now my day-to-day outfits tend to consist of jeans with holes, and old t-shirts and tops. As I have a short window to use the shower before the munchkin gets up, shaving tends to be left to the weekends too. As a happily married man who interacts with mothers with partners most of the week, I’m not trying to impress any of them with how I look.
In the film, Jack ends up forming a fairly close social circle with local mums. Since my first time with the antenatal group, and then befriending local mothers in our new area, I have formed good friendships with mothers. I have never felt awkward in these all female environments, which I must admit surprised me. My wife often reflects on the fact that I know far more mothers in our local area than she does – though they’ll often say hello to her at weekends, because they recognise our daughter.
The way the role change affects the mother also has a lot of truth to it. Working mother guilt is an established societal issue, which my wife is no stranger to. I wouldn’t, however, berate my wife the way Jack does, for all the things she has missed while at work. I know we are very lucky that my she supports us, and I know she feels like she is missing much more than she actually is.
A theme of the film is the style of Jack’s parenting compared to a mother’s. Do dads parent differently than mothers? I don’t know. My fairly relaxed parenting style is shared by a lot of mothers I know too. Like Jack, I have fed my baby (well, toddler) chilli, and while I’ve never dried her bum on a hand-dryer, I have held her over men’s urinals many times. But mothers have told me of instances when their kids have accidentally swigged beer, or they’ve fed them nothing but white toast all day – the kind of things ‘Mr. Mom’ would do too.
Is Mr. Mom My Mentor?
Ultimately, there is something important about Keaton’s portrayal and the way Jack is written. Confidence. Jack acts like he has every right to be there in all these situations, and that’s exactly how stay-at-home dads should be. The movie is only partly about a hapless hopeless stay-at-home dad. He quickly finds his feet, and then owns the role of at-home dad. Many men who have also spent their time working, and less around their kids, may understandably also experience this transition too. Jack may do things a little differently, but not necessarily because he’s a man.
I’m not going to lie to you – the eighties slapstick humour, of which this is full of, falls fairly flat now. Comedies of this era were full of similar gags, and they haven’t aged well. But I’m glad I revisited it.
The film makes a compelling case for the positives of being a stay-at-home dad, or even an engaged dad, and that there’s no rule that dads MUST be the breadwinner of the family. I’m sure that influenced my subsequent thinking. I have no idea why I wanted to become a stay-at-home dad so much. I had no role models in my friends or extended family that have done it.
What I do have is the fond memories of watching this film as a child. Perhaps Mr. Mom planted the seed of an idea to become a stay-at-home dad, that became a reality many years later.
Curious to watch the movie? Check it out on Netflix.
Disclosure: I am a member of the Netflix #StreamTeam program. Our household receives free Netflix for a year and I post about how our family uses the service.