"Having a kid is so gay," a man told me recently. How's that for irony? Especially given that the guy is pushing 40.
It's the kind of juvenile language that only makes sense when you understand the near-hysteria about family life that exists in a new tribe of middle aged, North American males: the Baby Bailers.
Clearly, there are rational reasons to have kids and rational reasons not to, whether you're a man or a woman. And from the amount of column inches devoted to the topic lately, you might even get the idea that people like arguing about the question of to breed or not to breed more than doing it.
What we're discussing here, however, is a lot of men on cusp of middle age who, at some sub-rational and visceral level, see their masculine identity threatened by the act of fathering a child. They understand babies to be enemies of what makes it great to be a straight man. Thus, having one is "gay."
The joke may be on them. Research shows married, child-rearing fathers, relatively speaking, tend to be pretty darn happy (more on that later). And of the dozens of Baby Bailers I've heard about from friends who do "cave" (to use the word of a male friend), most tend to be glad. (I've also heard of many who didn't have kids for rational reasons and are glad they didn't). The problem is that because gender identity is involved, the struggle over "giving in" (another male friend's term) can be excruciating for both the man and the woman, and based on anything but reason.
'Bros before hos'
Who are the Baby Bailers? They are well into their 30s, even 40s. They tend to have careers, apartments (often mortgages), and even wives or long-term girlfriends. They also tend to have hobbies, which often include being in a band, playing video games, watching online porn and partying. Hobbies are great. But in this case, those hobbies, and the male friends they share them with, become the most important part of their lives because they symbolize freedom and fun. Many see having kids as a symbolic defeat: when the wife or girlfriend wins, their masculinity loses.
"Masculinity, is a homosocial experience, performed for, and judged by, other men," writes Michael Kimmel in Guyland. A professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, credited with founding (fathering?) man's studies, Kimmel sums up the "guy" phenomenon with the phrase "bros before hos." His recent book looks at men aged 16 to 26, but says, with a few differences, the analysis also applies to men in their late 30s and 40s who are resisting the symbolic end fatherhood would bring to their "guy" status.
According to Nicholas Townsend, who conducted an extensive ethnography on middle class masculinity, four things make someone a grown up man: being employed and a good worker, owning a home, being a spouse and, finally, being a father.
Most embrace the first two easily, then start to resist. "Growing up is the negation of fun, pleasure, happiness and sexiness, which is all based on the fantasy idea that adulthood is a loss for men," says Kimmel. "Boyhood is fun, but adulthood is sober and responsible."
He says these guys are able to juggle serious careers, mortgages and even relationships with the pursuit of "boyishness" because to them, it's like balancing work and family. The idea is, "If I'm going to capitulate and have a real job and a real apartment, I still want to feel like a guy. So I'm going put my feet up on the table, fart in public, do raunchy things, and say sexist things with my friends, because [in] the workplace... I have to watch what I say all the time and what I do. I can't make fag jokes or girl jokes there."
So guys try to prolong their post-adolescent male bonding pleasures and their kind of fantasy locker room world though activities like video games and online porn. "The thing that's interesting is that they are pretty unapologetic about it. Ten to 15 years ago, guys who watched porn and played video games, they were a bit sheepish and guilty about it. Now, they're saying -- so what?"
Bailers I've interviewed often say they're "not ready" to have a baby, that they just need a few more years. This can seem humourous coming from a man in his 40s. The listener begins to calculate that micro-sliver of time between fatherhood's "ready" and "expiry" dates. As one 51-year-old dad told me, "I have to take a few ibuprofen just to be able to make coffee in the morning. I'm not exactly looking to do a 3 a.m. poo call." He has two kids, the eldest of which is 14, and feels like he "just got it done in time." He explained, "You know like in the movie, where the character races ahead of the fireball, with the huge iron door closing, and at the last second, he dives under the door and it closes on his shoe? Like that." I guess that's what the ibuprofen's for.
But, according to Kimmel, the Baby Bailers "believe that a grown-up relationship, with a grown-up woman, is a loss... And what is lost is fun," whatever the age.
When they flick on the TV, they see their fears reinforced. Shows like Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother and Rules of Engagement "basically portray singleness as fun and married life as a kind of compromise at best, and drudgery at worse," says Kimmel. Consider, as well, pre-wedding rituals. "When a woman is getting married, her friends take her out to celebrate. When a man is getting married, his guy friends take him out for an elegiac last night of freedom, to get him drunk and laid, because he'll never get to do that again: she's trapped you, she's caught you."
But that myth contradicts the data, according to Kimmel: married men are much happier than unmarried men. In many cases, they gain a chef, a laundress and a sex partner. Married men have much more sex than unmarried men and are less likely to see therapists than unmarried ones. (Married women, on the other hand, tend to have lower happiness levels and are more likely to see therapists than unmarried ones).
"The more men are sort of grown up -- the more they do housework and child rearing -- the happier they are, the happier the kids are, and the happier the woman is," says Kimmel.
Don't tell that the Baby Bailer, and don't expect the expanding brood of macho Brad Pitt to hold sway. As one Baby Bailer told me, the rich dad is different. "They don't have to give anything up. They can just hire people to do everything, and still have fun and have a life."
"Giving things up," is a dreaded concept I've hear a lot in my conversations with Baby Bailers.
But Neal Pollack, author of Alternadad, a book about his quest to retain his identity after becoming a father, says "My wife and I played more video games than ever the first six months after our kid was born. I mean, all the kid is doing is eating and crapping. Any dad who is a gamer before is still a gamer."
And though it's harder to go out with friends as much, "if they're real buddies they'll still be there."
"Men are afraid that fatherhood is going to take over their identity. And it does for a little while, but if they want to, they can integrate fatherhood into their previous identity." Pollack found the first couple of years to be "an emotional maelstrom," but now finds his old self is still there.
It doesn't help that men get a lot of messages that their old self must transform into some kind of uber-father they never knew. UBC sociologist Nathanael Lauster says expectations are increasing. While people used to put their baby in a drawer in a bedroom of a rental apartment a few decades ago with full social sanction, now elaborate staging is often considered necessary: a house with yard (what he calls "the moral home"), a car, expensive strollers, baby clothes, nannies and so on. That's why he says affluent men might be more willing to become fathers -- since they know they can afford those "requirements." Plus, Lauster says affluent men they have less fear of being labeled a "deadbeat dad," a term men can acquire for contributing insufficient money or even time.
For every Baby Bailer who worries he'll need to work harder, there's one so immersed in his career that he's terrified of sacrificing it to the new definition of family life. "At one point," Lauster says, "there wouldn't be this idea that men would have to give up work to become a father. Men would actually intensify their work commitments than they would prior to have children and that's how they would demonstrate their commitment." Exhibit A: the 1960 version of father portrayed as Don Draper on Mad Men.
But a note to Baby Bailers: Evidence suggests that men's work performance can actually increase after becoming a father. "There's the myth of the unencumbered worker," says Kimmel. "That worker is gendered and it's male. We think those are the best employees -- they have no trouble making it to a 7 a.m. meeting, or staying late. But when you're a parent, you're far more reliable and far more likely to remain loyal to the company, especially if the company is flexible."
But hey, there I go again, engaging in rational talk about something as fundamentally emotion driven as gender identity. There's a commercial for the Hummer SUV, in which a bunch of guys is working out at the gym, and an announcer asks the man with the white mini van, the symbolic family vehicle, to come forward as he's left his lights on. No one does. Kimmel says the message is, "You henpecked, feminized pussy."
So it's social forces, I get it. But I'm thinking if "gay" means a grown up man, well, heterosexual breeding culture could really use some.
This piece first appeared on The Tyee.