Note to Nervous Would-Be Dads: Having Kids Doesn't Look 'Gay'
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"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."