This Is Us? How TV Does and Doesn’t Get Men’s Caregiving

Geena Davis announces the release the report.

Depicting the Remarkable Caregiving Capacities of Men in America is the Next Big Challenge for Hollywood.

This week, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, in partnership with Equimundo, released their report on the depiction of men as caregivers in entertainment media. While depictions of men as caregivers is growing and some bright spots are out there, mainstream entertainment continues to negate male care givers’ vast numbers and capacities. This decades old trend in Hollywood storytelling represents the worst kind of intellectual laziness. Such retrogressive narratives, masquerading as entertainment, create flat two dimensional male characters resulting in narratives which limit viewer engagement while also fostering in the continuation of a culture that seeks to dump care giving exclusively on women.

Entertainment narratives about inept male caregivers enforce generations old retrogressive ideas of men as best serving their families as breadwinners, disconnected from the emotional lives of families. The harm this does to women, children, non binary people, and equally, men, is incalculable. Entertainment media has fallen behind the lived experiences of men who are increasingly primary caregivers for their parents, their children, their siblings, and their partners. In being primary caregivers, men are discovering transformative levels of personal meaning, purpose, and connection while also supporting our families and communities in fully engaged ways.

Some of the findings in institute’s report are quite harmful. The report found that although the frequency of male caregiver depictions is increasing, “Male caregivers were nearly two times more likely than female caregivers to be shown as incompetent — a perpetuation of the ‘apprentice dad trope.’”

The institute’s research also found that when depicted in entertainment, “Male caregivers were one and a half times more likely than female caregivers to be emotionally abusive, and four times more likely to be physically abusive — a perpetuation of the ‘abusive dad’ trope.”

Additionally, their research found that when depicted in entertainment media, “Male caregivers were less likely than female caregivers to be depicted as affectionate, supportive, or offering emotional care.”

This is lazy, harmful story telling and wrong. Don’t believe me? Ask millions of us stay at home dads.

I have written extensively about my own journey as a stay at home dad. I’m one of hundreds who have done so, each in their own way eloquently depicting our personal journeys as fathers and caregivers. Here is an excerpt from my own story. It speaks to the changes that caregiving for an infant first asks of us.

“My problem was, I really didn’t know how to be still. To just sit still and be with him. Whatever your strengths might be, babies will always need something you didn’t naturally arrive with. Because, basically, they need everything. And they need it for years.

It’s like staring down a long hallway with no exits and only one path forward. And in that moment, you recall all the stories of parents who didn’t so much walk that long hallway, as stumble screaming down it. Spanking and yelling and cursing and drinking their way into divorce court and child support and uncomfortable dinners with a twenty year old kids they had never come to know.

‘Am I that guy?’ you ask yourself.

At which point, you either bail out or you start changing. And yes, you can bail out and hold on to the patterns of living you had created for yourself long ago. You can choose to defend them to the death. Men and women do it all the time. Sometimes they physically walk out the door. Sometimes they just check out emotionally, leaving behind an automaton of a parent who goes through the motions with some secret part of themselves locked away for twenty years. Those folks do not make the change that parenting demands. Those fierce souls go another lonelier way. And they never came to fully know their children.

I like to think I made the changes. Or more accurately, they made me, because if you let parenting lead you into new ways of being outside your well worn comfort zone, you will find growth. You learn patience. You learn to let things be uncertain. You learn to say yes, instead of no. You relearn how to play. You give up control (and thereby gain a bit of it.) You learn the point at which physical and emotional exhaustion makes fingertip to fingertip contact with the divine.

Clear memories come back to me of my son’s first couple of years. Two of those memories are with me now. One is that fearful moment of first being left alone with him. But I have a second memory as well. I recall walking though my house at bed time with my infant son in my arms, his little head on my shoulder, his little body light as a feather. It is dark and my living room is lit by only a night light. I am walking him in slow circles, my steps punctuated by the soft creaking of the wooden floor.

My son is not crying. He rarely ever did. He is happy. He is just breathing and moving a little; settling in my arms. As I am walking, I am murmuring a song. “You Are My Sunshine…”. I have changed one word of the lyrics to make sure he knows how I feel. As I walk holding him, I am utterly content and at peace. Walking with him this way at bedtime was one of the rituals that had evolved between us. The quiet of the house. The gentle creaking of the floor as I made slow circles.

At some magical point between the first time I was left alone with him, and this moment, as I held him close in the darkened house, who I was and how I viewed my place in the world had changed. The process of giving in to fatherhood was terribly difficult. Many times I struggled in ways that were no doubt painful to watch. It took time to learn the power of yes and the liberation that comes with giving yourself over to the little tiny needs of the moment. The little needs that come one after another after another. But I was in the moment now, circling the floor with my dozing son. I was in the zone and I was truly home; possibly for the first time in my life. And as my son drifted off to sleep, his breathing changing to the sleep rhythm I know so well, I murmured my song to him.

“You are my sunshine,

My only sunshine,

You make me happy,

When skies are gray.

You’ll always know dear,

How much I love you.

Please don’t take

My sunshine away.”

The opportunity to open up my life to my son continues to change who I am, even as he grows and moves out into the world, and eventually away from me. In caring for him and looking after his littlest needs, I have set my feet on a path that has taught me things about myself I would never have known without him. It is a complex process full of dark moments and frustrations. Ask any parent. Its the tearing down of who you were and the giving over to service and change. It is not a journey for the weak of heart. When I see a mother or a dad collapsed beyond exhaustion on a park bench staring blankly at their kids, I know how they feel. But the process of really engaging in my son’s life for the last six years has taught me one thing that I will never forget.

That who I am inside the boundaries of myself, is only a small part of who I really am. I am defined by what I create in the world in relationship with my son, with my wife, and with others. It’s a lesson that was a long time coming. As men, we can learn this through service to our children and the purposeful setting aside of our own needs. We learn it in the baptism of birth and the long nights and days of care and attention.

As babies grow, so do we.”

Thank you to the Geena Davis Institute for documenting the work that remains to be done before Hollywood will catch up to the lived experiences of millions of male caregivers.

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This article about my own journey to becoming a father is here on Medium.

More of my journey is in my book Remaking Manhood.

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