Women Talk: House Hubbies

"The traditional male is an endangered species. It’s time to rethink masculinity," a recent cover of US Newsweek magazine read, sporting a photo of a beefy-shouldered man holding a small child.

"The traditional male is an endangered species. It’s time to rethink masculinity," a recent cover of US Newsweek magazine read, sporting a photo of a beefy-shouldered man holding a small child. The cover story featured some curious statistics about the recent changes in the workforce (it turns out men account for less than 50% of it in the United States today) and gender roles (polls show that the overwhelming majority in this country support paid paternity leave which at present only a handful of companies provide). 

Still, even in workaholic America, an estimated 143,000 unemployed dads of young children are staying at home full-time while their other halves bring home the bacon, and there are nearly 50 support groups around the country encouraging men to become "house husbands." Throughout the world, especially in countries where laws stimulate employers to sponsor childcare for both parents, stay-at-home dads are even more common. In Sweden, more than 80% of fathers take at least four months off when their new child is born, up from only 4% a decade ago. In Iceland, it’s as many as 90% of men, and in Germany, Britain (Prime Minister David Cameron gave a bold example there having taken off a few weeks to bond with his newborn daughter), Austria, France, Australia and even in Japan the legion of bankroll-supported home dads is multiplying.

I wondered if Russia is in any way part of the trend and set to inquire if any of my male acquaintances here, either from the business or creative camp, were up to taking time off for childcare. I was pleasantly surprised. I expected to receive skeptical or even indignant growls, but instead got pensive and somewhat encouraging comments. "I'd do it," was the prevailing response, but often followed with a set of conditions. "It's my own child, not someone else's, so I'd be more than happy to take care of him or her at home," said Konstantin, 47, a financial director of a global telecommunications corporation in Moscow and a father of a 25-year-old daughter. "But then again," Konstantin rushed to add, "I'd be kind of worried about my babysitting affecting the quality of the relationship with my wife. What if she starts listening to what people say? In Russia, the public opinion doesn't approve of a husband staying at home; it's considered an unmanly thing to do."

"I'd do it, but only if I knew for sure it was temporary and there would be a nanny at hand to help me in case something happened," said 34-year-old Oleg, news editor at one of the national TV-channels who is divorced and childless. "I'd be very much up for it, but in a different reality," stated 31-year-old Igor, a general producer at a large media group, and a father of an infant daughter. "Even though legally a man can take paternity time off as well, our market is such that if I leave my job for a few months they'll immediately fill my spot with someone else," he explained. "I'd never do it," yet another interviewee, Andrei, 37-year-old magazine writer and a father of five, confessed. "It's a million times harder looking after a child than going to the office," he said. "Plus as you grow older you get more responsible so I'd worry about my kids to death if I stayed with them full-time."

As I proceeded in questioning the women, I got more conservative takes. "I need a breadwinner, not a diaper-changer and soup-cooker. Men are not made to fulfill themselves in life through children," said Ekaterina, 30, editor of one of the top women's magazines, who's engaged to a prominent businessman. "It's cool with me if my husband babysits occasionally as long as I know he's looking for a job," said Galina, 34, a bank accountant and mother of two, whose husband, a seasonal worker, stays with their children three times a week during the layoff periods. Galina said she trusts her husband "much more than any nanny in the world." Still, she said she thinks women are "better equipped naturally than men to complete monotonous tasks that caring for small children requires." "My man goes berserk when he is home for more than three days in a row," she said.

I happened to find only one family with a proper stay-at-homer — a hubby of my old friend Marina, 33, who is a program editor at a TV station. For the last four years, Marina's husband, an unemployed actor, 33, has stayed at home looking after their three infant children, their three-bedroom apartment in downtown Moscow and a country house in the suburbs. She says this arrangement works for them just fine. "I've not taken maternity leave for any of my kids because being at home, even for a day, just drives me crazy." "And my husband loves it," she added, cheerfully. "He's an amazing father and still the head of the family even though I am the one who brings home the cash. I don't care what any one else says — it works for us. Happy children grow only around happy parents."

Even so, I don't think this Mr. Nanny vs. Mrs. Paycheck scheme would work for me. I tend to gravitate towards a more traditional order of things. A man should come, see and conquer out in the wild, not in the kitchen or nursery. But he's more than welcome to give a hand while he's around at home. I stand for involved fathers, but not domesticated ones. A recent survey finding that 69% of dads in the States change diapers as much as their wives motivated the Pampers company to start aggressively targeting male consumers. They hired Drew Brees, one of America's top quarterbacks, a herculean guy with an irresistible smile, as a spokesman. I personally wouldn't mind if, say, Marat Safin, one of the Russian tennis stars and a sex symbol, started advertising diapers or baby food here. I'd find this quite sexy, wouldn’t you?

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Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.

Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenti i Facty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.

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