Two years ago, I wrote a 9-part series for the Huffington Post about “Core Competency Moms” — that is, women who were outsourcing (or minimizing or ignoring) “their” traditional household tasks in order to focus on the things they did best: nurturing their families and their careers.
According to a recent article in the Economist, “Mr. Fix-it: Professional fathers are downing tools to play with their children,” now men are increasingly doing the same thing. A recent study found that the percentage of domestic helpers in Britain who are male has risen from 17% in the early 1990s to 39% now. Some of this is the appearance of the much-heralded “manny” but much of it relates to households choosing to outsource what have typically been male tasks: yard work, odd jobs like fixing broken cabinet doors, car-related tasks and the like.
Though it is still mostly moms who manage all this, “for the most part fathers do—whatever the cynics suspect—spend the time thus liberated with their families, rather than in the office, at the gym or in the pub,” the Economist notes. “Despite the recent recession, dads, it seems, would rather spend quality time with their offspring than put up shelves or fix dripping taps at the weekend.” If you work long hours during the week, then weekends are for family activities like going to games or museums–not housework. No matter which gender you happen to be.
Of course, any mention of household outsourcing always raises questions about inequality and potential exploitation. Many of Britain’s nannies and maids are immigrants who may or may not be legally in the country, and may or may not be being paid on the books. Just because 39 percent of them may now be male doesn’t necessarily change the fact that some of these workers are incredibly vulnerable. On the other hand, many domestic helpers (including the Hire a Hubby business profiled in the Economist) are in fact small business owners who are working their way into Britain’s middle class. They specialize in individual tasks, and thus become better at them than any individual husband could hope to be. The economy as a whole grows, increasing efficiency, when everyone focuses on what they do best — lawyers on practicing law, lawn care specialists on making lawns look green and neat.
Just as with women, this specialization has benefits for children. Few mothers see, say, sewing children’s clothes, as one of their primary duties these days, and because they don’t do that or make elaborate breakfasts from scratch (or iron their electric blankets) they wind up spending more time playing with their kids than moms did 50 years ago. Likewise, “The trend also suggests a change in the way many professional men view themselves,” the Economist notes. “Gone are the days when fathers spent their weekends promoting manliness by showing little Johnny how to hammer in nails. Now they derive their sense of identity from success at work and from fatherhood itself, rather than having to demonstrate their masculinity through a rugged grasp of power tools or an impressive collection of socket sets.”
In other words, dads are realizing that other people can put your son’s bicycle together, but only you can show him how to ride it with that right parental mix of caution and encouragement that will teach him to take smart risks. If dads are chucking the former in order to do the latter, I’d say that’s a big win.