Debunking the Myth of Man as Breadwinner – Provider

In an effort to bolster my own complex system of justifications for the stay-at-home life I’ve chosen/been ushered into, I am reading books. I have been amazed at how much I’ve discovered already about the wide world around me, about how people of vastly different backgrounds and cultures are doing and undoing gender roles, and about how to continue boldly in my path as a stay-at-home father.

It bothers me that I feel the need to “bolster” any set of rationalizations. Shouldn’t I be perfectly comfortable doing what I do? Why should I need to explain myself to anyone, detail what it is I “do” these days, walk them through why I stay at home with a baby as opposed to sitting behind a desk? Perhaps it’s goes much farther back in time than I give credence to: maybe it’s an issue that has beleaguered people since the dawn of thinking – “Why does he get to be chief? Why shouldn’t I stay home tending the cooking fires instead of tromping through the briers in pursuit of game? This upcoming harvest festival is bullshit; I’m not going, the elders can’t make me, societal/tribal perceptions be damned! I’m done buying their wares.” As the teacher says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” That was a solid 2,000 years ago. I guess we have computers now, but our problems look much the same.

Same problems or not, and bothered by it or not (I am), I do feel compelled to mentally bolster my stay-at-home rationalizations. Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the annual “Guy Thing.” It’s exactly what you’re thinking: a gathering of men who honor their masculinity by doing things that only “men” should be doing. Drinking too much beer, eating piles of bar food, and watching collegiate wrestling meets. It was the first year my generation of “guys” had been officially welcomed into the inner sanctum. Typically, the sanctum is filled with my dad and his brothers, their uncles and buddies, etc. Their generation has historically plied the waters on this holy excursion to rid the world of all things estrogen for one weekend. My brothers and I were, apparently, deemed ready to partake in the infinite mysteries, and so off we went. The “Guy Thing” will not be delved into in detail here: I have better things to write about than a weekend spent gawking at 21 year olds in singlets and getting into heated arguments with old relatives. Besides, it turns out I didn’t need to defend myself against anyone; everyone turned out to be amazingly receptive. (Or at least they didn’t openly laugh at me.)  

The “Guy Thing,” however, set my wheels in motion on a particular path: I realized, several weeks before my presence was requested, that I might have to defend myself against an onslaught of narrow-minded, idiotic, bigoted, sexist ways of thinking; the types of thought that would balk at the concepts “stay-at-home-dad” and “well, I’m actually not working outside the home at the moment.” For a couple of days, I became obsessed with a type of self-defense that is not taught in dojos or police department rec rooms. I became obsessed with lifestyle self-defense. And let me tell you, the work required to become proficient in this type of defense can itself transform into a full time job.

In my mental perambulations leading up to the “Guy Thing,” I pictured a friend of my uncle’s (who had been described to me as “the type of guy who shoots straight, looks you right in the eye, and asks what you do and why you do it”) asking me, “So, young Jim, tell me what it is you do…” and I would respond gaily, …well, that’s just it. I had no canned response, no well-hatched plan to counter each and every strike that would come my way. I was a sitting duck, ignorantly enjoying the stillness of my pond right before the blast of the shotgun. I needed to prepare to defend myself against old-ass ways of thinking! This is the 21st century dammit, and if a new father can’t stay home to raise his son… well, to hell with you!

So, I began brainstorming defenses. I’ll admit I rather threw myself into the exercise, carrying around my 4 month old, gesticulating, pointing my finger accusingly at the bowl of wooden fruit on the kitchen table, practically shouting things like, “And you sir, yes YOU sir, even you, I challenge you to say that what I do with my time isn’t the manliest thing a young man can do with his time!” My dog eyed me suspiciously, and probably a little pityingly, while the cat and the boy shared knowing glances. “He’s gone mad,” they all seemed to agree.

I came to some good conclusions, when all was said and done; conclusions that, I thought, even the most hardened old coot would soften up to. I would like to use the remaining post to begin exploring one of those conclusions, reserving the rest for future posts. Without further ado, then, let’s explore the concept of the myth of man as divinely appointed “Breadwinner – Provider.”

Debunking the Myth of Man as Breadwinner – Provider

When our ancestors first wandered out across East Africa’s Rift Valley, snapping up fledgling heads of grain and gazing toward the unknowns of the vast gravel fields of Asia, they probably weren’t thinking much about parenting styles. (If our current understanding of bioarchaeology tells us anything resembling the truth, they probably weren’t thinking about much at all. Their vocabulary, perhaps, extended as far as “Ugh, oww, and uffffff-wa.”) Instead, they were exploring this dark globe, this unmapped expanse of sky and soil and water. Men, women, and children, and most likely, a train of animals moved in concert. Protection, security, the ability to find and gather resources such as water, food, shelter were among the primary reasons for this social movement en masse. But other, less observable phenomena were taken care of with this moving potluck: community, well-being, friendship, familiality, etc. Each member had a part to enact in this roving play on the vastest of stages; none more important than any other. And, each member played that part with due diligence and acumen; else face the cliff of complete annihilation.

Painting in broad, generalized strokes: Men led, scouted, hunted, and protected; women tended, nurtured, fed, cooked, and cajoled young ones; children did their best to get away with play when they could, and were tasked with simple adult tasks when needed; old folks (though “old” at this time would have meant something like 30) would have done their best to keep up, offering wisdom on plants that were good to eat, where water might be readily discovered, what bird calls signaled danger. And babies, well, babies would have been doing pretty much the same thing they do today: crying, eating, sleeping, and pooping everywhere.

Now, at the moment, In our bucolic, archaic scene, we have no clear “provider,” and certainly no “breadwinner.” (Bread was many centuries from being invented, as it were.) All of our characters provide some useful service, if not an array of them. Men, whose frames would have been on the whole larger than women’s, would naturally have carried out roles requiring feats of brute strength: a type of provision, to be sure. But, women would have been following at a safe distance, nursing the next generation of humans: a type of provision, too. On and on the list goes, tit for tat, with no side clearly attaining dominion. Everyone needed everyone else to survive. Nursing homes hadn’t been thought of yet, and the knowledge carried around by the elderly was still respected and honored. (Ah, the good old days, eh?)

Let’s fast-forward several dozen millennia: Our roving band of proto-humans looks much more like us. They are travelling a bit less each year. They are discovering that they can control their food sources with a little bit of planning, a little spot of luck: the birth of agriculture. It is now that we might begin to attach provision and breadwinning to one particular gender. As humans became more and more sedentary – settling in one or several places throughout the year and farming them more and more intensively every season – women began to adopt roles that started to align with caregiver, nurturer, “stay-at-home mom.” Of course, just as we see in our current age, these lines were not entirely black and white; certainly many wives and mothers applied their efforts equally in the fields and inchoate farms of the fertile crescent. But, for sake of argument, let’s say that men, at this point in time, began their long march towards being perceived as the breadwinners. (By the way, the first bakers were beginning to land upon some trusted recipes by this time, and loaves of bread were making their first rounds.)

So, we can roughly assume that men started to attract attention as “providers” and “breadwinners” during the initial throes of the agricultural revolution, some 10 – 12 thousand years ago. Okay.

Let’s fast forward again. The year is 2015, and men have been firmly entrenched in the provider role, playing into it, for many centuries – so many, in fact, that humans long ago forgot that this structure was not simply “the way of things,” but rather an invented concept. As a friend of mine once said, “isn’t everything made up?” Yes, yes it is, all of it. Made up as if out of thin air. Our enacting of these prescribed (and proscribing – that is, hemming in and buttoning us down) roles perpetuates them, strengthens them, tightens them ever tighter around our collective neck like a noose, until one day… well, you get the idea. Perhaps there are people who are quite comfortable with “the way of things.” (Actually, I know there are – lots of the folks I know who are older than 40, for example.) But, and I tend to be overly romantic and hopeful about most things, I believe there is a growing segment that would like to see the paradigm flipped on its head, if not altogether dismantled. Some anthropologists think they might have a discovered a way to dismantle this paradigm, release the stored, stagnant waters of thousands of years of gender roles – the concept is simpler than you might imagine, and doesn’t require a sex change.

I will explore their research in part 2 of this post. Stay tuned.

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