This is Part 3 of Debunking the Myth of Man as Breadwinner – Provider. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 here. I promise this will be the last. Pure and total enlightenment on this topic will be achieved over the course of the following paragraphs.
Just to recap: Part 1 of this post focused on my perceived need to defend my decision to be a stay-at-home-dad, why I felt this defense was necessary, and the initial foray into the possible origins of the Breadwinner – Provider Myth; Part 2 moved on to talk about gender roles, the difference between sex, sex category, and gender, the concept of “undoing gender”, the idea that attaining this “undoing” would be akin to every foreigner leaving Africa en masse in a single day, more about the origins of the B – P Myth, and the fact that you are probably still being an asshole and using qualifiers like “female surgeon” and “male nanny”. (Just kidding. You’re probably not an asshole.)
The word “myth” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
“A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.”
Keep this definition in mind as we proceed. Specifically, the phrase “a traditional story”.
So where were we then? Ah yes, that’s right, Vietnam.
I’ve just finished reading a fascinating chapter from a fascinating book. The chapter is entitled “When the Pillar of the Home is Shaking – Female Labor Migration and Stay-at-Home Fathers in Vietnam.” The book is entitled
The Cat in the Hat Globalized Fatherhood, published in October of last year (like my son!) and edited by some folks with the names Inhorn, Chavkin, and Navarro.
The author of the chapter in highlight, a “human geographer” named Vu Thi Thao – herself a Vietnamese woman – focuses her inquiring lens around the populations of two smallish villages on the outskirts of Hanoi. She uses the “doing/undoing” gender framework, coined by West and Zimmerman way back in 1987, to plan her interviews of families who have chosen to send a family member off to “the big city” (Hanoi) for work. Of the 35 families interviewed, all have chosen to send the wife/mother off to Hanoi in search of work. No, you sick son of a gun: not to work in brothels. The labor market in Hanoi is simply geared toward women at the moment. They work as street vendors, junk pickers, and domestic helpers. Why can men not do all of these things? Three reasons: First, more low-skilled jobs are available for women. We could easily conflate this reality with the notion that society values women less than men when it comes to work, but at least in Vietnam, “local people believe that women are better able to provide solicitation skills… in the informal service sector.” This was often the case in East Africa where I lived for years: women dominated the town markets and shops while men were off working the fields or building houses (or, just as often, getting drunk). Women tend to be better than men, generally speaking, at keeping calm while negotiating. Secondly, although women make less than men (okay, now we can say that society values women less than men. My god, society, you are an asshole.), they generally spend “considerably less” than men on urban living expenses. This came as a shock to me. Although, come to think of it, this would probably be the case in my own household. Despite my vehement protestations to the opposite, my wife is better than I am at sleeping anywhere, no matter how uncomfortable. I’d like to think I’m tough as nails, but I’m a fidget when it comes time to settle in for sleep; my wife on the other hand – as long as she’s tired, just make sure she’s not operating a vehicle or sitting on something she’ll fall off of, and it’s curtains for her. Third, local people believe that adolescents “should be strictly disciplined, ideally by fathers.” Apparently, these “migrating” mothers are leaving behind their husbands to look after their teenagers. Smart, smart women. Poor, poor fathers.
So, Vu Thi Thao goes around interviewing a few dozen families: The fathers, the mothers, the children. She even interviews the villagers – the neighbors, the busybodies sweeping sidewalks and sifting rice. She asks them how they feel about the fact that the women are “migrating” for work. (This “migration” involves living away from home, but retaining fairly stable access to return home once or twice a month.) She asks them about their emotions. She asks them if they enjoy the arrangement, or find it distasteful. Their answers may surprise you; even more so if you take into account the hierarchical structure present in Vietnamese families.
Briefly, the family structure of Vietnamese families is based on the Confucian model (itself a type of “myth”) – a model used by many Asian cultures and peoples. The hierarchy is “based on gender, generation, and age. Fathers, husbands, and sons have authority over women, and children owe filial debts to their parents even after their parents have died”.
Let’s not ignore the implications of this: men dominate women, and in a way that we might scarcely imagine in the U.S. Men may still be “the head of the house” in the majority of American households, but our society is lenient. Egalitarian thought pervades our everyday life a mite bit more each year. I would love to be a fly on the wall in your house if you told your partner, unequivocally, that she had to listen to you and obey you unconditionally. The thing is, that’s how it traditionally works in Vietnamese society. Men hold most, if not all, of the power, and wield it largely unchecked. In fact, “a father is considered to be trụ cột gia dinh, literally translated as ‘the pillar of the home’”. Dang. “Head of the household” is sounding like a rather wimpy term in comparison.
Okay. So, we have a society in which men hierarchically outclass women, and few people question this model. (As opposed to the U.S., where the former still holds true but the latter does not.) Now, remember, we are talking about stay-at-home-dads. How cozy a home does this concept find in Vietnamese villages? What does Thi Thao find when she sits down to interview all of these people?
For the most part, amazingly, people seem rather relaxed about the arrangement. Despite a rigid traditional Confucian model dictating family hierarchy and roles, everyone, including the neighbors, thinks this new system is simply what needs to be done. There are, of course, plenty of folks who aren’t too keen on the idea of dad being in charge of giving baths while women slave away as the breadwinners in the inner-city. Still, the majority of interviewees seemed to understand that this was the merely the best arrangement to provide for the entire family. And get this, “some of them [the men] report that they now realize how hard the work [that of the stay-at-home caregiver] is and that they have more sympathy for their wives.” I couldn’t agree more. Others said things like, “I don’t think domestic tasks are necessarily women’s. I work for our children’s education.” Migration of the mother, not a decision anyone makes lightly, is often a family decision made on a cost-benefit analysis. If dad has to stay at home scrubbing clothes and drawing baths, so be it.
There were, as you might expect, dissenting views. Men who didn’t like the newfound freedom and opinions their wives had. Women who said they missed being at home with their children. Men who felt as if their masculinity was threatened, their power over their wives diminished. All of these views are unsurprising, really, when you consider these recent changes in light of several thousand years of social structure.
Even so, despite some hurt feelings here and there, some minor depression and some turmoil in the family structure, the majority of those interviewed perceived these changes as positive. (Speaking for the minor depression, I can identify: going from a “freeman” able to come and go as I pleased, to ‘commander-in-chief of spit up’ is jarring and takes a bit of getting used to.) Though the “pillar of the home” may be “shaking”, it seems that it has not dislodged itself from the foundation enough to cause collapse. Assuming that this sort of lifestyle arrangement is happening not just in and around Hanoi but all over Vietnam, we very well might have an entire country of tremoring households – households that are actively undoing gender roles and the ancient myths that uphold them. Pretty radical for a country deemed “undeveloped”!
Have I really “debunked” the myth of man as breadwinner – provider? Hell no. I have, however, offered what I hope are some good points to ponder. The fact is, I don’t think anyone who holds to the traditional model of family structure is wrong. It’s the type of household I was raised in, and it seems to have worked quite well for our family. My parents love and respect each other and their children have turned out awesome (gratuitous smiley emoticon here.) Dad leaving the house every morning to go off to work was as natural as the sunset, in our minds. And there’s nothing in the world wrong with that model – if that is what works for the family. I simply want to challenge the idea that this is the “only” way or “right” way of doing things. It is, in fact, a “myth” – a fabrication; in this case, one born eons ago and upheld as gospel truth. I believe it’s time we begin questioning the various stories we tell ourselves about the “way of things”. It is time to rewrite the texts, if need be, and to recast the characters to fit the world in which we reside. May man never shirk his duty to fight for his family; but may he have the sense, poise, and dignity to step into different shoes when needed.
Thi Thao, Vu.
2015 When the Pillar of the Home is Shaking: Female Labor Migration and Stay-at-Home Fathers in Vietnam. In Globalized Fatherhood. Marcia C. Inhorn, Wendy Chavkin, and Jose-Alberto Navarro, eds. Pp. 129- 151. New York: Berghahn Books.
Sage Journals – Gender and Society http://gas.sagepub.com/content/1/2/125.abstract