When Mr. Mom hit theaters in 1983, the story of a laid-off Detroit auto engineer who’s forced into default parenthood for his three kids while his wife snags a high-paying advertising job did well at the box office, but not with critics. Roger Ebert said it was a “lost opportunity” to present such men’s lives as they really are. The New York Times called it a “creaky comedy” that presented the plight of Jack Butler, played with aloof charm by Michael Keaton, as “humiliating.”
And it doesn’t take any expertise in basic feminist principles to see why: Though the film was one of the first pieces of mainstream pop culture to reimagine men as primary caregivers, it took every opportunity to do so in broad, gendered strokes — an over-simplistic role-reversal that puts Butler in an apron in the kitchen, leaves him embarrassed to buy tampons at the grocery store and features him waving around a chainsaw to intimidate his wife Carolyn’s (Teri Garr) new boss. Meanwhile, Carolyn adopts the corporate go-getter’s long hours and family disconnect like the man she’s becoming.
This may have been because it was fresh off the 1970s, when a whopping six men (no, that isn’t a typo) reported being stay-at-home fathers in the United States. Contrast that with 2014, when that number was nearly 2 million.
But if you talk to stay-at-home dads now who’ve re-watched the film, they will tell you that if you strip away the more obvious exaggerations, it’s not exactly wrong about the experience of taking care of children all by yourself.
“It was definitely one of those gimmicky movies when we were kids,” says Dave Sliozis, a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad to Brady, who’s been full-time dadding since February while his wife runs her own business. “Only now, it hits a bit closer to home.”
Mr. Mom treated stay-at-home fatherhood like the statistical novelty it largely was, and it initially presents the concept’s increasing likelihood as nothing much to celebrate — a jokey cautionary tale of lost gender identity. When Butler is laid off, Carolyn says she’ll dust off her resume and get back into the advertising field she ditched to become a homemaker. Bristling in response, Butler makes her a good-natured bet that he’ll get a job before she does — $100 bucks to her $1, which, notably, he has to loan her. Cut to next: She’s headed out the door in snappy 1980s-era businesswoman attire to a swell advertising gig, going over the checklist for the millionth time of everything he’ll need to remember to care for their three children, who all appear to be under eight years old.
From here, it’s one fairly obvious Freaky-Friday-style switcheroo gaffe after the next: He’s confounded by basic household appliances, from the washing machine to the vacuum to the popcorn maker, which at one point, he swordfights. He’s confounded by basic grocery shopping, from how to order meat at the deli counter to the emasculating moment when he realizes he’ll have to pick up tampons for the wife. He’s confounded by the correct procedure for dropping off his kids at school — which spawns the still quoted phrase, dripping with condescension, “You’re doing it wrong.” And get this: Left alone to figure out nutrition for other humans, this grown man actually feeds a baby chili.
Before we know it, he’s one bonbon away from totally letting himself go, much like the stereotypical housewife of the era, skulking about in flannel with a Letterman retirement beard, drinking, watching soap operas, his brain oatmeal. In other words, the alpha male, reduced to what is clearly woman’s work, is neutered by the domestic realm at every turn — a tragicomic tale of male earning power and careerism derailed by the humbling work of childcare.
Sliozis blogged about the first 100 days of his full-time dad experience, and in it, he chronicles a more low-key, but in many ways, parallel version of the Mr. Mom experience, from the general initial ineptitude (leaving a stroller at the grocery store), to the feeling of being invisible, to the lack of good dad groups, to looking forward to conversations with the only adults you see (checkout clerks).
Of course, this is the sort of thing that women endure all the time raising children, only the difference is, it’s not played as tragic but rather a noble use of their time, perhaps even, the natural order of things. The movie was based on John Hughes’ own experience staying home with his kids for a few days (yes, that John Hughes, who wrote the script to Mr. Mom as one of his first Hollywood jobs), and in this sense, it’s a film that feels created by a guy who didn’t really get it until he got it.
“Funny enough, some of the direct experiences — a lot of scenes where Jack is watching Days of Our Lives and folding laundry,” Sliozis tells me by phone. “That’s my Sunday night ritual, folding laundry for the week while watching Game of Thrones, so I can at least be up-to-date on TV shows and still get stuff done.”
And after 13 years in a proper office job doing digital marketing, he also now wears flannel shirts. “My wife recently asked me, ‘Do you wanna shave?’ And I thought, ‘Well, why? Who am I trying to impress? I don’t really have to make an effort.’ A lot of nights it’s 8 p.m., and I’m wearing running shorts, and I haven’t gone running.”
Sliozis, who left his job when he and his wife decided they weren’t ready to put Brady in daycare, says the movie is certainly exaggerated. For instance, he always did the laundry and the cooking, and liked grocery shopping, so he’s had no real befuddled moments in either arena . “I might not have gotten into a fight with a vacuum cleaner, but I have wrestled with a baby puree food blender,” he says.
But there are areas he’s less skilled in. Because his wife enjoys researching baby gear, he’s had plenty of moments at BabiesRUs or Buy Buy Baby where he got the wrong thing — a stroller that wasn’t safe enough or not what his wife had imagined. “I’m like, ‘Whatever, I’m pushing him around. I don’t care if it’s $30 or $300. Let’s just get him out the door.’”
In Mr. Mom, Butler finds himself glomming on to a group of all moms for a weekly poker game because there are no dad groups. In 2016, while dad groups certainly abound, Sliozis says it hasn’t been easy for him to find them in suburban Los Angeles, where he, his wife and Brady live. He’s not sure why that is, just that it isn’t a natural thing for him to gravitate toward.
His wife, however, is in a mommy group, and Sliozis says she reports back to him on any information he might need. It’s not that he wouldn’t enjoy the outlet or camaraderie, it’s that his free time is so limited that he can’t imagine spending that precious break at the park trying to “befriend someone I might not want to see later. Like, do I really want to invest in this right now?”
Though Sliozis had a better sense that childcare wouldn’t exactly be easy, he also didn’t realize how hard it would be, writing on his blog, “I foolishly thought full-time dadding was like a full-time job. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eight hours with lunch and Facebook check-in breaks then done. It’s really, really not. It’s like a full-full-time job.”
Also like Butler, he struggles with the idea that he should be contributing equally to the family financially, even as he handles all the kid care and domestic responsibilities. His wife is “providing everything financially for this family,” he says. “What I’m doing is technically a job, but I can’t help buy plane tickets for vacation or pay bills, so there’s a weird financial weight I’m carrying around.”
But as the film goes on, Jack and Carolyn eventually arrive at a more sympathetic view of the others’ sacrifices and complaints. In the tidy narrative of many romantic comedies, Butler realizes being an engaged father is real work, and the experience is legitimately humanizing; Carolyn realizes that long hours and corporate climbing aren’t so fulfilling if the trade-off is missing major holidays, baby’s first words or seeing your children learn to help out around the kitchen. In one scene, as Carolyn jets off to California to oversee the filming of a commercial for a top client, leaving Jack and the kids to trick-or-treat without her, Jack tells her to remember what she told him once: “It’s real easy to forget what’s important. So don’t.”
What’s important is, ostensibly, not retrograde notions of what role men or women are supposed to play to achieve domestic harmony, but the family unit as a whole.
And yet — that ending. One major criticism of Mr. Mom is that at the end of the film, Butler gets his job back, and through a series of mishaps for his wife Carolyn, she happily opts to leave the working world and rejoin the family as a caretaker, as if this is the natural order of things, as if to say, now that they’ve both seen the view from the other side, they can go back where they belong.
Sliozis says that’s where his family parts company with the 1983 portrayal. Their roles are based more on their personalities and skill set. Though Sliozis enjoyed a long career in digital marketing, he wasn’t averse to the domestic arts. “I enjoy cooking, grocery shopping and laundry, and she enjoys long days at the office,” he says.
Of course, women are still largely default primary caregivers, even as recent research shows them increasingly playing the role of main breadwinner. But what’s also been increasingly documented is that the experience of early parenthood rarely aligns with what any new parent expects it to be like for men or women. Blogs and first-person accounts abound from women, too, expressing shell-shock and bewilderment at their perception versus reality.
“There are many dads who don’t know you can’t just order cheese at the deli counter,” Sliozis says, referring to the scene in Mr. Mom where Butler holds up a crowd of frustrated moms asking the deli clerk to repeat the dozen different cheese options he’s supposed to choose from. “Or how to drop off their kids at school. But on the flip side, there are probably moms who are the same way. There are definitely people who aren’t in touch with what’s going on, who are thrown into the deep end, and they don’t know what to do.”
About halfway through Mr. Mom, Butler gets his act together. With almost military precision, he tackles the laundry, grocery shopping, school drop-off, child care, and starts to take pride in his looks, his home and his role as a father and parent. Were it not for the tidily gendered ending, we might have a Mr. Mom who decides he’s pretty good at this stay-at-home thing after all — while his wife keeps climbing the ladder.
Sliozis says that’s the main difference now between real life and the movie. That in spite of these universals, the experience isn’t so much about gender. It’s about awareness and who’s suited to what. “I think we’re softer on the lines now,” he explains. “Everyone should be pitching in their 50 percent, whatever that is.”
And while it feels strange for Sliozis not to be working within a structure of praise from bosses and reliable metrics, he can at least see that he’s ushering in the life of a thriving child. “[Brady] is crawling and talking and chatting, and I’m glad I have been here for it. There’s nothing my job could offer me to keep me there instead of here. I’m watching a person grow.”
Tracy Moore is a staff writer at Vocativ, a contributor to Jezebel and the author of Oops! How to Rock the Mother of All Surprises.