Mr Mom: an insider’s retrospective

Mr Mom (1983) is a major Hollywood film, starring Michael Keaton and Teri Garr, about a man called Jack who loses his job and ends up caring for his children while his wife, Caroline, goes out to work.

I like to think it couldn’t be made now. At this point there are enough men who are not breadwinners, or at least enough people who understand that this shouldn’t matter, that the premise no longer seems whimsical.

If anything, it’s a surprise that it could have been made as recently as 1983. I mean, watch this trailer.

“He became the lady of the house”? What the hell?

I have a special interest in Mr Mom because my life is approximately the same as Jack’s. That is, I’m a stay-at-home dad, but I wasn’t always.

The first thing to say is that Mr Mom is much more nuanced than its trailer suggests. While the cinematic trailer does indeed frame Jack’s predicament as an absurd and mind-boggling violation of the natural order, in the actual film he just gets on with it like a good sport and nobody really raises an eyebrow.

This more or less reflects my own experience. While it’s not always easy to be a “lady of the house” when you’re a man, nobody has ever ridiculed my lifestyle to my face. When I tell people what I do they tend to be indifferent, though older people are often effusively supportive, presumably to mask their deep shock.

Even so, I sense that assumptions are made about my competence as a male full-time parent, and I sometimes play up to these. My tacit role whenever I speak with the women who run the office at my children’s school is the hopeless, forgetful, congenitally useless dad, which suits me because that’s actually what I am. The widespread assumption that I’m a fish out of water – or at least my own assumption that that’s how everybody sees me – allows me to get away with not trying to appear competent, which is clearly an excellent perk of being a man which isn’t available to women, who have to suffer the burden of assumed competence.

Mr Mom gets this about right, with some dramatic licence. On his first day in charge of the home, Jack goes to the supermarket, clutching a shopping list that his wife wrote for him. His children knock over displays, he can’t decide which kind of ham to buy, and at one point he even loses his youngest child – a baby – altogether. His closest character analogue from the world of film is Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan during the battle at Ramelle. Watch.

Later on he tries to do the laundry. He overloads the machine with detergent and it judders ominously, before exploding. A TV repair person, a pest control person, and a plumber all arrive at roughly the same time and compete for his attention while he runs around trying to keep his children alive and his house intact. He succeeds, but only just.

Over time, Jack loses pride in his appearance. He wears his wife’s glasses for some reason (if they share a prescription, why doesn’t he have his own glasses?), along with a dirty old flannel shirt that he never washes. He puts on weight (like me), and grows a careless beard (like me), exhibiting the signs of a person in a state of mourning or deep depression (still me).

Obviously, this is a comic exaggeration of what happens when an inexperienced parent takes over the running of a household, but there’s a kernel of truth in it. When I took over I genuinely couldn’t work out how to get my eldest daughter ready for school in the morning. I went absolutely batshit on a daily basis as I scrambled to iron clothes, clean teeth, and brush hair within the time allowed. Every school run was a furious wrist-yanking speed march in time bomb conditions.

But that was then. Jack eventually learns how to run his house like a pro, and so have I. I now have to get TWO children ready for school, rather than just one, and I even have to make a packed lunch for one of them due to an ill-advised moment of indulgence several months ago that I cannot reverse. And it’s easy.

I was probably a bit more competent than Jack at the outset, and arguably a bit less competent by the end of the film, when Jack successfully runs the household for a day and prepares a gourmet dish for his wife after the children have gone to bed, which I have never done, nor attempted, and never will. But I think Jack and I went on more or less the same journey, from idiotic buffoon to proficient homemaker.

***

There are respects in which our stories diverge, however. Mr Mom has something to say about the dangers that await men and women who venture outside their respective habitats. When Caroline starts going to work in an office it soon becomes apparent that her male boss wants to seduce her, and his eventual attempt at this almost certainly constitutes sexual assault. Meanwhile at home Jack ends up in the sexual crosshairs of a glamorous divorcee, who bamboozles him with her cleavage and even climbs onto his bed.

Nothing of this kind has happened to me.

Yes, Jack is far more personable than I am, but the ease with which he integrates himself into the community of housewives and mothers is still a bit of a stretch. And I have to say the film loses points here in its gender politics, because he doesn’t just integrate. He dominates. Pretty soon his wife’s former friends are congregating at his house, where he shows them the error of their ways by teaching them how to play poker instead of the inferior, female game of bridge. His amorous pursuer turns on the charm, despite his hirsute appearance, unwashed clothes, expanding waistline, and the unappealing disorder of his home. (This isn’t a gender politics issue in particular. It just doesn’t seem fair.)

But there’s another striking gender politics misstep in Mr Mom, and it concerns Jack’s continued search for a job. Jack’s wife finds work before him, and it emerges that she’s at least as talented an advertising executive as he is an engineer. So, great, you’d think. The family is saved. The instigating problem – loss of household income – has been solved, and all that remains is for Jack to attain the level of competence and satisfaction in his new role as his wife once enjoyed.

That’s broadly the arc of Mr Mom, but something odd keeps happening. Even though Caroline is gainfully employed, Jack keeps going to interviews. Why? There are two possible explanations. A) Caroline isn’t paid enough in her advertising job to support the family. And B) Jack is a man.

According to Payscale.com, the median salary for an advertising executive is $43,653, while an automotive engineer earns $74,363 on average. Assuming the relative status of these professions hasn’t changed too dramatically in the last 30 years, this lends some weight to explanation A. But why wouldn’t the script make this clear? How hard would it have been to include an extra line of dialogue explaining that Caroline is working pro tem while Jack finds more lucrative employment?

For that reason, I suspect explanation B is correct. After all, there are numerous examples of fictional advertising executives earning a comfortable living (Bewitched, Friends, The Crazy Ones). For all that Mr Mom seems remarkably progressive, it still contains an underlying assumption that Jack will go back to work. In order to satisfy audience expectations in 1983, the absurd anomaly of Jack’s male worklessness must end.

As it happens, the film resolves this issue with a cleverly ambiguous fudge. Caroline quits her job after her boss sexually assaults her, but her boss shows up at her house and begs her to come back. At precisely the same moment, Jack’s former employer shows up and begs him to come back too. The credits roll while negotiations are still ongoing, so the audience can make its own mind up about how things pan out.

***

The scene in the film that best evokes my own experience is the one where Jack brings Caroline dinner in their bedroom and they have an argument. Here it is.

I’ve had pretty much this exact conversation, though my wife was nicer to me than Caroline is to Jack.

“My brain is like oatmeal,” Jack says. “I yelled at Kenny today for colouring outside the lines. Megan and I are starting to watch the same TV shows, and I’m liking them. I’m losing it.”  

Check, check, check.

I once had an idle conversation with my wife, to pass the time on a long drive, about how many anonymous people we’d be prepared to kill or let die to save our children. The answer, of course, was all of the people on Earth, anonymous or otherwise. As you would rightly expect, nothing matters more to me than my children, and, when I’m in the right mood, nothing delights me more. Yet I crave their absence almost constantly, and I’m certain that they have dulled my brain, shortened my life, and radically diminished me as a person.

Honey, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve been there myself, okay?

This is the bit that shames me. Whenever I go into a sulk, which is every day for between two and five hours depending on the Radio 4 schedule, I’m aware that the condition I’m bemoaning is the one that women have been expected to put up with for centuries. I didn’t really sympathise before. I do now.

Well if you were so unhappy why didn’t you say something about it?

Many women did, of course. I grew up watching the Carla Lane sitcoms that my mother watched, about disaffected housewives and underappreciated matriarchs. The sitcom Butterflies and the movie Shirley Valentine were about women who had given up work to look after their children. I have to admit that I played devil’s advocate back then. What about the husbands? I thought. Do you think they enjoy going out to work every day? Don’t you think they might like to stay at home and watch soap operas instead? What a fool I was.

Look, maybe I was a little confused. Maybe I was a little frustrated. But I knew what I was doing was important, because it means something to raise decent human beings. What saw me through was pride. I had pride in the kids. I had pride in this house, and I had pride in being Mrs Jack Butler.

This is great. This is exactly how a person should feel about staying at home and looking after their children. But for some people, maybe most people, pride is elusive. It’s a purely theoretical phenomenon, easily eclipsed by the actual boredom, anger, and frustration that giving up work to care for a small child can engender.

I wish I could see things the way Caroline does. It’s not clear whether Jack ever gets to, but he certainly seems happier by the time his former employer shows up to restore harmony to the universe by putting him back to work in a loud manly factory.

Is there a message about gender in the different ways that Caroline and Jack understand the role of full-time parent? Yes and no. Mostly no. Like many stay-at-home fathers raised in a patriarchal society, I occasionally feel embarrassed not to be out at work all day, providing for my family. But Jack is much more mature than me, and doesn’t seem to have that hang-up at all. He just struggles with the logistical and mental challenges of full-time parenting, like anyone – male or female – would if they were suddenly required to do it.

Eventually he starts to experience the perks. In one scene, as Caroline is about to abandon the family on Halloween to shoot a commercial in LA, Jack tells her, “Megan just cut two new teeth. I bet you didn’t know that. Alex is playing football. Remember Kenny’s security blanket? He doesn’t have it any more. He doesn’t use it. It’s gone.”

Jack is set up as the wisdom-dispensing good guy in this scene, but I find his remarks a bit unkind. Caroline, her eyes shining, is powerless to do anything about it. “You gave me some real good advice once,” Jack continues. “So now let me give you some of mine: it’s real easy to forget what’s important. So don’t.”

This is an oversimplification, of course. Family is important, but so is having an identity outside of family, and aspirations that are particular to your own sense of what you’re cut out for and what you can achieve.

Being a full-time parent robs you of all that. But it gives you other things in return, such as the (absolutely reprehensible) secret thrill of knowing that you are the winning parent – the one your child runs to after an absence, and seeks out after a nightmare.

As consolations go, that’s okay.

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