When we talk about mothers, it is often in the context of not being—or feeling—good enough. Motherhood is sacrosanct, so you can do any number of things to fail. But when we talk about fathers, good enough is more than enough, and occasionally better than expected. This is because we can’t seem to get over the idea of mother-as-primary-caregiver.
A recent Pew poll showed that although 40% of American households are now led by “breadwinner moms,” a little over “half (51%) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.” (Single-parent families, same sex-parent families, and blended families always seem to be excluded from these discussions because for some reason antiquated beliefs about traditional marriage creating the best environment for children are pervasive, no matter how much evidence there is to contradict them.)
In other words, dads can’t be primary caregivers! Moms are the most important parents. Really?
I let my kid eat a peanut butter sandwich he found on the floor. We ran out of peanut butter four days ago. I don’t even know where he found it; he hides his treats away which is why I sometimes find crackers in my shoes. I thought it was kind of like a chew toy and that the toddler would be fine—it was totally dehydrated and not even moldy—but Spouse took it away from him.
Clearly I’m not down with this weird sexism that posits that mothers should be the primary caregiver, because I don’t like any trope that’s designed to keep me in my place, which is to say in the home. My home smells weird because the garbage disposal is clogged and I am afraid of it so I won’t put my hand in there to clean it out. Eff that noise. This perverted belief system shoehorns women while simultaneously denigrating men. If the mother is the ideal caregiver, then parenthood is women’s work. The “dad as bumbling idiot” trope basically reduces men to tits on a bull, because ours is not a culture that values “women’s work.” Dads—in our culture and media—are superfluous.
Because everything is all about me, I find this sort of typecasting insulting. Sure, Spouse occasionally asks me the dumbest possible thing—”Where do we keep the plums?”—but it’s not like I don’t ever say anything stupid. I wouldn’t have married him if he was a moron. Unless he was super rich, I guess? Probably not, actually.
Spouse and I are equals, and he is an awesome dad. Plus he has a nice butt and I like his face.
Spouse sleeps a bit later than I do, so I am usually the first to hear Toddler wake up and to go in and get him. Some mornings this is satisfactory, but some mornings Toddler will crane his neck to look past me at the doorway and point. “No, dada,” he will declare. And then he will waddle into our room, shout “Dada!” and Spouse will roll over to my side so Toddler can claim a warm pillow where he will take his morning bottle.
A 2011 study (PDF) from the Boston College Center for Work and Family shows that fathers now face an even greater struggle with work-life conflict than women do. It states: “While we have seen a dramatic increase in a number of types of families, the greatest single change has been the drastic decrease in the ‘traditional family’ consisting of two parents where one works and the other stays at home to care for the children and perform domestic tasks.”
It goes on: “Young fathers today know that they will have working wives. Their wives are likely to be at least as well if not better educated, just as ambitious as they are, and make more money than they do. More importantly, these men feel that being a father is not about being a hands-off economic provider. It’s about paying attention, nurturing, listening, mentoring, coaching, and most of all, being present. It’s also about changing diapers, making dinner, doing drop-offs and pick-ups, and housecleaning. And if that seems as if we are redefining dad, that’s correct, with one small exception. We’re not doing the redefining, the dads are.”
It kind of sounds to me like dads might just be capable human beings or something.
It doesn’t help anyone to pretend as if old-timey gender roles are meaningful and mothers are caregivers and dads are doddering at best and absent or violent at worst. So, let’s get over this nonsense and start giving dads their due. Back to the Boston College study: “It is clear that the degree of work-to-family conflict (i.e. work adversely impacting family life) experienced by fathers in our study was higher than their reported levels of family-to-work conflict (i.e. family responsibilities adversely impacting work).”
This all sounds familiar. I’m calling dibs on the sensational new term “Daddy Wars.” You heard it here first. And when the men start leaning out or opting in or whatever, I would like to write the trend-spotting Atlantic piece. Anyway, maybe … just … maybe we could start talking about parenting as a gender-neutral concept? If we could start doing that, maybe we’d start to see the kind of dialogue that supports both parents—that does not discriminate against parents—whether they are fathers or mothers. Imagine that we could finally do away with “mommy guilt.” I dream of a world where everyone suffers equally, where men and women feel the same amount of guilt for not using cloth diapers or for choosing a daycare based on price.
The Toddler doesn’t care who is the “primary” parent (and some days, like the days we force him to eat anything other than yogurt for dinner, neither parent is ideal). His love follows the person holding the snacks. And that’s kind of awesome, because it is democratic, and because he doesn’t give a shit about my guilt or our guilt or anything. He just wants someone to make dinosaur noises at him and chase him down the hall, or for someone to catch him at the bottom of the slide. Spouse does this, and he does it excellently. He also salves sore bottoms, folds tiny pants and shirts, and lets the Toddler take the stairs, even though it means ten extra minutes to get to our front door.
If you have a good dad, or your kids have a good dad, give him a hug this weekend. If you are a dad, then Happy Father’s Day, good sir. I hope one day you are recognized for all the good you do, and that you too will one day be approached by strangers in the street or the drugstore to hear how much of the baby weight you still have left to lose.