One of the fun things about Facebook (you know, besides profile-stalking) is connecting with old friends. It’s especially neat when you find yourselves not only waxing nostalgic about the “good old times” (aka the ’90s), but when you can find some current common ground to chat about.
I’ve been recently messaging back and forth with Maya, a friend from high school. She has a little baby boy, and she got in touch, letting me know that she’s been reading along with what I post and mulling it all over in her mind. Despite some differing thoughts, we’ve had a great discussion about boys, gender, and expectations. Then, the other day, she wrote to me about something she and her husband Uri have been talking about lately:
Will you please write a blog about the gender inequality among parents? Uri’s trying desperately to be totally egalitarian – but we often feel it’s impossible. Prenatal books all picture moms on the front and focus on the mom inside. Our birth certificate did not require a dad – nor did any of the nurses ask his name. Our bathtub is “mommy’s helper,” our play group is “upper west side mommys.” Don’t get me started about Mount Sinai’s one day paternity leave. How can we expect our kids to be open minded if we box ourselves even before they are conceived?
The part I bolded above really hit home for me. It reminded me of when I was still pregnant, and MD called his company, asking about their family/paternity leave policy. The response was disheartening. Before he was even able to get a response, the person he spoke with actually questioned his decision. He couldn’t comprehend why MD would want to stay at home with his wife and new baby. If I recall correctly, the employee even shared how he was happy to get back to work and leave the baby stuff to the wife.
We were finally able to acquire 1 week of paid family leave. In our minds, that wasn’t enough, but MD’s place of employment didn’t support anything further financially. So we wracked our brains, trying to figure out a way to make it work. In the end, he also took 1 week of paid vacation and 2 weeks of unpaid leave, giving us one month home together as a new family.
But back to Maya’s point. The fact that MD’s boss was incredulous over the fact that we would sacrifice a paycheck or two to have him home with us in that first month is exemplary of the larger issue at play here. So many times I’ve heard fathers referred to like babysitters, as people wonder if and when he “watches the kids,” like it’s not an automatic part of his life.
It’s not so hard to understand how folks get to that way of thinking. Despite years of feminist fighting to allow women the same chances and choices as men, there is still a deep-seated societal belief that women (whether working or not) are inherently responsible for the majority of child-rearing. We birth them, so we obviously are the only ones capable of caring for them. [Insert any number of eye-rolling gifs here]
This notion is hammered in again and again in books, television shows, movies, advertisements, playgroups, etc… As Maya mentioned, take a look at many of the products marketed towards parents of infants. The majority of them are mommy-centric, leaving dad off to the side or nowhere in the picture.
A quick scan through Target’s online baby section (and they’re not alone in this – the majority of big-box stores follow this pattern) exemplifies this not-so-surprising phenomenon.
(On the plus side, the one – and only – picture of a man that I saw in the baby section was in the infant carrier section. But his head was partially cut off.)
Even when men are depicted as care-takers, there is usually humor involved to swallow the idea that males can also be nurturing and adept at parenting. (fast-forward to 1:00 for proof)
Not only does this promote the erroneous stereotype that all men are incompetent, bumbling fools, but it adds insult to injury by insisting that men are not naturally equipped to safely care for their own children. You have to wonder then, how do all of those 2-daddy households manage to do it without misplacing their child? My heart goes out to Neil Patrick Harris & David Burtka’s two young twins who no doubt will end up trapped in a washing machine any day now.
The number of articles/blog posts/Facebook status updates I have read that lament the fact that husbands/fathers are not as active or involved in the lives of their children make me simultaneously sad and frustrated. Sure, some of these guys might be total tools, but at the same time, most are probably going with what society feeds them. If we’re not being inclusive, and not only welcome, but expect, fathers to be an equal part in the parenting process, then it practically encourages men to shrug off the responsibility.
At the same time, by excluding (and excusing) men from the early parenting process, we’re essentially shackling children to their mothers, by implying nobody else can properly care for their needs. All of these little things (“mommy group” instead of “parenting group” or “mommy’s helper bathtub,” ignoring the father at the hospital, etc…) add up to negatively impact both men and women.
So how do we change this? As trite as it sounds…be the change you want to see. Normalize the fact that parenting is 50-50. That (as unbelievable as it sounds) men are just as capable of changing diapers, taking on nighttime duties, hanging out with the kids, etc… as women are. Roll your eyes and speak up against the inanity of movies like the one above.
Above all – change expectations. If we buy into the false expectations that society throws at us via marketing, television, movies, and more, then we’re just feeding the problem. Mothers and fathers may have varying styles of parenting, but that doesn’t automatically mean that dads are simply incapable of doing much more than keep the kids alive.
Related: Mars Isn’t Such a Nice Place via The Good Men Project
Thanks for this post. I am a new Dad and I felt very irritated by the lack of information for new fathers. Here in Seattle, there is one parenting class geared towards Dads by an entrepreneur. It turned out to be extremely basic stuff, how to change a diaper, how to swaddle. The facilitator spoke with great pride as he described how a tear fell when his son was born, and how unashamed by this he was. I thought- really? Is this all we get? What about emotionally mature men who intentionally entered into parenthood? He even said at one point, “When my wife was breast feeding, I realized that her boobs were no longer my play toy.” Seriously. Wow.
Another interesting side of this is that my wife needs a lot of breastfeeding support, and some drop in groups we went to would not allow fathers in. I think this is kind of conflicted- folks who are working hard to increase and improve breastfeeding relationships but are strict on it being a women’s only space. I felt like an ass dropping my wife and son off while I had coffee across the street for two hours. On the other hand, I would not want mothers to feel intruded upon.
You are right on, though. If all I did was watch tv, I would likely feel that I, as a man and a father, am incapable of raising my son to be a gentleman, buying my wife gifts she will actually like, managing my fiber intake, smelling tolerable, or reading (without my wife’s monitoring, that is.) I always found it ironic that in real life, people defer to me over my wife. In tv world, it’s the other way around. From this, what do I tell my boy?
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Matt. It’s amazing how “dumbed down” parenting discussion can get when targeted at men. Sure, some of it might be gimmicky (dads can use duct tape to help secure diapers, ha ha!) but it plays on this underlying societal belief that men just don’t have as much investment in parenting as women – and that’s total BS.
Re: fathers coming into nursing/lactation classes. I think talking to the instructor/facilitator is an excellent start. Even if men aren’t invited into that particular class, maybe they can offer a class that *does* invite both partners into the mix. It is 100% understandable that some (or many) new mothers might want a women-only group, but that doesn’t mean that a group for both men & women can’t also be offered. I know that I was able to successfully nurse our son for as long as I did because I had amazing support from my husband. Otherwise? It would have been much easier to quit before I knew my son was ready.
One of the things that I have loved most about seeing my husband become a father has been watching the gears start to engage. Seeing him come up to me in the store with a product that we were looking for and hearing him say, “This is BS, it’s all “mommy” this and “mommy” that.” And he’s not quiet about it. He’s (apparently) engaged a couple of other fathers in these sorts of conversations at work – and has learned to speak up about the ways that he is lauded, or excluded based on his maleness. He’s become a vocal proponent of co-sleeping, breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and baby wearing. He expected to be a bystander, but once he started having the opportunity to be in the game…he started to see how he wasn’t expected, or really encouraged to be, so he started to figure out his own way to be involved.
The biggest, most visible way that he engaged was with diaper changes. And it was the most visible because it was often the way that he was able to publicly interact in establishments that DID NOT have changing facilities available in their men’s rooms. He quickly would call over a manager and ask, with me often sitting feet away, “Where can I change my child’s diaper? There’s no table in the men’s room.” I would receive a glance from the manager with the usual response, “Well, there’s a changing table in the women’s room.” At which time he would reply, “Okay, well, can I use it? Because *I* need to change the diaper.” And then we’d usually change the diaper on a semi-private bench somewhere. And go home and write a letter. I can’t tell you how many letters we wrote…
I’m loud about sexism (really, all -isms.). I point it out constantly (I annoy myself sometimes…there’s just so much of it…), and he’s started to see it just as often as I do. How marketing is directed at boys, how it’s directed at girls. How that marketing impacts the way we perceive our expected roles within our communities. How we are conditioned to want to be valued, and how we learn behaviors that will give us that validation. It’s been amazing to see.
And yeah, the change…be loud. Express the concern. To Matt, the commenter above, talk to the breastfeeding support group leader – express your interest in wanting to be supportive and respectful at the same time. Maybe they’ve never heard of a male wanting to be involved. If we don’t talk about the stuff we’d like to see happen differently it won’t change.
I’m confident that it will change. There are a LOT of people talking about it right now. It might not happen immediately, (important things rarely DO happen quickly) but I think it will happen. I have to think it will happen, because if I think it won’t, my activist heart dies a little.
oh I LOVE that your husband did that re:diaper changing! If anything, it would hopefully at least get individuals at these places to think about these things, even if corporate didn’t respond to your letters.
I’m confident and hopeful that it will change as well – I just get disheartened when Hollywood keeps trotting out inane movies like this that just continue to perpetuate these awful stereotypes and fallacies.
The best thing I ever did early on in The Jillian’s life was to disappear for a couple of hours every weekend. We were exclusively nursing, so I couldn’t go too far for too long, but I’d feed her and then run out the door all “Byeeeee!” leaving What’s-His-Name to parent the kid. I didn’t leave a long list of instructions/admonitions. He was perfectly capable of figuring it out. He needed to get to know her on the instinctual level the same way I did. And that was the best thing I ever did. It set the tone for our parenting relationship and also allowed him to get to know her in the same way I already did.
Now she’s 5, and I am really proud of the way her relationshiop with What’s-His-Name has blossomed. They are two peas in a pod.
Yes, that’s the other thing. If parents (mothers or fathers) don’t get down and dirty with the real deal parenting stuff right from the start, then it makes forming a relationship with the kiddos as they get older a little trickier. so glad old What’s-His-Name didn’t lose The Jillian at the park 😉
My husband finds this really irritating also. He feels like he isn’t ‘allowed’ by society to be a part of the family, that the dads role is presented as an observer rather then a participator. Not just with the kids but with the running of the family/home in general. He insists of being 50/50 (as do I!) because he feels that if he is only managed rather then managing then he doesn’t have ownership in the family, without the responsibility and the hands on stuff dads may as well be an amusing piece of furniture for all the importance they hold in their kids day to day lives.
Sadly my husbands opinion is not at all widely held, and he feels very judged by many of his male friends for wanting to be involved. The instant assumption of many is that of the dad pitches in then his partner must be ‘forcing’ him. It would Nea sad world indeed if caring for our children was only done because of sheer necessity rather than joy and love.
“The instant assumption of many is that of the dad pitches in then his partner must be ‘forcing’ him.” <–yes! I hate that assumption as well!
It must be nice to have the kind of privilege where you can forgo a paycheck or two. Most new families don’t have that option.
Certainly, and I’m quite aware of just how privileged my family is. However, the main reason we were able to do what we did (My husband taking off unpaid time) was not due to his job, but rather due to the fact that *I* had been the sole income earner the previous 4 years as a high school teacher while my husband had been going to school. *I* had been the one supporting us and saving so that when he finally started working full time we were able to make that choice.
However, that’s not really my point here. What if a new family decides that having a parent home full time is what they would like to do, and the mother pulls in the higher income? Beyond that, we should be fighting for more paid family/paternity leave anyway, so families don’t even NEED to make that choice.
My brother is a single dad and is raising his daughter perfectly well on his own. Its frustrating for me to see how few opportunities are given to single dads versus single moms. If a mother and her child are at the grocery store alone, I bet they rarely get “Aww, where’s the daddy?” Not true if the gender roles are reversed.
exactly! or they turn it into a super special deal that Daddy is doing something with the kids, like “aw, an afternoon date with daddy – aren’t you lucky?” – Nobody every tells my son he’s lucky for grabbing a muffin & tea with me because that’s the expectation. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to deal with these stereotypes on a daily basis as a single father.
There’s one thing I’d like to add.
Dads, and men in general, are also looked upon by society as potential child molestors which gives the good men and Dads another reason not to involve themselves even with their own kids.
In this day and age, a simple display of affection towards children by men can be enough to brand them perverts. So many have to walk on eggshells when caring for children just because of the widespread paranoia towards men’s interactions with children, implying anything and everything they do has a sexual undertone to their actions.
This adds to their fear of ever getting involved with kids in any setting. One false accusation of sexual abuse will be enough to ruin their lives and careers, even if it were proven false.
Society asks “Where are all the good male role models for their children?”
To which I’ll reply “The boy who cried wolf too many times killed them off.”
This is certainly a valid (and upsetting) concern. My hope would be that the more we can normalize the fact that men can have just as equal a role in caring for children that the fear will be less prevalent.
yes… my spouse was the stay at home for two years when our child was born. The other mommies always gave him weird looks and wouldn’t talk to him (although the (mostly immigrant) nannies couldn’t care less, which was interesting)
I wrote something once, but then closed the window before I got to enter it. This response is not as well-put, and much longer. My apologies to anyone who decides to read it all!
*There’s definitely a disparity in how people see dads and moms – but taking care of children is not a widely respected choice to begin with. Look at how some parents discuss their nannies or babysitters (or other people’s), and listen to how some parents respond to “What do you do” answers that include “home with the kids.” Even some parents who are have chosen (by necessity or desire) to be at home try to “enhance” the perception by adding in various activities or “but I also” examples. I do it – not as much anymore, but I still fill in “high school teacher” on doctor’s forms…after years of not being one (I’m still on leave! Really!).
So add on the relatively small percentage of men who choose to take on that role, and you end up with a lot of first-time reactions from folks. Care-taking dads is nothing new, but it is something that is in its growing stages. Dads choosing to use carriers over strollers (like in that ad) still looks “new” – and dads taking more than one kid to the park to do more than throw a ball still lags behind moms taking a gaggle of kids to the playground. And that’s in my area where a lot of moms and dads are at home due to freelance working or home offices or just plain old choice.
I’ll grant that I don’t feel like it’s a big issue because my area DOES have changing tables in the men’s and women’s rooms (if they have them!) or there are generic bathrooms. And while I have heard some dads complain about people thinking they are apt to make a lot of mistakes, I’ve also heard that from younger moms and from moms of mixed race kids when they are assumed to be the nanny. Personally, I think a lot of it goes back to the currently accepted attitude of criticism for just about ANY parenting practices.
I definitely get that when something is growing we need to nurture it and not tear it down, but I thought the movie clip was funny and self-deprecating. In the same vein that moms make fun of themselves about the kid going head first into the garbage looking for a snack or the way the “three martini playdate” idea had so much attention in the past. Still? And when a product attempts to make the effort (Tide’s Dad-Mom) it gets ripped on anyway. Granted, the short version is a lot better than the long version, and another Mom and Dad commercial shows the mom re-folding the shirts that dad just folded…but now I’m doing what I said we shouldn’t…
Anyway, yes, I agree men need more options. Dads need more respect and less Ooohing and Aaahing when they do something right – because they *can* do it without the peanut gallery cheering or booing them. But I’d push it out to say that parents need more options and support. So many of the issues that we discuss in these forums come down to class issues. Maternity leave is a class issue to start, not a gender issue. My manager at Friendly’s took three days. *Three days* from work after the birth of her second child because she was paid by the hour. She couldn’t afford more. Fellow teachers who had used their saved sick days for their first children couldn’t always afford to take the allowed six weeks unpaid, so they didn’t. And teachers are decidedly middle-class.
It’s so funny, and so sad. I was a stay at home dad who worked nights back in the early 90’s, and I was the ONLY one who was around at the pickups, drop offs, etc. It’s the usual bullshit. You can do whatever you set your mind to, and there is no gender specific better or worse here. Net result: I am 1000% closer with my sons than my parents were with me, and I’m the better for it. And don’t ever think that eating lunch with 5 or 6 hot moms while our kids played on the playground was the worst hour I ever spent.
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I love this post, and I love it that you are discussing this issue–and your suggested fix is spot-on. We all have to start making changes in our own lives, to be the change we want to see, for society as a whole to change.
I am so happy I found Mamafesto–my blog, Yo Mama, is also a feminist blog that examines motherhood, as well as cultural issues around gender in general. My post Woman’s Work (http://elizabethhallmagill.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/womans-work/) discusses the influence that gendered toys have on the ways we see male and female roles in society.
I plan to link to Mamafesto, and I can’t wait to read more!
Elizabeth Hall Magill
Hi Elizabeth! Thanks so much for chiming in and sharing your post. It’s always heartening to hear from folks that add to this important discussion! Also – if you’re interested in participating in the This Is What A Feminist Looks Like series – I’d love to have you!
I’m surprised that there is no mention of Parents Magazine. You know, the one with all the articles that are written for Moms. Totally disheartening every time I pick up a copy. The ads alone say it all, but it doesn’t take long to figure out the target audience.
At any rate, there is no reason that any man cannot be a parent as well as a father. Another unfortunate thing I’ve noticed along the way is how many moms use the “men are incompetent” excuse to belittle their husbands. There is no family-related task that men or women can’t do, and your Neil Patrick-Harris example exemplifies this beautifully!
I would add one piece of advice for the dad that wants to be involved, and that would be to start a twitter profile and follow parenting blogs. Once you get to 200 or 300 you realize that there is a much more diverse and sane group of parents in the real world.
Thanks for the reaffirming post, and to @NYCDadsGroup for reposting it… I’m glad I didn’t miss it!
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