THESE DAYS, FATHERS ARE MORE INVOLVED with their children than dads of any previous generation. They are figuring out how to interact with their kids without having any models for this kind of parenting. This dad-involvement has an impact on children, too: a study showed that children whose fathers assumed 40% or more of the family’s care tasks had better academic achievement than children whose fathers were less involved. It’s a new frontier, and more involvement by a dad also means less pressure and dependence on mom to be the sole childcare provider — the days of the male breadwinner and stay-at-home housewife are theoretically mostly past, unless people choose to fulfill those roles by choice.
So why aren’t we closer to gender equality in the home? In 2011, women did an average 18 hours a week of household chores, while men did only 10…and men had 28 hours of leisure time per week compared to women’s 25. Mothers in 2011 spent 13.5 hours a week with their kids, compared to 7.3 hours per week for fathers — triple what it was in 1965 (2.5 hours), it’s still nowhere near equal. So what can we avoid doing and saying to help move away from the huge disparity in gender roles?
1. “Oh, are you babysitting?”
No, actually, when a man is spending time with his child, it’s called “parenting.” He is not a babysitter. A babysitter is someone unrelated to the child being paid to take care of them. The implication here is that men know less about their child’s wants and needs than a woman would, so any caretaking they do is temporary, and will end when the REAL parent comes back. This is pretty offensive to two-dad couples, and also encourages dads to think of their own contribution to childcare as “extra,” rather than a base requirement of having a kid.
2. “I bet you’ll buy a shotgun when she starts having boyfriends!”
Ew. There is so much wrong with this kind of statement. Why are we sexualizing pre-pubertal children by thinking about them having partners? Why are we assuming that this girl is heterosexual? Why are we implying that a father has control over his daughter’s body or choices? Why are we encouraging an attitude of casual and somehow excusable violence towards other children? And to those who observe friendly toddlers handing someone a cracker or giving them a hug and call them “little flirts”: gross.
3. “Your life is over.”
This isn’t entirely false; the way you choose to spend your time, and your responsibilities, will definitely change after having a child. But fathers have been making cool art, learning to juggle knives, and taking their kids to the Galapagos Islands for years…it’s not like having a baby automatically erases your entire personality and lifestyle. You are still YOU, only now you have to consider someone else’s needs before your own. Making a father feel like he’s losing his identity just because he might not be able (or want) to party with his friends every weekend minimizes the growth and change that he is experiencing and makes him feel crappy about the new person he is becoming. In a world where women do the bulk of emotional labour, encouraging dads to participate in family activities without shame or blame is important.
4. “There’s no changing table in the men’s room.”
Our first trip to Target after our baby was born, my husband went off to the bathroom to change her diaper…and came back in a huff, since there wasn’t a changing table. It made us so mad we left Target without buying anything, which is a pretty impressive feat. It’s 2016. There should be a changing table in EVERY public restroom — and while we’re at it, why do we have gender-specific restrooms in the first place? — since parents of every gender presentation have to change diapers when they’re out and about. We could just do what I’ve had to do in some supposedly child-friendly restaurants, and change a poopy diaper on a spare table, a bench seat, or the hostess stand. (Target’s recent employee policy encouraging workers to support breastfeeding makes me more sympathetic to them, however)
5. “Wow, good for you! That’s amazing!”
Everyone likes to hear they’re doing a good job…but telling a dad he’s doing a great job just for getting a kid’s pants on the right way around is patronizing. It also discounts all of the work done by mom, since getting a kid fed, clothed, washed, and carted off to baby music jamboree is likely to be seen as just part of her everyday experience and nothing worth complimenting. Wrestling a tantruming toddler, stopping someone from falling under a bus, and successfully producing a complicated hairstyle are all reasons for praise; feeding a baby breakfast should just be considered normal parenting.
6. “Maybe we’d better check with their mom.”
Dads can make parenting decisions too. They are, in fact, usually 50% of a child’s total parents (represent, step and poly families), so why give more weight to one parent over another? Obviously if a major life choice needs to be made — like whether or not your family is moving to Sweden — both parents should be consulted, but that has more to do with taking everyone’s needs into consideration and less to do with mom ruling the roost and dominating all discussions about kid-related stuff.
7. “Your wife is going out of town! Uh oh.”
This article says it so well, I’m just going to quote directly: “We need to stop treating dads like they’re an inept accessory to parenting.” Fathers can dress their children in matching outfits (if that kind of thing is important to them), keep appointments, get a kid some lunch, and even clean the house. Presuming they can’t is treating them like the children they aren’t. There also isn’t one right way to do things — if a father and mother dress their child differently, the only thing that means is that they make different sartorial choices. One way isn’t better, just because the person who does it answers to “mom.”
8. “You didn’t want more than a week of parental leave anyway, right? You’ll just get behind in your work.”
Let’s talk about how ridiculous parental leave policies are in the United States, one of the largest supposedly civilized nations in the world, which gives parents the same amount of time off after birth as Papua New Guinea. Let’s talk about how it’s usually assumed that the mother will be the one staying home, even in countries where there is a substantial amount of paid leave, such that it’s more often than not called “maternity leave” and not “parental leave”. Let’s talk about how dads love their babies too and want to watch them grow and walk and finally learn how to focus their eyes. But yeah, of course: getting ahead at work is definitely the most important part of the conversation.