This originally appeared at The Mamafesto. Republished here with permission.
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 one 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 one week of paid vacation and two 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 and 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.
Avital Norman Nathman is a play-at-home-mama, feminist, wife, writer, and activist (in no particular order). Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine (and website), Ms. Blog, Bamboo Family Magazine, Gender Across Borders and more. When she’s not hosting dance parties in her kitchen, she’s knee-deep in dirt in her teensy urban garden, nose deep in some young adult lit, or off in search of the perfect cup of Chai.