The other day our 4th grader was home sick from school. She was just getting over her fever and had to stay home one more day, because you need to be fever-free for 24 hours before you can go back to school. (I think that kids wanting to play more games on their ipods must have made up this rule).
As usual, I sent her teacher an email to let her know our daughter was still home sick. She evidently did not get that message to the school office, because at about 10 a.m., the phone rang.
Our daughter answered the phone. The secretary from the school, who has known me for five years and knows well that I am an at-home dad, said, “Hi, Anna, is your mom there?”
In today’s society, it is still more common for mom to be the at-home parent or the parent who takes off of work to be home with a sick child. However, this is not exclusively the case anymore. As I mentioned in my piece in December, the census recently reported that 32% of married fathers are the primary caregivers of their children. Which means that asking to talk to mom about a sick child during the day would be wrong about one-third of the time.
What was even more interesting about this situation was that this secretary knew me well. She knew that I am an at-home dad and has seen me at school with our kids hundreds of times. I think she may have met my wife once in the five years our children have attended the school, and I’m sure she would not recognize her if they ran into each other at the grocery store. (She would, however, recognize me.)
And yet, when she called to inquire about our sick daughter, the school’s secretary asked to talk to my wife. “No, my mom’s not here,” our daughter replied, “Do you want to talk to my dad?” I got on the phone and explained that, yes, our daughter was home sick again that day but should be in school tomorrow.
When I hung up, I shook my head in disbelief.
Despite the strides dads have been making over the last 10 or 20 years in taking on more childcare responsibilities, we are still invisible parents. People continue to assume that mom is the primary parent—even when they know dad is at home every day with the kids.
Moms are obviously extremely important parents, and perhaps, overall, more nurturing than dads. I’ll even concede that moms will probably continue to be the primary caregivers in the majority of households.
However, it is clear from recent research and from my own personal experience that dads are equally important and, increasingly, willing to take on a larger role with daily childcare duties.
And this is a wonderful thing for our society.
First of all, research by Dr. Kyle Pruett, a child psychiatrist at Yale University, has found that the presence of actively involved fathers can reduce teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse. Second, fathers who expand into taking on more childcare responsibilities provide moms with more opportunities to advance their careers. In our household, for example, if I didn’t stay home, it would have been nearly impossible for my wife to take promotions requiring extensive travel, which has allowed her to climb the corporate ladder much faster than most of her colleagues.
It is time for all of us to get past this notion that parenting is primarily a woman’s role. Parenting can be done as effectively by men as by women. Parenting is, and can be, gender neutral.
Assuming that mom is the primary caregiving parent is not only inaccurate much of the time, but it also keeps men from feeling comfortable asserting themselves in a more active parenting role. Many fathers today want to be more involved with their children, but are made to feel that this is wrong when others are frequently looking to their wives for information about their children. These men feel like they are supposed to be the “back-up parent,” as George Clooney describes his character in the Golden-Globe-winning film The Descendants.
Dads aren’t—and shouldn’t be made to feel like—“back-up parents.” They are equal partners to moms in parenting. I want to live in a world in which dads can be comfortable in the benefits and sacrifices of raising children because parenting truly is, in our rapidly evolving society, gender neutral.
Al Watts is a nine-year veteran at-home dad to four children ages 9, 7, 4, and 3 in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the President of Daddyshome, Inc – The National At-Home Dad Network and writes a weekly blog on a popular mom’s website, Momaha.com and monthly here at Role/Reboot.