Why Are There No "Working Dads"?

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Until cultural standards for parenting shift, the absent conversation about what we expect of working dads will never happen, says Jessica Smock.

When was the last time that you were in a doctor’s office and saw “Working Dad” magazine? Does your family subscribe to it?

Probably not. Since it doesn’t exist. 

Sure, some dads—understandably annoyed that women who are paid for employment outside the home are called “working moms” while fathers who work outside the home are just called “dads”—have pointed this out. And there have even been some clever Working Father Magazine designs. (I do love  the headline of “Get Your College Body Back: Drink More Beer.”) Last year Working Mother magazine even temporarily changed its logo to “Working Father” to acknowledge the contributions of dads for Fathers’ Day.

And I was thrilled to see the premiere in January of the first literary magazine for dads—called Kindling Quarterly—that is trying to challenge the stereotype of the domestically challenged American dad with the modern reality of fatherhood in the 21st century. (If you’re tired of reading articles obsessing about the state of modern motherhood in The Atlantic or The New York Times Magazine, this could be the anecdote. Now we can also dissect modern fatherhood and its personal and professional challenges with the same microscopic lens.)

But these few media exceptions don’t change the fact that right now there are just different standards for parenting for mothers and fathers, working and nonworking. We are judged differently, parent differently, integrate parenthood into our identities differently. In our culture, mothers and fathers, for right now at least, are just, well, different. If you don’t believe me, take a few minutes to look up the infinite number of articles written about Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. I can’t imagine that anyone has ever dissected Bill Gates’ parenting choices with such emotional fervor or will ever have much to say about how Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg will potentially negotiate parenthood.

Last week I went to the library with my toddler son. Predictably, he acted like a toddler. He was all over the place—pulling out books, climbing on chairs, doing everything possible so that I would not complete the one simple task of checking out a library book from the computer terminal. I followed him like the dutiful mom, taking away the books, apologizing when he grabbed a computer mouse from the hands of an elderly woman, catching him before he put his hand in the library fish tank.

Then I saw a neighborhood dad with a son who is exactly the same age as my son. And the little guy was exhibiting the identical toddler-like behaviors as my son, except his dad was reading a magazine, not just reading a magazine but totally engrossed in the article. His son was climbing on the train tables, throwing library books around the room, and he just continued reading. He did precisely nothing about it. Eventually, I tapped him on the shoulder and said hello, interrupting his reading. And our eyes looked over to his son, who was in a stand-off with my son over a piece of train track.

“Oh, I just let him do his thing,” he said to me, laughing.

Do “his thing”? I couldn’t even imagine going to a public place and allowing my toddler to be “free range.” But what if I did? All the librarians know me and my son and often commented on his development. What would they say—or the other library patrons from the neighborhood—if I just sat back and read the paper? I may be wrong, but I think the reaction to a mom sitting back and relaxing while her toddler ran wild would be different than if a dad did. I’ve been to enough museums, parks, playgrounds, and birthday parties to know that there would be a difference. 

And even if no one said anything and no one was judging me, I would be afraid—if he hurt himself or got into trouble—of being a “bad mother.”

What does my little story about the library have to do with our expectations for “working dads”?

I know I’m using anecdotal evidence, and as a doctoral student, I’m trained not to do that. But the fact is that expectations for good parenting differentially affect men and women. You are evaluated on different terms—whether you’re female and a CEO, a teacher, or a construction worker—than a dad is.

And that’s not just society’s fault. It’s often our internal inability as moms to “let go” and let dads take over more often or allow our parenting standards to ease up completely. I know I also sound like a pessimist, but until cultural standards for parenting shift, this absent conversation about what we expect of working dads will never happen.

Jessica Smock is a doctoral candidate in educational policy who will be defending her dissertation this spring.  When she is not reading educational policy and blogging at School of Smock about parenting, she is collecting stories of female friendship with her pal, Stephanie.

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