When will people stop treating Lyla Cicero’s husband like a saint just for doing his job as a dad?
When my husband goes out alone with our children—diaper bag and double stroller in tow—the seas part for him as onlookers pause to gawk at the adorable twins, and their brave, laudable father “giving mom a break” by throwing himself on the sword, spending time with his own children. As he ventures triumphantly into the world with not one but two toddlers, crushing gender norms with his bare hands, there is practically a ticker tape parade as females of all ages rush up to commiserate, exclaiming he “must be on duty today,” or even better, is “babysitting.” When Seth shows up for events by himself with the twins, a sea of aunties and grammies rush to his aide, crying “Let me take that one!”
“Oh, does one of them need to be changed? You shouldn’t have to do that.”
“Can I help you feed them? You’ve done enough!”
For over two years I’ve been fielding compliments about my husband’s superior parenting—about how much he loves our children, how capable he is with them, and how “helpful” he is. I’ve also received frequent admonitions that I should be “grateful” to have such an extraordinary husband, and I’d “better be good to him.” My own much-needed venting about anything parenting-related is often followed by, “Well, but Seth does so much,” or “You have Seth, what are you complaining about?”
My aunt repeatedly tells me, beaming proudly, “It’s like your children have two mothers!” For a while, despite a vague sense of annoyance, I politely responded that I was grateful, and yes, I’m very lucky. I would tell myself, “what’s the harm, these people are just impressed, and Seth is impressive.”
But after a while, I started to feel like there was a subtle level of criticism when some of these comments were directed toward me. People often look at me with confusion when Seth is tending to the children, as if to say, “Why aren’t you doing that?” Their comments imply that I should be parenting my children by default, so if my husband is parenting them he is somehow doing me a favor. As a result, I often feel like I’m getting away with something. This adds immeasurably to the almost constant guilt I already struggle with as a mother.
I might as well be sunning myself while being massaged, getting a pedicure, and sipping mimosas the way some people look at me when I sit and have an uninterrupted meal while my husband or other members of our “childcare team” tend to my kids. I have to remind myself it doesn’t make me less of a mother that I have an equal parenting partner, a part-time babysitter, and lots of help from friends and family. I believe it truly does take a village, and for me, having that makes me a better mother.
A few weeks ago, with no prompting, Seth said something to me that meant more than I could have imagined. “It must feel really invalidating to you when people make such a fuss over me doing basic parenting that you do regularly without any positive feedback.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed, “Exactly!”
Of course, we also talked about how offensive the comments people make are to him. The idea that he’s “another mother” suggests he is behaving completely outside of a male role. It suggests that fathers are, by definition, lesser parents, “helper-parents,” or “junior parents,” and that doing what a mother does necessarily rules out being a man.
Seth is a father. He is a man. Men can parent as capably, lovingly, and with the same drive, motivation, and sense of ultimate responsibility as women. But, I doubt they will ever do so in larger numbers if when men do parent, women react by warning other women that “You’d better be good to him!” This implies we will never “keep a man” if we expect too much in the way of parenting and don’t show our eternal gratitude at every moment.
It may feel like positive reinforcement when we rush up to men and gush over their parenting, but it actually sends the message that we don’t expect men to parent the way women do. These views of relationship dynamics are also hetero-normative, and render gay and lesbian partnerships invisible. Same-sex partners don’t have the option of using gender to determine who is the default parent, and yet manage to negotiate this in other ways.
To stress I’m so lucky to have found a man like Seth is also offensive to men in general. It suggests most of them are not capable or willing to be full parents. It also fails to acknowledge that I would never have chosen someone who wouldn’t be a full partner, in childcare and everything else. After all, Seth didn’t just land in my lap, like winning the partner lottery. I was very clear with him about envisioning an egalitarian family life, and he wanted the same thing. I dated plenty of other people who didn’t share my goals of egalitarian parenting. Perhaps some of them didn’t because so many of us, female and male, still see full fatherhood as aberrant instead of expected.
I wonder how I would feel if men came up to me on the street and said things like “I heard you worked a full day today outside the home, you poor thing, you must be beat.”
“Wow, you are really assertive and ambitious, I hope your husband knows how lucky he is!”
What if I went to family parties and male relatives offered, “Can I finish up that paperwork for you, your brain must be tired from all that reading and writing.”
These scenarios sound completely absurd, but they exemplify what it would look sound like if people viewed women as exceptional for performing traditionally male tasks, like working outside the home and possessing traditionally male traits. Why is it so hard for us to embrace the view that male parenting is just as natural as women running companies and engaging in intellectual pursuits, and that men are just as capable at nurturing and caring as women?
Let’s give men the same credit we would have wanted to be given back when women were first entering the workforce in larger numbers. So the next time you see a man being a dad, ask yourself, how would I react if that was a mom? Let’s stop sending the message that fathering warrants a statue in one’s honor. To that, I say, “Where’s my statue? Where’s my trophy? Where’s my ticker tape parade?”
How do we give men who are full, involved parents positive validation without making them feel like they’re doing something extra special, instead of normal? Here are some suggestions: “You’re everything a dad should be! You’re doing great! You exemplify what fatherhood is all about!”
And while we’re at it, let’s give those moms out there as much positive validation. How many of us moms would love to have a stranger come up and say “Looks like you’re on duty today,” with the implication that we, too, deserve a break.
Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.