As gender roles have shifted and continue to shift, our expectations of fathers have shifted as well. But neither parent deserves to be held to impossible standards.
Between the various parenting movements, the inflated “Mommy war” debates and the labels inspired by tigers and helicopters and, apparently, organic chicken, everyday moms can’t help but feel inadequate.
We beat ourselves up because we work full-time, because dinner came out of a box, or because we’re too tired to make one more freaking Rainbow Loom bracelet. If put on the spot, OK, yeah, we’d admit that we’re pretty good moms, but on some other self-critical level, we think we should be doing better.
But our male partners are not immune from scrutiny, either. No, they often get dragged right along into the muck. If we’re going to all of this trouble to be better parents, or at the very least, posting inspirational quotes about it on Facebook, shouldn’t dads be doing the same? If we’re setting such high standards for ourselves, shouldn’t we expect an equal effort on their part? Isn’t that what’s fair?
My answer to that is no, and not because I think that dads are just overgrown children, half-there, OR incapable of being fully involved. I believe that men can be just as hands-on as their female partners. (In fact, I know several smart, strong, educated men who are the primary caregivers while their wives or girlfriends are bringing home the bacon.)
No, my real issue is with the high, often unattainable, standards placed on parents in general, both moms and dads. I don’t think mothers should aspire to be some supermom that they’re not, and I don’t believe fathers should aspire to be some superdad that they’re not either. That’s equality.
How many times have you heard a friend share some stellar thing her husband did for the kids and thought, “Why can’t my husband be more like that?” Then maybe you come home from the play date and ask him why he doesn’t coach Little League, or take your daughter out for an ice cream date, or spend Saturday afternoon putting Spiderman decals on your son’s wall. Maybe you say nothing, and silently seethe while he watches the baseball game, your kid zoned out beside him. And then, after you’ve burned another dinosaur-shaped pancake, you yell, “How come you never make pancakes?! You’re their dad—do something!”
Oh, I’ve been there.
But if you actually have the luxury of complaining that he doesn’t make pancakes, then Dad is probably doing just fine. My guess is that he’s at least trying to pull his weight, even if he’s not doing weekend coaching or buying end-of-year teacher gifts. He’s being a dad his way, even if that looks different from what other dads are—or are not—doing.
If a father is loving, present, and involved, shouldn’t that be enough? Should he also get up in the middle of the night when your son has a bad dream? Should he be able to play dragon warrior ad nauseam? Should he know when you’re out of diapers and need more milk, and replenish them? Should he be at every doctor’s appointment and school function? Yes and no, to all of the above. He should be doing what he can, what he’s good at, and he should be trying to do his best. And the same goes for mothers.
The days when Dad would come home from work, throw himself into a recliner, and flip on the game, waiting for his old lady to fetch him a beer are mostly behind us, thank goodness. As gender roles have shifted and continue to shift, our expectations of fathers have shifted as well. It’s not enough to be a “good provider.” (In fact, with so many women becoming the breadwinners and co-breadwinners, it’s not even necessary.) Most children want more from their fathers than food and shelter—they want Dad to be loving, encouraging, and available to them as well.
My husband works full-time and travels often, but thanks to a short commute and a Southern California lifestyle, he’s home by 5:30 most nights. When he walks through the door, my boys’ faces light up and they squeal, “Daaaaaddy!” The three of them retreat into the kids’ room where they roughhouse and play monster and watch Bugs Bunny shorts and clips of braying donkeys on Daddy’s phone. In between the fun, he’ll put their toys away, empty the diaper pail, and give them a bath. He’s silly and affectionate and loving—everything I could want for the father of my kids.
And yet, I’m constantly griping about one thing or another. I don’t like how he sometimes talks to our 2-year-olds as though they’re preteens, assuming they “know better.” I sometimes feel like he should have more patience with them. I don’t like that he spends kids’ birthday parties looking like his head might explode. I wonder if he appreciates how much I do around here. I also wonder why he still doesn’t know how many minutes to microwave the meatballs.
Some of my gripes are admittedly petty, and some really do matter. Instead of expecting him to just read my mind though, I talk to him about what’s important to me. I ask for what I need. Half of the time, all I really want is acknowledgement of my hard work. Your family might be different. It might not have a dad. Or you might just want Dad to be home for dinner or to change more diapers or to show more affection to you and your kids. If so, just ask.
If you want him to appreciate everything you do, then you may also need to appreciate what he does. Ask for what you really need, and if he’s trying, let him do it his way. You also need to let some things go. Is he going to be perfect? Hell no, but you’re not perfect either.
Despite a culture that likes to pit moms against each other, my experience is that real mothers are incredibly supportive of each other, always sure to tell their friend, “Hey, you’re a great mom. You’re doing a great job.” There are ads that laud us and have me spilling weepy tears onto my iPhone. But many dads don’t hear it enough. They hear what they’re doing wrong, but not enough about what they’re doing right. To the good dads, this matters. To the good dads, it’s important to be great. And if you’re lucky enough to be raising kids with a good dad, you can’t tell him enough.
Jennifer Benjamin is an LA-based freelance writer and editor with over thirteen years of experience writing for national magazines and websites like Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, SELF, Parents Magazine, The Stir and Daily Glow. More important, she’s a Mommy to identical twin boys, as well as an avid cook, a terrible housewife, and a loungewear enthusiast. Find her on Twitter @JennyBenjamin or Facebook.