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Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Fatherhood and Motherhood

A while ago, on the playground, I struck up a conversation with a father whose child was running with mine. Happy to be talking to someone, he confessed to me that often, when he takes his daughter to the playground in the middle of the day, the mothers there close ranks, giving off the clear signal that he may not enter their conversation circle.

Later, I watched him push his daughter in the swing and smile at her shrieks of "Daddy! look how high I am!!" And what he did not have to tell me was even more poignant than what said. The mothers looking at him askance? They were wary of what a grown man might be doing on a playground--in a world of mothers and very young children--on a Wednesday at mid-morning.

It is obvious that, having arrived with his own bundle of glee, this man was not there for untoward reasons. And yet, I could see that the world of mommies was giving him wide berth. They weren't exactly leaving the playground ahead of schedule, but they were pulling what I think of as the Back Away Slowly, mentally registering not only the whereabouts of their own children, but also this father's spot on the playground at all times.

What is it that makes a father with his joyful child at the playground an object of suspicion on a Wednesday morning, but an object of intense praise on a Saturday afternoon? Because it is certainly true, and I suspect our playground is not the only one like this, that there are scores of fathers at the playground on weekends, and the mommies never seem to hesitate to strike up a conversation with them then.

Clearly, it is a sense of normalcy. Fathers work during the week, and they get a chance to play with their children on the weekends, and so we revel in their involvement on Saturday afternoon.

But why do we revel? Is it because we think of them as "babysitting" rather than fathering?

What got me thinking about this in the first place was a comment this past summer by a great dad blogger who said that he feels like there are some topics he can't tackle on his blog because they are the province of mothers. He mentioned a conversation he'd witnessed, in which a woman got both angry and defensive about her husband's "interfering" in some aspect of the raising of their children. "I don't tell him how to do his job," she said. "He shouldn't try to tell me how to do mine." Matthew, who is, as anyone who has read his blog can tell, a deeply involved and committed father, chose not to respond to this comment.

I, on the other hand, got shaking mad on his account.

This, you see, is the other side of the Back Away Slowly. Some women see involved fathers and, afraid to trust their own judgment on what they see, remove themselves and their children from a situation that seems strange and foreign to them. Other women tell men, in no uncertain terms, essentially to Put Down the Child and Back Away Slowly, as if a father becoming involved in the upbringing of his own child is nothing short of threatening. As if children were weapons and fathers were criminals wielding them.

Of course, the polar opposite response also exists. The gushing, effusive, ebullient praise of the father who is "making time" to spend with his children. I have a male colleague who has two children who are just a few years older than my own. We started the same year on the job and live not far from each other. We both have spouses who work jobs with traditional M-F hours, while our schedules are much more flexible and change from one semester to the next, depending on what times of day we are teaching. So, he and I are the at-home-more-often parents. For a while, when our children were younger and not in school, we were taking periodic turns spelling each other with the children. One week, I'd leave mine with him for a morning to get some extra work done; the next week, he'd leave his with me.

One day, I was at the office on a morning that was unusual for me. "Where are the kids?" the department secretaries asked, knowing full-well that I only had them enrolled in part-time daycare. "Oh," I said casually, "J-- is taking care of them. We take turns almost every Friday..." But my second sentence was drowned out. As soon as I'd mentioned that my male colleague was taking care of my children along with his own, they were all agog, praising him to the skies, "Oh, what a wonderful man he is! Such a great father! Isn't that super!" and so on. I felt irrationally compelled, once the chorus of praise was over, to repeat myself. "Yes, well, we take turns taking each other's kids one morning a week." They barely looked up at me. "That's nice," I think one of them murmured blandly.

What's my point? He and I have the same jobs, the same amount of work, the same number of children, the same schedules, and yet he gets praised to the sky for taking on someone else's children and doing the hard work of hands-on fathering, while I am simply expected to do so without batting an eye. It did not occur to them to register that whatever juggling of his professional and personal lives he must do, so must I. Mothers, we generally assume, simply make those sacrifices and do that juggling. If they have to, they just sleep less. Fathers, on the other hand, are the best thing since sliced bread if they are willing to do what mothers do.

To be clear: I say this neither to critique my excellent department secretaries nor to belittle what my friend does. He is an excellent father, an admirable scholar, and a superlative teacher.

Rather, I mention this example because I think that both the Back Away Slowly and the Over-Praise are responses to involved fathering that stem from the same impulse. They are both the product of a moment in which we are trying to reimagine, but have not fully succeeded in redefining, fatherhood.

There are certainly families today in which Father works outside the home, Mother works inside the home, and the division of labor is the traditional Dad-finances-yardwork-tools and Mom-children-cooking-cleaning-laundry. But the vast number of household in the United States boast two parents employed outside the home, or some sort of blended family, or a single-parent, or some alternative to the 2.2 kids and a dog model that was the ideal in the 1950s. It's true: not all SAHMs are the point-people for laundry any more.

This is not to cast aspersions at this old ideal or at families who still live it. It worked for my grandparents for 60 years, and they were one of the most happily married couples I ever met, and it works for a lot of families now.

Rather, it is to say that if many families are structured differently, it is time to become more conscious about how we think about parenting. No longer can we, or should we, assume that all mothers have all the responsibilites for housework, permission slips, present buying, and childcare. No longer can we, or should we, assume that all fathers are lovable buffoons with a bottle, who don't know a diaper from a binkie and can't figure out how to moderate a preschooler's tantrum in the grocery store (to the extent, of course, that it is humanly possible for anyone to moderate one of those spinny tantrums).

Rather than the stereotypes of parenting, it would be nice if we could approach one another on the playground, in our children's classroom on volunteer days, or at ballet class, with fewer assumptions. Too often, I think, we make instant judgments. While I didn't Back Away from the nice father on the playground, it did run through my mind when I first saw him, "huh, I wonder why he's not at work today." I think we're wired to assess people when we meet them, size them up, figure out what makes them tick -- and so we try to stick on labels. But the problem is, that while "mother" and "father" still describe biological roles in the very same way they always have, they don't necessarily describe social or even family roles in all the same ways before.

And I think there are more than a few mothers and fathers out there who would benefit from a collective cultural recognition that those names are no longer "one size fits all." It's a hard thing to remember, even for someone who's been thinking about it a lot. But the heart of parenting, I think, requires backing away slowly from snap judgments. Even on the playground.


OHmommy said...

Reading through the laundry post of comments I was actually amazed that

A. Men commented
B. So many women admitted that their husbands do many non-traditional chores around the house.

I think that times are changing for sure. I've noticed in the last year that there are many more fathers volunteering in the classroom.

I still smirk when my husband comes home from taking the 3 kids to the zoo with detailed accounts of how people held the door for him. Or old ladies smiled at him and commented on his fatherhood. Ha!

MomZombie said...

My neighborhood might be a little non-traditional. We have quite a few stay-at-home dads who are also very involved in the classroom. I admit I had to adjust to the dynamic of dads at play groups and on the playground, but once I did I realized how much more I like hanging out with a mixed group. Dad caregivers have a whole different perspective. Also, it is so gratifying to hear a man say he had no idea how hard it was to be home all day with children.

Tara R. said...

My husband would get that same 'back away' response when he would be out with one or both of our kids alone. I think most of the time it was assumed he was a single dad, why else was he on his own with children.

calicobebop said...

I like to think I have an open mind but in my own case, my daughter's father moved in with us to see if we could make the Stay At Home Dad thing work and it failed miserably. I'm afraid I tend to jump to the conclusion that these fine men are like him. I do love being proven wrong, though!

Ed said...

Thank you for writing this. I'm a dad who spends a lot of time with my kids and despite the fact that there's not one single amazing thing about me, I get the look all the time. The rock-star praise, the smile, everything. It can feel more than a little condescending sometimes, like when someone over-praises a mentally handicapped McDonald's employee for really mopping the shit out of that floor! Of course, I do enjoy smiles from pretty girls who either feel sorry for me or are turned on by my ultra-sensitivity, so it's a mixed bag.

Heather, Queen of Shake Shake said...

It's definitely a mindset that needs to change, and hopefully is changing.

Mrs F with 4 said...

I'm not entirely sure if I am more resentful of fathers being 'over-praised', or of being 'under-praised' myself....

Childsplayx2 said...

You are awesome. One of the reasons I continue to blog and now tweet is that I really hope to provide an alternative view of what dads can (and should) do.

Ironically, I think a lot of women who view men with a wary eye, also view their husbands similarly.

Not sure if you saw my post on this but I wrote about it here: http://www.childsplayx2.com/2009/09/the-glass-ceiling-nobody-talks-about.html

Mr Lady said...



Thank GOD you wrote this.

I sometimes think that I have the easier role, because no one looks at me funny when I work, and no one does when I parent, either.

Emily said...

Wow - this is the first time reading your blog (came here by MrLady's tweet) but I think you put into words how my husband often feels. Today I suggested he join us at a drop in swimming lesson and he replied that it would all be mommies "and you know what they're like." I guess now I do - and its a shame. Thanks for this great post!

MommyTime said...

MomZombie, I totally agree that it feels good to hear men proclaim that they actually know how much work women at home do all day long. And I too love those mixed groups. What a great neighborhood it sounds like you have!

Calicobebop, I'm sorry that for you it didn't work. And I applaud your openness nonetheless to the idea that it can.

Emily, Thank you so much for the visit and comment! It's really sad for fathers to feel this left out, I think.

MrsF, I hear you...

Childsplay, That is a great post, and one really worth chewing on. Thanks for the link (and the inspiration!)

Ed, thank you for commenting! I'm so glad to hear from some fathers. And the floor mopping comparison? Pefect.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I still look back with a bit of regret on a friendship I had with a SAHD. We really enjoyed each other's company, did play-dates and even coached a softball team together.

We ended up letting our relationship fade away because of the way other people (mostly moms) seemed baffled and possibly not quite believing that we could be platonic friends.

I still had plenty of female friends, but his friendship pool was distinctly limited.

BusyDad said...

I LOVE this post. And it is so true. There is rarely a middle ground reaction to dads who do their part in the child-rearing dept. Luckily, my experience has been more on the positive side of it (awww isn't that adorable! Father and son night out?) rather than the creepy side of it (he must be a child molester), but this is not to say that I wouldn't LOVE to see a time when parents of either gender are judged by what they do rather than who they are. Because really, isn't properly raising a child a "parent" job?

By the way, I'm still a lovable buffoon with a bottle. But I can pack a mean school lunch too.

VDog said...

I'm with MomZombie -- we live in a town where many people have flexible schedules and co-op preschools are very common -- and it's not just the moms working at the school or pushing the swing at the playground.

However, just 4 short years ago, when I was working as a nanny, it was often me & the dads talking, since the moms knew *I* wasn't the mom and they didn't talk to the dads.

It's different now.

I hope this shift can spread and Dads can get some respect!

avasmommy said...

I guess maybe I'm in the minority, because I demand and expect my husband to be an equal partner in raising our daughter. Whether it be doing her laundry, feeding her dinner or just keeping her entertained while I do something else. I don't watch over his shoulder, I trust him. I don't want to be called to ask "what should she eat for lunch?" I don't think he deserves more praise than I do just because he's male. She's his daughter just as much as mine and I expect nothing less than what I give her.

Jeff said...

This is the first time I've read your blog (saw it linked on Twitter), but what a GREAT post. You covered a lot of ground there, but I couldn't agree more. In fact, sometimes I almost feel embarrassed by the "great dad" assumptions because I know there are many things about being a dad that I'd like to improve on, and because I know that my wife does the lion's share of the work.

Great perspective, with a lot to think about. Excellent job!!

RobMonroe said...

Thanks so much for posting this and putting into words what a lot of people need to hear/read. When I take my daughter to the mall by myself (age 2.5) I get fawned over more than she does!

I really enjoy cooking, can deal with cleaning and would not pass up a single minute of daddy-daughter time. It's the way I am, and I'm so glad that I found a partner that is a perfect fit, too.

Maura said...

I don't have a horse in the parenthood race, so to speak, but I know from reading the great parent bloggers I do that this "Back Away/Over Praise" attitude still prevails.

I'm glad that my friends are changing it, one playground trip at a time.

The Hotfessional said...

One of the hardest things I've had to do is explain to people that my husband was a stay-at-home dad for 13 years. It's been wonderful for us, but people still looked at me like I was to be felt sorry for.

Why? He hated the job he was doing while I loved mine. It made perfect sense to us.

Kate Coveny Hood said...

Maybe we can view the gushing praise as encouragement for their interest that will hopefully lead to expectation for more of the same? I too find this kind of annoying. Chris watches the kids for a weekend and everyone thinks he walks on water. Meanwhile...

I haven't been a SAHM for that long, so maybe that makes me less aware of who and who shouldn't be on the playground on a weekday. If a man is with a child, I wouldn't think much of it. But I MAY assume that he has a vacation day or has been laid off before I considered that he is a SAH or WAH Dad.

But really - even when I worked full time, I was still the primary care giver. I got up at night to administer bottles. I did the laundry and cleaned bathrooms (although in my husband's defense - it was more out of his tendency to be a slob than his expectation that I be the maid), and I stayed home with sick children unless I absolutely HAD to be at work. I guess we picked our gender roles based on gender and not work schedules.

Ultimately - both men and women can either excel or struggle as the primary care giver - but the expectation to try is still weighed pretty heavily on one side.

Everything you write is so well thought out and insightful. I never leave here unimpressed!


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