A recent blog post – Let’s Stop Making Dads Look Dumb – is making the rounds. At first glance it looks like it is about tearing down gender role stereotypes. The media and American culture simultaneously perpetuate the ideas that men are bumbling idiots (see virtually any episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, the Simpsons, or any commercial for cleaning or baby products) and that dads deserve a reward when they do even the most basic parenting tasks (see viral videos of dads putting their daughters’ hair in pony tails). However, once you read past the headline and first couple of paragraphs, it’s not about that at all. In fact, it actually reinforces tired stereotypes of super moms and sucky dads. I decided to respond, and my wonderful husband (and dad to our kids), Clay, decided to join me. We also got back up from several lovely parents at Woo Free Peaceful Parenting.
I was having my morning coffee when I saw that my friend and co-admin at Woo Free Peaceful Parenting, Adam Casey, commented that an article he read there was demeaning and insulting to dads. Full disclosure: I thought I was going to like the article. Sorry Adam, but most of the time when men complain that something is sexist or unfair, I am not outraged on their behalf, and I have to break out my male tears mug. In this case, I was so wrong. (Yes, I was wrong. You heard correctly).
I read the article a couple of times. Don’t misunderstand. I loved what she had to say about the media, about hating the word “babysitting” used to describe dads watching their own kids, about suggesting dads not get trophies for taking their kids to the store and about not using men’s inexperience as an excuse for them to not help around the house. But, while I thought she was going to criticize a culture that places women in the role of the homemaker and mom, and men in a place so far removed from this “women’s work” that they suck at it, in reality, her piece reinforces these very ideas.
According to Adam,
I hate it. The message is “dads are capable of parenting, but not as well as moms….but they aren’t idiots if you guide them. Things like ‘your husband can help clean up’ or ‘he can also cook as decently as you when given directions on how to do so’ are so demeaning.
And her message is not just demeaning towards men. As Emily Sexton writes,
I don’t think the author’s sarcasm works as well as she thinks it does and it reads as patronizing, not just to dads, but also really essentializing of moms (and HOLY HETERONORMITIVITY BATMAN) in a way I found irksome. In our culture women are expected to serve and be great at specific roles specifically so that men do not have any expectation of doing so.
In the author’s narrative, men and women play stereotypical gender roles – the exact ones she criticizes the media for promoting. But, according to her, the problem isn’t that dads typically don’t learn to be good dads and housekeepers, because societal structures and internalized sexism have created a situation where this is challenging. Her problem is that women have become bitches about it. Her basic message: dads are frequently not as good as moms at basic parenting tasks. Their wives are so tired of it that they have become raging, nagging bitches. She all but suggests that fed up wives calm their tits.
I get the author’s frustration and the frustration of other moms who shoulder too much physical and emotional labor in their relationships and families. Seriously. I’ve been there, and it sucks. In my last marriage, I was often breadwinner AND the default (and often solo) parent. Our daycare provider and pediatrician had no idea who my ex husband was beyond a name on a form. Facebook memories reminded me today that he took a four-day vacation, while I was on full bed rest due to pre-eclampsia and a torn back muscle a month before my son was born. I was left home to somehow care for a toddler and not go into pre-term labor. A few weeks later, he left me home alone again. This time with a toddler AND a newborn, to go on a road trip with his buddy, while I was trying to recover from pregnancy, child birth and debilitating postpartum depression. I lied to my midwife about it, because she told me she would admit me to the psych ward if I didn’t have support at home.
And don’t think I silently endured this dumbfuckery. I was fed-up, and I was frequently criticized for being the “nagging wife.” One day he ruined an entire load of cloth diapers (think poop and black mildew). I made a post about it in a private Facebook group. He read it while snooping on my laptop. I will never forget the resulting argument, one of the worst in our marriage. He never did laundry again. My fault, I guess. I should have just been happy that he tried.
My point is, I get it. I lived it. I was the fed-up, nagging wife with the worthless piece of shit husband. I deserved help. And not half-assed help, but competent help. Even with things that men are stereo-typically not good at. And so do other moms and dads. Marriage and relationships are partnerships with give and take. Gender roles are bullshit. It’s up to every couple to decide what works for them and if one partner is so unhappy that they are nagging and bitching all of the time then, guess what? It’s not working for them.
The only way we can change our culture is to change our expectations. To have conversations. To raise our sons and daughters to do more and expect more. To be gentle and forgiving teachers and learners. To cut everyone some slack (not just bumbling men who don’t know any better). Fuck gender roles. And fuck the message that we need to lay off when partners aren’t living up to our expectations.
One mom in our group, Áine Blanchard Quimby, suggests that the change begins with men.
I think the onus of change needs to be on men, though. If women say “You need to step up and do this” they’re nagging, and it’s just one more burden for women to have to handle. Men need to speak up and say they are awesome, and then they need to follow through with actions. When men get together, they need to say, “Hey buddy, why is your wife in there doing dishes by herself? Go help her out, we’ll finish our planning of our fishing trip once you’re done in a few minutes.” They need to help.
Maybe if we raise our sons to see their dads cooking and cleaning and to understand that they, too, need to learn to excel at “women’s work,” things might change. In the short-term, yes, we need to give dads a chance to muddle through diaper changes and laundry routines and not degrade them for making mistakes doing things their mothers (or fathers) probably never taught them to do. I changed my first diaper at age 5 and was babysitting a newborn solo at age 11. My ex husband had never held a baby before our daughter was born. We also shouldn’t give them a cookie or post a video online every time they offer to parent or cook. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not time to have a discussion about roles in your relationship and expectations of who does what in terms of physical and emotional labor. Or that everyone in a relationship doesn’t deserve to feel loved and appreciated for their contributions. In a sincere way, not a “that’s okay, at least you tried, you’re just a dude” kind of way.
I now am honored to share my life and raise our kids (his, mine and soon to be ours) with an incredible partner and husband, Clay. We share tasks at home. While we both work from home, it is often me who takes the littlest one to daycare and bakes pies and cookies. I clean the bathrooms and kitchen because I like doing those things, but when I need a hand, he’s happy to pitch in. I mow the lawn, because I love mowing the lawn, and he finds happiness in cooking breakfast and bringing me morning coffee. He makes biscuits so good that I will never again be a size 2.
Because I teach in the evenings, it’s often Clay who handles homework and dinner. He’s not perfect, but he’s a great dad and partner. Occasionally, I find myself falling back into old patterns. Just this morning, he was packing the kids’ lunches when my daughter said – “I can’t have this, it has peanut butter.” (She has an allergic kid in her class). Before he had a chance to respond, I reminded him about the allergy, and he responded, “How about I make lunches today like I do every day, but without an audience?” I deserved that. He’s brilliant and didn’t need my help. He didn’t need a supervisor. Also, if he forgets, we can adjust later. Hell, even I, super mom, make mistakes. (I jest).
PV: How was that?
LS: Not bad.
B: Not bad… for a girl.
DM: Hey, that was pretty good for *Rambo*.
I’m a good parent, not just good “for a guy.” Steph does help me learn aspects of domestic life that I didn’t master as a teen who was solo-parented by a dad on a corner of Nebraskan farmland. I am extraordinarily lucky to be with a partner with Steph’s virtues. She is a kind teacher, a patient friend, and she possesses a wise, calm perspective in the prime of our shared life that most people never live long enough to realize. That said, we don’t always see eye-to-eye, and there are aspects of our domesticity that I claim as my own because I like them to be done “just so.” Thankfully she gently lets go of those things when I care more about a detail than she does, and I have learned to do the same in return.
For example, the other day she was hanging a mirror in our master bathroom – which she has remodeled mostly without my intervention (while pregnant) – and needed help finding a few power tools that weren’t in their normal spot. I knew where there was an alternative, so I grabbed it, showed her how it differs from the other one, and then started to offer up more advice. “Shhh,” she said with a smile. I shared the smile, and…went back to my office to work. She didn’t need me and that’s fine.
I grew up with lots of instruction on how to cut, shape, and reassemble things with metal shop, wood shop, mechanical, electronic, and geometric principles baked in from a young age. My dad was a phenomenal instructor, and I can’t wait to impart those lessons with our kids. But Steph isn’t a kid. Her handiwork is as good as mine in this area, and often better, because she really cares and takes the time to do things right. She also knows how to ask for help when she needs it. Just because someone implies that a task is a masculine one or a feminine one doesn’t mean that we can’t decide otherwise.
As far as the article is concerned, I do applaud the gist of what the author is saying — let your co-parent, co-parent. Let your partner be a partner. Back off and share the space. But I would caution her to drop the gender narrative. “[H]e can also cook as decently as you when given directions on how to do so.” Really? Wow! What’s next, women in the boardroom? Shock and awe. The humor in this article comes about 40 years too late.
I know and respect incredibly smart and capable stay-at-home Dads who take their home responsibilities as seriously as they would a non-domestic career, and this “gender-norming” article misses the mark for them. It also lays on a certain amount of shame on their working partners for reversing roles. In many cases, we dads are doing *great*. Not just, “not bad for a guy.” But, “pretty good for Martha Stewart.”
May the Schwartz be with you.
Image credits: Steph, all rights reserved