Shortly after the birth of my third daughter I took all three girls into a supermarket where a woman observed me wearing one child on my chest in a baby harness and pushing the other two around in a shopping cart. “Wow, Dad doing the shopping and the babysitting!” she marveled. Sigh. She was well-meaning but perhaps unaware that for many fathers, that kind of comment—which suggests that Dad is just a placeholder for Mom—is at least as frustrating as it is complimentary.
Granted, this was an atypical outing for me and the girls. The vast majority of the time, my wife is the one out shopping with our kids. Mothers from time immemorial have been the primary rearers of children partly by nature and partly as a consequence of a logical division of family labor. But thanks to a rise in the number of stay-at-home or work-from-home fathers such as myself, as well as a growing desire of men to do more hands-on parenting, more men are sharing childrearing tasks that once were perceived as solely the domain of women.
Society hasn’t entirely caught up to this changing reality—hence, moments like the one I experienced above. Part of the attitude I encountered in the supermarket stems from the lingering stereotype of emotionally reserved traditional dads of yore, who may have been responsible heads of the household out in the workforce but who were uncomfortable with, or averse to, the more domestic side of childrearing. In addition, pop culture has helped perpetuate the perception of dads as comically inept with children. Think of the movie Three Men and a Baby or Homer from The Simpsons. So it seems noteworthy when men demonstrate that they can be actual, capable, involved parents.
This is not to say that dads like Homer Simpson don’t exist, of course, but fathers who are more fully engaged in parenting chores are now beginning to resent the misperception and to push back against it.
“I’m a dad, I love being a dad,” says one father in a short video by Care.com, “and dads are parents too.” The video features fathers talking about their experiences being treated as extraordinary for ordinary parenting, such as taking their kids for a walk.
The Huffington Post recently featured a brief profile of Don Hudson, stay-at-home dad of four, who in 2015 opened a “father-focused” store in Portland, Oregon called Seahorses. (Male seahorses actually undergo pregnancy, give birth to their young, and shelter them in the father’s pouch during the earliest stages of development.)
Hudson was inspired to open the store after feeling insulted by the constant suggestion that, as a father, he’s merely a glorified babysitter. “It’s an insult,” he says. “We’re not babysitting. We’re parenting. They’re our kids.”
Hudson “wants to give dads a voice that accurately reflects fatherhood . . . We’ve successfully conveyed the message that dads are competent parents. We’re not a bunch of bumbling idiots like the media portrays,” he said. “If you leave the kid alone with dad, he’s not going to be home stuck to the wall. Not everyone puts sharpie marker on their kids’ eyebrows just to get a good picture out of it. We’re in the trenches, too.”
Yes, fathers are parents too, but they’re not mothers. It’s not necessary to go to the “gender-equal” lengths of Sweden’s “latte pappas” who are striving to erase any natural difference between mother and father. A journalist living in Malmo who authored an article about research into the hormonal effect of parenting claims that close daily involvement with his children has actually altered his hormones to such an extent that on occasion his nipples “tingle strongly as if preparing to lactate.”
He and other latte pappas speak in high-pitched “motherese” to their kids, and he points proudly to a finding that testosterone drops markedly in more involved fathers. In fact, that seems to be the point: the owners of a drop-in center for new parents in Malmo are “convinced that giving all fathers a six-month dose of hands-on parenting would vanquish forever the brash, aggressive, insensitive man. ‘If you are closely connected to a child,’ [one owner] says, ‘you can’t be tough and hard.’” These Swedes seem eager not only to make fathers equal parenting partners but to emasculate them until they are phsyically indistinguishable from mothers.
That would be unfortunate for the children involved. The article notes that an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that if Sweden achieved gender-equal parenting, it would be the first society in human history to do so. There’s a reason for that: biologically and culturally (regardless of the culture), fathers and mothers generally have different and complimentary roles to play in the raising of children. Those children and society are best served when both parents fulfill those roles responsibly.
I am very fortunate (or cursed, depending on how frazzled I am when you ask) to be present in my kids’ lives 24/7. Not all fathers can be so available, but that in itself is not evidence that I am any better or more committed a father than a dad whose job allows him to be home only in the evening after work, or in between lengthy military deployments. Good dads do what they can, when they can. We’re not Mom, but we’re not just substitutes for her, either.