This weekend my wife, my parter, the mother of my children left the house. She abandoned me with the three other children in the house. She was gone for hours. Someone could have been hurt. I could have dropped the baby or scalded myself as I struggled to boil water or cut myself with a butter knife. I don’t think she realizes how dangerous it is in the house. Other women at the same session even commented on her absence from the house.
They were amazed that she had been able to escape from the house and her duties. The fact that she was able to escape from the prison of motherhood was astounding. Who could possibly be looking after her children and husband?
This was not the first time she has encountered these concerns and comments when she leaves the house.
Their astonishment was well placed. After all I have only been a father for 7 years and 11 months. Not really enough time to learn how to be a parent… What they don’t know is that I took a babysitting course in grade six and still hold that certification.
I recognize that these kinds of comments are meant in good humour and are based on stereotypes of bumbling fathers and hapless husbands. We often see the same theme in memes circulated through the magic of Facebook and other social media. Those ones are often accompanied by comments like “so true!” Or someone else being tagged because they just have to see it – presumably because it perfectly represents her life.
When I was in the midst of writing this post Emma Watson went and delivered a great speech at the UN about the #heforshe campaign. In her speech she spoke about being a feminist and the fact that some people equate that word with man-hating, when feminism is actually about equality of the genders. She invited men to participate in the campaign for equality. She spoke to some of the negative impacts that our socially-constructed gender definitions have on men. She spoke about the need for men to engage in the discussion about equality because it affects us as well as our daughters, sisters and mothers – I would add friends, partners, colleagues, neighbours, and strangers to her list.
In this context the problem with comments and father/husband as dolt memes like these is three-fold.
- Those using them are making assumptions based on stereotypes and is no different than judging someone because of their race, language, sexuality or gender.
There are absolutely men out there who don’t recognize women are equals and that it is no longer 1950. They expect “their woman” to do all the cooking and house work and in some cases they reinforce their antiquated views with verbal or physical violence. These guys are conditioned to behave this way and require every intervention possible, including and especially engagement to help them learn to change.
These same men are more likely to fall into the disengaged father category if they become fathers. If they didn’t do cooking or cleaning before becoming a parent, they aren’t all that likely to take up making school lunches or cooking food other than take out pizza when their wives are out. Again we, collectively need to engage them and help them see the value for them in changing their behaviours. They need to see role models and learn that they are not the majority.
The majority of my male friends and colleagues where I know something about their home life, treat their partners as equals. This is true for both straight and queer couples. Of course no relationship is perfect and everyone figures out what works for them. Very few split their household and parenting duties 50/50. Everyone has different circumstances. In some circumstances one prefers to cook and the other prefers to clean, or one partner stays/ or works from home and the other might having longer work hours.
Likewise, the majority of the fathers that I know – particularly of my generation – are engaged fathers, especially in comparison to generations before us. We are all struggling and working to figure out how to do a better job. Some of us are in careers or workplaces that exact penalties from men who take time away from work to be a parent. As individuals and as society we are evolving and figuring out how to give men space to be engaged parents.
Suggesting that my partner is lucky to get out from under my thumb or questioning whether she trusts me to be alone with the kids for a few hours is casting a judgment on me that I have not earned. It is also completely disrespectful to those women who actually are made to feel like or are prisoners in their homes. It is no more acceptable to suggest I am an abuser or an incompetent parent than it is for me to suggest women should be kept in the kitchen or that someone who is not white-skinned is somehow a lesser being. I recognize that some men have been making these sorts of “jokes” about women for years. That doesn’t justify it in any case and does not help in engaging men in the cause for equality. We are changing and one at a time men and boys are learning how to treat women and girls more equally
- Comments that make it seem like the norm to be a hapless husband or incapable father only serve to normalize the abnormal for those living it. Suggesting that men are incompetent without the help of a spouse means that men who are inclined to be unhelpful are going to think they can get away with being incompetent because it is expected of them. Many times I have heard the guidance to wash dishes poorly so I don’t have to do it again. This is a strategy that works. If and when I come across poorly washed dishes I wash them again. If you were the one who washed them poorly I will either provide guidance about how to do it better or I will just not ask you to do it again and just do it myself. Suggesting that husbands/fathers are useless provides cover for those who want take the easy route and disengage.
- Comments suggesting that fathers are childish only serves to perpetuate the myth that mothers are the more natural and therefore better parent. This is of course false. We set it up so that it looks like mothers are better at parenting and have some sort of magical parenting powers that fathers can never have. This starts with parental leave. Mothers are expected to take maternity leave and while fathers are starting to take time, it is minimal compared to mothers.
In Canada there are a total of 52 weeks of parental leave available to parents. Some of it is reserved for mothers who have given birth as recovery time, but 35 weeks of it is shared parental leave. I’m too lazy to look up the actual stats on usage. I feel safe assuming that in most cases the majority if not all of that time is taken by women. What do women do during all that time around the house with the kid? They learn to parent of course. What do fathers do when they also take leave? Amazingly they also learn to parent. So if we don’t give men the time with their child to learn how to parent that kid and only mothers take that time, then the mother will become the expert.
I took and made time with all three of my daughters. I know how to change diapers. I can interpret cries, make a bottle, feed them, and help them fall asleep – except for the hour and a half with my youngest in the middle on the night last night apparently. Laura and I learned to parent and have become experts in parenting each our children together. We learned from each kid about their needs and we learned and continue to learn from each other about how to parent them. We talk and negotiate and teach one another.
If men aren’t given the space and respect to learn and become parenting experts and if instead we are told that we are incompetent and not to be trusted with our own children, let alone others then of course there will be those who shy away from the work of parenting. It would be of greater value to talk about the fathers who are doing a good job and hold them up as examples for others. Positive role models will help to reinforce those who aspire to be engaged fathers. Suggesting fathers are incompetent or not to be trusted only reminds those who are looking for an excuse to disengage that they can do so without impacting how people perceive them.
Emma Watson captured many of the thoughts that were floating around in my head around this issue. She spoke about the need for men to be engaged in the effort to change the way we think about gender and how we define gender roles. Suggesting that men are incompetent does not help to engage men. It is true that not all men are making the effort to redefine what masculinity means and what is means to be a husband and father. Many of us are though. Whether we consciously say it or not, many men and especially fathers are redefining their roles. We are more active in the household than many of our fathers. We are more active parents than previous generations of men. We are figuring out how to tap into our emotions and generally work our way out of the socially-constructed man-box. It takes time. It takes trial and error and it takes support and encouragement.
We can and should be equal partners in relationships and in workplaces. We make excellent and extremely competent parents. We are all deserving of criticism from time to time and we learn when the criticism is constructive. Recognize that gender roles are fluid and support the change we represent. You don’t have all the answers and neither do we so lets make it better together.
It turns out I was not the only one thinking along these lines this week. Here are some other great posts from Dads that you may also want to check out.
Mike Reynolds on Puzzlingposts.com – #heforshe, can it unite us simply as people?
Derrell Milton on ModernFatherOnline.com – Why Did It Take Two Feminists Speaking Up For Men To Get This Conversation Moving?
Aaron Gouveia on Time.com – Emma Watson Is Right—Don’t Take Potshots at Fathers