It’s Not Called Babysitting When You’re the Dad!
When my daughters were three and four, my ex-husband took a week off of work to take care of our children while I took a much-needed vacation. My ex and I had a cordial relationship, so it seemed logical that he stayed at my house with the kids. Although I would miss my children, I had no major qualms about leaving them with their father. My ex was a perfectly competent man. I trusted he could handle whatever situation arose with his children. He wasn’t babysitting; he was taking care of his kids!
The rest of the world seemed convinced he needed help. He received several visits from the neighbors, had casseroles dropped off at the door, and had numerous dinner invitations for him and the kids. People seemed amazed that he was taking care of his kids for a week. It was as if he was performing a superhero feat while I was a bad mom for leaving them for a week. It was nice of friends and neighbors to be concerned for my ex and my kids. It was generous of them to extend invitations and bring food. However, it left me feeling a bit bewildered and more than a little annoyed. Where were my casseroles and dinner invitations?
I had been a single mom with two very young children for two years, and no one seemed particularly impressed by the fact I was taking care of children by myself 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No one was nominating me for “parent of the year” for managing to feed and dress my children all by myself. For all the people who were so impressed with my ex “babysitting” his children for a week, I had to wonder if they were impressed with the fact I was “babysitting” those same children for fifty-one weeks a year?
Several years ago, a video of a man who learned how to braid his daughter’s long hair went viral. While I thought that was nice, I didn’t understand the uproar. I had two daughters with waist-length hair that I braided every night, and I would have only received comments if it wasn’t done. I don’t think it requires two X chromosomes to braid hair.
I write this laughing at the absurdity of the double standards but also with a hint of bitterness. Why have we set the bar so low for fathers? Thank goodness most men exceed that low bar – I think? Have things changed in the last thirty years? It seems there are more egalitarian marriages, but I suspect many women still do the emotional work it takes to keep a home and family running efficiently. Women usually schedule the appointments, know when the science project is due, whose birthday party is next weekend, and when the dog needs to go to the vet.
Maybe the double standards bother me because I was raised with a father who was an involved, nurturing parent who had no set ideas about gender roles. My dad was fifteen years older than my mom, so when he retired at sixty-two, my forty-seven-year-old mother returned to work. My sisters had already left for college, but my brother and I were lucky to benefit from this role switch. My dad fully embraced the stay-at-home parent role! In addition to taking care of me and my brother, he planned meals, clipped coupons, shopped for groceries, cooked and baked, and cleaned. I can still remember walking through the door after school and being met by the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread.
My parents were happy with the switch in roles, which influenced my thoughts about parenting and gender roles. I never viewed cooking, cleaning, and nurturing as activities associated with gender. I’m grateful for that influence in my early years, although it has led to disappointment when I realize good fathering is still considered an anomaly. An encouraging note is that the number of stay-at-home dads doubled between 1989 and 2012. It still is a small percentage, but it’s not as rare as when my dad chose that role.
I hope we can encourage all parents to be active participants in their children’s lives. But let’s be clear. When men take care of their children, it is not called babysitting. It’s called being a parent. When men cook and clean, it is not “helping” their wives. It’s called being an adult taking care of business. When men perform basic childcare tasks like hair care and diaper changing, they are no more superheroes than the women who do this daily. It’s called parenting! When both parents are actively and equally involved in parenting, it’s a win for everyone!