Reflections for Father’s Day

Thank you to everyone at Concurring Opinions for inviting me to guest blog, and thank you to Solangel for her kind introduction. I’m usually a pretty private person, but I’d like to open up a bit in my first blog post by sharing some personal experiences.

iStock.com/OlgaLebedeva

Image from iStock.com/OlgaLebedeva

Two years ago, my life changed forever because I became a dad to the most amazing baby girl, and I had the privilege of taking a year off from teaching to stay at home. I know having children and taking time off from work is not the right choice for everyone. But for me, I can’t think of anything more right. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Taking care of my daughter gives me incomparable joy and a sense of purpose that words cannot fully describe. Since returning to my usual law professor schedule, I relish seeing my little girl after leaving campus each day. She truly is my sunshine.

Against this backdrop of happiness, a sad reality is that my experiences as a father have heightened my awareness of troubling gender norms. I’ve long been cognizant of the cultural assumption that caregiving for young children is a woman’s role. Still, with firsthand experiences as a father, I’ve been struck by how strong this norm is.

With Father’s Day around the corner, I think back to my first Father’s Day dinner as a dad. The restaurant’s kind owner congratulated my husband and me on fatherhood. He gushed over our family. His celebration of us as same-sex parents was a delightful sign of how far we’ve come. Yet, in his next breath, he apologized that the men’s room had no diaper changing table and offered to let us use the women’s room instead, because there was a changing table there. I was disheartened by the reminder that only women are expected to change diapers. Women are saddled with the responsibility, and men who do want to change diapers face barriers. Instances like this may be small and inconsequential on their own, but the pervasiveness of these small occurrences reinforces expectations that men should leave caregiving to women.

To be sure, times are changing. More and more men are embracing childcare responsibilities traditionally associated with women—things like swaddling and singing to a fussy infant to coax her into slumber, preparing meals, cleaning kitchen messes, doing a child’s laundry, and managing older children’s after-school schedules, which might include craft or baking projects, running errands together, accompanying children to sports or dance classes, or helping with homework. The number of stay-at-home dads has grown rapidly. A 2012 study found that fathers comprised 16 percent of all stay-at-home parents. Meanwhile, fathers employed full-time outside the home tend to devote more time to childcare after work compared with fathers from previous generations. Another study found that the number of single father households had increased from less than 300,000 in 1960 to over 2.6 million in 2011. Census data from 2010 also showed that 10 percent of male same-sex couple households were raising children.

Despite these changes, mothers still shoulder a much larger share of childcare responsibilities than fathers, and our cultural environment reinforces this pattern. We are surrounded by a culture that treats childcare as the domain of women. Consider when a man prepares to become a father. He’s all too likely to learn that his employer offers no paternity leave even if it grants leave to new mothers. If the father decides to stay home anyway, he’ll probably search for activities to enjoy with his child, and will encounter numerous classes titled “Mommy and Me” as though fathers do not belong. As he shops for baby supplies, he’ll surely discover countless advertisements that deploy “mothers know best” rhetoric that questions the competency of fathers. These are just a few examples of everyday moments that coalesce, sending the message that men are not suited for—or are not expected to perform—caregiving.

These cultural dynamics are bad for men, bad for women, and bad for children. Fathers who are primary caregivers too often report feelings of isolation and stigma, feelings of being hyper-scrutinized for their parenting skills, and practical difficulties such as the lack of access to changing tables. Cultural expectations about caregiving are also bad for women because they place disproportionately heavy pressure on mothers. This is especially harmful to women who wish their male partners would contribute more to childcare, so that they could focus more energy on their careers. The current cultural environment is also bad for children. In some families, it might make sense for the mother to do most of the caregiving. But for many if not most other families—especially families with single dads or gay dads—it’s in children’s best interest for fathers to be engaged caregivers.

What can we do to address this conflation of caregiving with motherhood? Lobbying the private sector is one strategy. For example, I signed an online petition asking Amazon to rename its “Amazon Mom” service to be more inclusive of fathers. The service, which specializes in delivering products to caregivers of young children, has always technically been open to fathers, but the name “Amazon Mom” implied that caregiving is and should be the domain of mothers. I’m happy to report that Amazon has since renamed its service “Amazon Family.” Small victories like this can add up.

In my view, the government can—and should—also play a role in fostering a cultural environment that does not equate caregiving with women. In my next blog post, I’ll offer my wish list of public policy interventions aimed at supporting dads as caregivers.

[Update 6/27: click here and here for the next two posts in this series.]

This blog post is adapted from my forthcoming law review essay entitled “Shaping Expectations about Dads as Caregivers: Toward an Ecological Approach.”

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4 Responses

  1. Dad With Young Kids says:

    The point that “times are changing” can’t be overemphasized. The differences between expectations of fathers today and 20 years ago are enormous. Social change is always slow, but this change is actually happening pretty rapidly.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    Have you given any thought to the possibility that humans are actually a sexually dimorphic species? And that sexual dimorphism is quite capable of extending to *behavior*, not just body size?

    Which is a way of saying that women aren’t men with boobs, and men aren’t women with convex genitals, and it might not be the job of government to try to force them into the same Procrustian bed.

  3. Joe says:

    I’m not sure where it is being said someone should be “forced” in that fashion.

    Many dads, e.g., wish to stay home and care for their children while the wives work, even if the men don’t wear bras.

    Equality includes promoting person choice here, not artificial classifications that do not cover a range of actual examples even if there is some general norm involving many of them influenced by biology and other things.

    But, conservatives are wary of free choice at times.

  4. Paul Horwitz says:

    Isn’t just about everyone wary of free choice at times?