Illuminating the Double Standards of Parenthood

A 2017 New York Times article, How Vital are Women? This Town Found Out as They Left to March, trended on social media for one reason and one reason only—the pure absurdity of it. Mothers and fathers alike were astounded that men acting like, well, parents, could be even slightly newsworthy.

And yet, here we are, in 2018, with fathers being praised for doing the same damn thing that mothers do every single day (while being criticized for how they do it).

This double standard for parenthood is not new to me. In February 2015, my ex-husband and I reversed our parenting roles, deciding that our then 4-year-old daughter would live with him full-time. I stepped into his shoes as the non-custodial parent and was immediately met with backlash of the worst kind. I was accused of using drugs, of being an unfit mother, of not loving my daughter, of being selfish.

These harsh judgments were painful, yes, but they were also not true. For the first year of our new parenting arrangement, I was on the defensive, prepared to justify our non-conventional arrangement to anyone who I thought might sling mud my way.

Single Mother vs. Single Father: A completely different experience

My ex-husband had an entirely different experience, though. The red carpets were rolled out and he received endless accolades for his “selflessness,” while I was criticized and judged by friends, family, and strangers. It’s tempting to share the details as to why I made the decision that I did, but I’ll resist.

Justifying my parenting choices only serves to perpetuate the burden placed on mothers and the glorification of fathers who act like fathers. I want no part in that. What I do want to do is highlight the double standards for parents and take a look at how we can ditch gender normative parental responsibilities.

Dads don’t deserve praise for being dads

One of the things that struck me as I warded off snide comments and snarky side-eye about my role as a non-custodial mother was the assumption that my ex-husband (who happens to be an amazing parent) would only step into the role of full-time dad if I wasn’t a good mother.

But I get it. Society has consistently portrayed fathers as totally clueless, at best, and deadbeats, at worst. As long as a father lives up to these expected standards, no questions are asked. The minute a man plays an active role in his child’s life he is deemed some sort of hero. This is largely due to the way media portrays fatherhood.

Studies have found that, in commercials alone, fathers are portrayed as one extreme or another, with the negative extreme—“…incompetent, foolish, and emotionally disconnected as parents. The double standard involves competent, wise, emotionally connected mothers who must often rescue those fathers”—far more likely.

Fathers fight back

The New York Times article, thankfully, received a ton of opposition, and not just from mothers. Fathers were shocked and, dare I say, outraged at the idea that being hands-on with the children (you know, the ones they helped create) was worthy of some kind of medal of honor.

A video for the campaign group Make It Work Action, brought dads together for some real talk on how they are treated for being involved in their children’s lives, specifically in roles that are traditionally assigned to mothers. One dad’s experience highlights just how deeply distinctive gender normative roles are rooted in our society: “My kid is sick so I call into work to take the day off so I can be there for the nurturing,’” he said. He explained the response was: “So let me get this straight? You want to take off because your kid is sick. Let me guess, you must be on ‘mummy duty’ today.”

Mothers are tired of being viewed as the only ones who should care for their children, whether that’s packing school lunches, staying home from work when their kid is sick, or having primary custody. Men, likewise, are frustrated that performing basic parental duties makes them some kind of champion, when they are expected to be doing “dad stuff,” like watching football and tossing back a few beers with their buddies.

There shouldn’t be a gold star reward system for dads. It should be expected that they participate, actively, in their kids’ lives. The more props we give fathers for not being total losers, the more we immortalize the stereotypical role that so many dads, despite what society would have us believe, don’t fall into.

The parenting double standard by the numbers

It’s easy to look at videos and commentary from fathers who are tired of being treated like they’re earning a Nobel Peace Prize for brushing their daughter’s hair. But when you break down the data, it’s clear that our society’s fetishization of good fathers is nothing more than a bleak attempt at extending tired gender roles.

The Pew Research Center conducted a study that found thatin two-parent families, parenting and household responsibilities are shared more equally when both the mother and the father work full time than when the father is employed full time and the mother is employed part-time or not employed. But even in households where both parents work full time, many say a large share of the day-to-day parenting responsibilities falls to mothers.”

Let’s break that down. In about 54 percent of households where both parents work, the mother does more when it comes to managing the children’s schedules. Forty-seven percent say this is also true when it comes to caring for sick children. In the same households, 59 percent equally split household chores, 61 percent equally participate in discipline, and 64 percent divide their time evenly to play or do activities with the kids.

A British Social Attitudes survey discovered that only four percent of men and women aged 18 to 25 agreed with the statement “a man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family.” Forty-four percent of that age group and 26 percent of men and women in the 26 to 35 age range agreed that paid leave should be divided between the mother and the father. Only 13 percent of people over age 65 agreed with these sentiments.

So, what do all these numbers mean for real-life parents who are burdened with financial stress, marital woes, or a child that needs more attention and care? They mean that times are changing. While we still have a long way to go, these numbers paint a more realistic picture of what modern parenting looks like.

Gone are the days of June Cleaver, greeting her hard-working husband at the door while a pot roast simmers in the oven and she wrangles the children inside for a formal family dinner. While, like many things that the patriarchy has attempted to prolong, fathers are still less likely to share more parental responsibilities than mothers do, there is far less expectation within families that the mother should do all the parenting.

How we can end the parenthood double standard

Woke fathers and weary mothers, rejoice. There are many ways that we, as individuals and as a society, can help end this gross double standard, allowing women the freedom (sans judgment) to relinquish the burden of being the only available and emotionally connected parent.

How fathers can advocate for parental equality:

  • Advocate for changing tables in men’s restrooms
  • Change your child’s diapers
  • Drop your kids off at school
  • Take your kids to the park, to birthday parties, or to “daddy-and-me” classes
  • Ask for parental leave when your child is born
  • Clean the house without being asked
  • Cook for your children and your partner
  • Challenge gender norms in front of your children—encourage your sons to take ownership over the cleanliness of the home and your daughters to be assertive at work or school
  • Talk with your children about the importance of gender equality at home and in the workplace

How mothers can advocate for parental equality:

  • Treat your children’s father like an equal, assuming he understands how to care for the children as well as you do
  • Insist on sharing equal responsibilities with children’s activities
  • Trade off on who will stay home from work with sick children
  • Assume traditionally male household chores, like mowing the lawn or fixing the heater
  • Talk with your children about the importance of gender equality at home and in the workplace
Featured image by Jade Beall

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