I have been torn about writing on this topic for a long time, partially because I feel women are dumped on enough and I could not imagine myself being one more voice piling criticism on women. But this isn’t just another criticism of women, it’s actually critical observation of our lopsided culture and some concrete ways women can make real day to day change in our lives by empowering our children’s fathers to equitably parent.
Mothers are martyrs
I am proud to proclaim that I survived motherhood. (I guess it would be more truthful to say I am surviving motherhood, because even though my millennial children are grown, they are still in the launching process.) I visited a friend who is a young mother last week and memories of the overwhelming and daunting task of being a young mother flooded back. Her t-shirt, covered with spit up and breastmilk, hung loose on her frame and there was longing in her eyes as she said, “ I’m not gonna lie. I’m a little jealous of the pictures of you and your husband at music festivals, with friends and out for drinks on social media.” My dear friend and I are at very different places in our motherhood journey and even though being a mother is satisfying, it is hard . . . and it is hard for a long time. Most women go above and beyond the call to parenting, so much so that some would argue, rightly, that many women choose to be physically, psychologically and culturally responsible at the expense of parenting equity with dads. I believe moms who have the option need to learn how to more equitably share child rearing responsibilities. I think mothers fear that if we don’t take care of these things (because our society tells us we must) then they won’t get done and we will be judged bad mothers.
Beyond biology – kids will survive
True enough, infants physically need mothers to survive. We feed them from our bodies. Men can give bottles, but notions that women are the physical caregivers of the young come not only from our biology, but also from our culture and our employers. It is rare for men to take the same amount of paternity leave as women. At best, they might stay home for a couple of weeks, but women are out of work and caregiving for six to twelve weeks. Our partners come home at night and assist us with our new infant’s care, but we end up being the ones who get up at night during the first months because our spouses need to work and we are home. They say good habits can form in two weeks, so can bad ones. Biology places mothers as the primary day to day caregivers of children.
On the other hand, contemporary kids are just as likely to be taken to the pediatrician’s office by their father as their mother. In two parent households dads are showing up to parent at an alarming rate. I am forever grateful for the amazing man I co-parented with over the last 21 years. Dads are available and more nurturing than ever. When my youngest was an infant, I took a job that required a great deal of travel. When I was home from the road and dropping the kids off at childcare, I remember asking their teachers if their clothes matched while I was out of town. My son’s teacher answered my question about matching clothes by affirming that my son’s clothes were always clean. I felt the judgement…bless my heart. Dads help, but they still don’t really keep up with after school activities, doctors’ appointments, school fees and matching outfits. They just do not do it like we would. Moms overwhelmingly insist on maintaining psychological responsibility when it comes to parenting. Many dads are more than willing to help. Let them. Step away moms. Perfection isn’t necessary, nor even possible. Clean clothes are good enough.
In my mid-twenties, before I became a parent, I worked with a woman who had lost custody of her four young daughters. She was smart, talented, beautiful, and could have easily afforded children, even four of them, on her salary. Speculation abounded, behind her back, about what she possibly could have done to cause a court to give full custody of her children to her ex-husband. It wasn’t until many years later that I had a life altering epiphany. We all know lots of men that don’t have custody of their children, but it is rarely the topic of office gossip. Men not having custody of their kids is culturally normal. Women not having custody of their kids is culturally scandalous. It is not uncommon for dads to leave marriages and go on to start new families. Women are not normally allowed to do this without being branded as selfish and lacking the normal mothering instinct. Most women, myself included, wouldn’t want to leave our children and just go make more children, but why would that choice be looked upon so differently given one’s sex? Mothering judgment abounds whether we have kids or not. The media is currently full of childless women defending their decision. We just cannot win. It is just a truth that our culture sees motherhood as sacred. Our mothering obsession is understandable. We hold ourselves accountable and so does everyone else.
Judgement be damned!
Some might argue, again rightly, that women think there is a right and wrong way to care for children. Culture and judgement run deep. I would argue that we need to trust men more and allow everyone to parent in their own ways. The consequences of unmatched clothing, rough housing, or a different parenting style than our own are just that not earth shattering. Judgement be damned. Despite what society seems to reflect, not all men are inept when it comes to caring for children. Men can remember appointments; they can make boo-boos better with kisses; they can manage bedtime routines. Men should be equal partners in parenting. Teaching, loving and nurturing has no gender. Women must wholeheartedly invite and expect men to share the physical, psychological and cultural responsibility of raising children and accept the fact that dads do parenting in their own ways. Involved dads teach kids diverse expressions of love and life. Involved dads feel deep parental satisfaction. Involved dads help moms have less stress and more time for wine and creativity and who among us couldn’t use more of that!