“I can’t come this weekend. I have to babysit the kid.”
The comment, overheard coming from a man I didn’t know, was innocent enough, and clearly meant to be lighthearted. He was just a committed father taking care of his child, right? Still, something about its implications didn’t quite sit well with me.
It wasn’t the first time that I had heard a man refer to spending time with his child as “babysitting.” Somehow, I couldn’t imagine a mother using the term, speaking as if parenting was an occasional one-off nuisance that had to be dealt with.
Just that morning, I had read an article detailing the wacky trials and tribulations of a working father who stood stepped in for his stay-at-home wife for a day. After essentially realizing in a moment of shock that she really DOES do something all day and he has no idea how she does it, the Dad’s day is a comedy of errors in which he expects to get work done but ends up barely keeping himself and his three children afloat.
Upon my first read, I chuckled. As a stay-at-home mom, I identified with the self-satisfaction that the mother felt when the father defeatedly admitted that he had no idea how difficult her “job” was. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was no laughing matter.
When we accept offhand dramatizations of the head-in-the-clouds, incompetent father, we are really and truly hurting ourselves. We send a message to dads that they are inherently inferior at childcare, so they may as well step back and let Mom handle everything. When we chuckle at the stereotypical portrayal of the Dumb Dad instead of push back against it, we corroborate that I’ll-leave-the-parenting-to-my-wife mentality. We perpetuate a myth that gives men an excuse to step back from parenting and places more of the burden on women.
Too often, when I chat with friends who have children, “Daddy” is often synonymous with “incompetent.” Just the word alone, accompanied by a “you know how it is” eye-roll or shrug, is seemingly enough to explain away all sorts of mishaps. A child’s mismatched outfit? Daddy must have dressed him. Diaper bag missing, of all things, a diaper? Silly Daddy.
But a father who, after years of parenthood, has no idea what the ins and outs of day-to-day parenting entails is not funny. It is sad.
The fathers of our children are not incompetent, and their possession of male body parts should not render them incapable providing high-quality childcare, whether that’s on a daily basis or less regularly.
It can be hard to let go. I know. After all, it’s nice to feel important. It’s nice to feel like you’re so uniquely qualified to do what you’re doing that nobody else could possibly step in for you and succeed. But it’s also exhausting, and it cheats our partners out of more active parent-child relationships.
If mothers want to make our partners our true partners, we need to stop making fun of them. Then we need to let go and get out of the house often enough that it isn’t a special occasion.
Trying to practice what I preach, just this weekend, my husband stayed home with our son while I got out for most of the day. And do you want to know what happened when my husband stayed home? NOTHING. Nothing happened. Well, nothing unusual. My son ate, slept, played, laughed, and cried, just like he usually does. And my husband certainly wasn’t surprised that a day with a child is a very full day.
So if you were hoping to giggle in solidarity with a woman whose husband took care of the kids and dressed them in the wrong clothes, fed them the wrong foods, played with the wrong toys, and read them the wrong books, you can look elsewhere. I have no doubt you’ll find them. But you won’t find them here.