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On Fathers

June 18, 2013

Anybody super irritated with the propagation of the stereotype of the bumbling incompetent father, say “I”. RIAN_archive_684534_Photo_work_from_series_of_photographs_“Fathers_and_Children”_by_B._Krishtul

I!

This past Sunday morning, Father’s Day, while my son and I made breakfast and a dazzling homemade card for his father, I found myself thinking about and appreciating all the ways in which my partner is a present and devoted parent to our son.  And then I started wondering if I’d ever seen any representation of fathers like him in popular media or even in a TV commercial. I haven’t. On the contrary, I see lots and lots of commercials, television shows, movies, etc. that continue to portray fathers as well-meaning but hopeless buffoons when it comes to parenting.

If we were to believe the stereotypes we would accept that father’s cannot change diapers, get groceries, cook, clean, or fold laundry properly. And this is just the mundane stuff that, literally, a paid laborer could do. Which leaves out all the stuff that you cannot pay someone to do for your children; the real parenting stuff. Despite the fact that men everywhere are proving them wrong, why do stereotypes of men being incapable of nurturing and loving as well as mothers continue to thrive?

I recently read a blog post at Smithsonian.com about how fathers can recognize their babies’ cries just as well as mothers can if they have invested a similar amount of time caring for their child. That’s a big  IF because society is not set up in any way, shape or form for fathers to be able to do that.

The New York Times just published an interesting piece, The Unspoken Stigma of Workplace Flexibility, in which it discusses the fact that while many companies do have policies on the books for new parents to take advantage of, in terms of flexible work schedules and parental leave, it is understood that to take advantage of these policies is to accept the fact that you are likely to be seen as a less valuable  and dedicated player in your company. This is true for both men and women, but may be even more acute for men, since they are traditionally valued for working hard and providing for their families.

Don’t even get me started on how “working hard and providing for your family” should include things that nobody pays you for. Childrearing is hard work. Being present and available to your children is hard work. Providing a safe and peaceful environment for them to thrive, no matter how much money you make, is effing hard work. The NYTimes article rightly points out that if we want the work/life balance choices to be better for women, we have to make them so for men. It is an unfortunate function of the patriarchy that women only get what men get after they get it. As long as we allow the marginalization of men in parenting, we continue to feed the beast that makes it virtually impossible for women to have both satisfying parenting and working lives.

There’s one commercial in particular that really gets my goad. The one for Tide where the couple is sitting there folding their triplets’ laundry together talking about how buying the pricier detergent actually saves them money because it cleans better. The mother is refolding everything the father folds and in the end she just kind of grabs a shirt from him, as if even allowing him to continue to fold is a waste of time.

For me, this commercial perfectly encapsulates a huge problem. Okay, several problems. What is the value of perfectly folded laundry? I’ll tell you: there is none. If your laundry is folded well or folded poorly, it will still be clean and your clothes will still cover your body and provide you protection from the elements. You may have a few more wrinkles, but who cares? Yet, there are plenty of mothers who think it is important to fold laundry well. But why do they think that? Is it because they feel so marginalized and powerless in a society that doesn’t value mothering that they put immense pressure on themselves to do these things so well that somebody might find them valuable? Is a good mother one whose children have perfectly folded clothes and fewer wrinkles? Or is a good mother one who spends more time with her kids and less time worrying about perfectly folded clothes?

We could ask these questions about perfectly clean floors and tidy homes and beautifully presented meals. Women, either through internal or external pressure, feel the need to live up to IMPOSSIBLE standards of perfection and then we all get a good laugh about making fun of dads who just can’t seem to do it the way mom does. When really we should be asking ourselves, why is anybody in this family worrying about or interested in doing anything perfectly?

I must admit that I am the queen of “good enough”. Nobody could ever say of me that I allowed the “perfect to be the enemy of the good”. Just ask my darling husband. That said, I think I have a valid point here. Dad’s get shit on for not being “as good as mom” at any number of things that mom shouldn’t  really be focusing on doing with such precision.  I have often wondered if women, knowingly or not, as a reaction to being put into a box for so long and feeling so under-appreciated and stifled by the expectations heaped upon them, take a certain type of insidious enjoyment in making fathers feel like they are incapable of nurturing their children in the same way. It’s as if they’re saying “this is my box, you put me in here and now you have to let me rule the box”.

If we -society, employers, partners – give fathers the permission to be tender and nurturing with their children, they will be. They do not need to learn it, they only need to unlearn all the messages they’ve been receiving since birth; that to be masculine means to earn money, act tough, and accept that your wife will always be better at you with the children. How well a person does at parenting has less to do with gender and more to do with their experiences with their families of origin and the work they’ve done on themselves as grown-ups. Also their interest and commitment to being a parent. There’s that.

One of my favorite things in the whole world is to watch my husband and son play together. Their bond is secure and getting stronger every day, same as mine with our son. He’s not a perfect father, but I’m not a perfect mother. And it is this lesson – imperfections are not failures – that is among the highest on my list of priorities to teach our son. My hope is that when he grows up he can see the choices we made as parents to ensure that we both had as much time as possible with him in these early years, and feel something akin to appreciation. We both have made sacrifices to make parenting our priority and we have both reaped the benefits of an intimate and special bond with our son. He may not have a single picture of himself in tidy, unwrinkled clothes, and the background may always be a bit messy, but he is loved fiercely by two adults who are allowed to make mistakes and who are every day trying to shed society’s expectations and just focus on doing their best.

So, a belated Happy Father’s Day to all. Society may think you’re dumb, but I don’t (and I’m not alone).

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