Let’s try to make sure this question stops being asked: “Oh, is your husband babysitting?”
We’ve come a long way from the era of mothers as caregivers and fathers as providers. In many families, both jobs now apply equally. The stereotype of the bumbling idiot, made popular in commercials and sitcoms for decades now, not only cheapens the very real contributions many dads make to parenting, it also continues to pressure and shame mothers.
The motif of the mom who has to not only care for the children, but the childlike husband as well, is well-developed. It’s a favorite setting for sitcoms, and there’s always the episode in which the mom goes out for the night, leaves dad in charge, and returns to find the house destroyed, the littlest one covered in permanent marker, the remnants of a dinner comprised of Pixie Sticks and Cheetos, and who knows what else. This image is also found in commercials, with Clorox as one of the worst offenders.
“Life’s bleachable moments” include when a dad ignores his son while on the playground, leading to the child pooping his pants. Or, the mom who comes home to find the kitchen a war zone, and the dad awkwardly trying to change the baby on the counter.
Even the fathers who want to take on their share, or more, often find societal obstructions. Guys, have you ever had to skip your turn to change a diaper, because you're out and about, and wherever you are only put changing tables in the women’s restroom? It’s annoying.
This recently entered the greater social consciousness in a big way, thanks to Ashton Kutcher’s campaign to get businesses to simply provide men with equal opportunity to change dirty diapers. It seems strange that one should have to advocate for the right to get covered in baby shit while out in public, but many see this as an equal rights issue; men are demanding the capacity to participate in all parts of parenting in which they are biologically equipped to take part.
There’s even a clothing brand and a Facebook page now dedicated to this… movement? Should the desire of the other half of a partnership to fully participate be called a movement? In that it is an ongoing effort to rewrite gender norms and traditional family roles, “movement” seems to fit. The National At-Home Dad Network has a line of T-shirts that say “Dads Don’t Babysit (It’s Called Parenting)."
Referring to dads as babysitters stems from, but more importantly contributes to, the notion that men shouldn't actually be expected to contribute equally to parenting. The truth is that there are a lot of men out there that have no problem taking a backseat when it comes to childcare.
And there are plenty, men and women, who believe that this is a good thing, a natural thing, that men are inherently less capable, or even entirely incapable, of caring for children without the supervision of a woman.
Many men feel, or are in fact told, that they just don’t have to, leaving that many women with that much more to do. With this reinforcement of traditional gender roles comes shaming and insecurity when women feel, or are told, that they aren't doing enough for their children. There is rarely similar societal pressure put on men.
This is not an effort to shame dads who do less than half the work. That’s no better than the mom shaming we already have. In many families, mothers remain the primary caregivers. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; while in some cases it is the result of outdated gender norms, in others it’s simply the family dynamic that has developed.
If both parents feel the arrangement is fair, then it is. But even in these situations, it is essential that fathers feel, and be made to feel by those around them, that they have just as much a right to the title “parent” as mothers do, and that when they are available to share the load, they also have the responsibilities that go with the title.
It’s a simple rhetorical shift, but it’s one with huge social implications for men, women, and children as our society continues to evolve.