PSA: Dad is Not the Babysitter
Recently as I was nearing the third trimester of my second pregnancy, my husband decided he wanted to take a week-long trip to visit his family back home in Bosnia. Our 4-year-old daughter, Evie, was in school, so this was a trip my husband would have to take solo. Or so I thought.
Days later he dropped it on me, "Maybe I'll take Evie alone this time."
I was speechless and contemplated why I was struggling to say, "Sounds amazing, book those tickets!" Though our parenting duties aren't split 50-50—my husband works long hours, so I work from home—we both do our part to parent equally, whatever equal looks like for our family. We’re a great team and we trust each other fully.
So, what was so wrong with him wanting to take our daughter on a solo trip? He watches our daughter if I travel with friends on weekends, but a week of full-on daddy time felt different. When I spoke to my friends about it, I quickly realized I’m not the only mom who’s hesitant to fully pass the parenting baton on to dad. But why are we so comfortable with treating our partners like they’re the weekend babysitter rather than an equal parent?
The Parenting Double Standard
My husband’s trip never happened, so I guess I dodged that bullet for now. But it opened my eyes to how easily we fell into very traditional, gender-specific roles when it came to parenting. I’m home taking care of our daughter and my husband is the family breadwinner. And we’re not alone: Research has found that when a first child is born, men and women grow more traditional in their gender attitudes toward mothering, as well as about who does housework and caregiving.
“When mom passes the torch to dad when he gets home, it’s usually with resentment that's built up from a hard day's work on her end; she's implicitly making dad feel like he doesn't do enough and his parenting now is coming from a place of obligation rather than desire," explains Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, psychotherapist, and family relationship expert in Los Angeles, California. Guilty as charged: If I had a particularly frustrating day with my daughter, the second my husband walks in the door he barely gets a hello before I'm demanding he step in. My subconscious leads me to believe that my husband isn't doing enough, then when he does do something it feels like I’m dumping my daughter with a babysitter who needs an instruction manual, rather than her own father who’s perfectly capable.
And our society further supports this unbalanced dynamic by applauding dads for the contributions they do put in. When Judge Brett Kavanaugh was nominated as the newest member to the Supreme Court, an entire article was dedicated to his outstanding fathering skills. He was celebrated for "racing across town just to catch the last 15 minutes of [his daughter’s] game." If this were written about a high-powered female CEO, I can bet the narrative would be about how awful it was that she missed the first 45-minutes. So why do dads get the high-fives?
"The concept is dated, but my sense is because it's considered over and above a husband's 'day job' to take over when mom can't,” says Dr. Raymond. “Like he doesn't really have to and is doing it more out of love and commitment to his family than duty. People don't respond that way about mothers probably because mothers are seen to be duty-bound to take care of their children in all ways possible."
A few weeks ago, Jenny Mollen, NYT best-selling author of Live Fast, Die Hot, took to Instagram (@jennymollen) to address her followers who ask if she feels lucky that her husband, Jason Biggs, is an involved dad (you may know him from American Pie and Orange Is The New Black). Her answer: no. "Nobody would ever say to a man, 'wow you are so lucky your wife feeds and bathes your children.' For women, it's expected to love and protect and show up for soccer practice. For him, an hour or two alone with the kids on the weekend somehow warrants a trophy." Her post went viral. So I asked her, why is there is such a double standard in 2018, still?
"Really, I think women allow it. As mothers, we are consumed with so much guilt whether we're with our kids or away from them. And then the problem becomes projecting our guilt on to other moms around us who are doing something differently than we can do," Mollen says. Suddenly, letting Dad run the household for a night makes you feel like a bad mom.
Take a recent Instagram post featuring Khloe Kardashian enjoying herself at a charity event three months after giving birth to her daughter, True. A fan commented, "Who's watching her baby?" with a judgey emoji face thrown in there. Khloe snapped back on Twitter, "Her dad is watching her while I’m trying 2bring awareness 2an amazing organization. But either way, what’s wrong w a new mom letting daddy take over 4a few hours? [sic]." Fans flooded the feed with encouraging words of support and virtual high-fives, even one going as far to point out the obvious: "It's not the 1950's. Fathers do watch their children and mothers are allowed out."
And Dads Do Want to Parent
Greg Miller, 33, of Greenville, South Carolina, a single dad to three, says his ex-wife was maternal gatekeeping—as in, Mom holds the control over time Dad spends with the baby, oftentimes unintentionally—since their first child was born. "From the onset, I was fighting an uphill battle. I was a young dad and trying to run a new business, so my ex handled most of the parenting during the day. When I got home, she was still obsessed with being a mother and put this pressure on herself to handle all the duties," he says. "I think in our seven-year marriage, I was left alone with our kids for one 24-hour period because she had a death in the family to attend to."
Unbalanced parenting situations like Miller's are common, says Dr. Raymond. "Some women want to do it all and are afraid that if they let dad into the scene, the kids will love the father more and the mother will lose out." It’s a sentiment shared by many first-time moms. Meghan Springmeyer, 33, of Raleigh, North Carolina, remembers that when her son was born, she had this unrealistic expectation for herself. "Even though it was logistically easier for my husband to drop off our son at daycare in the morning, I would feel this tremendous guilt if I didn't do it,” she says. "I got to spend quality time with him in other ways, but I still conjured this idea that mommy comes first and my husband's role as dad was just secondary.”
Dr. Raymond explains some women have histories of competitiveness with siblings for the love and attention of their parents and end up viewing dad as a rival for the affection of their kids. "Out of fear of becoming redundant, some moms hoard all the parenting duties and never let dad in on the experience," she says.
There are also plenty of moms who go into parenting not expecting their husbands to do any of the work. Sometimes the way in which someone was raised could be an underlying cause for behavior later in life, explains Dr. Raymond. Coming from a divorced family, or ones in which dad took a backseat or wasn't part of the family at all can be reasons today’s moms might overdo it.
"A lot of moms don't realize it, but dads really do want to be involved," says Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist who works with couples and parents on these very issues. "There is this stereotype that dads are just trying to shirk out of their responsibilities. But they do want to participate in their own kids' lives.” If your husband or partner doesn’t seem to be a natural parent in the same way you are, there might be a scientific reason why. Researchers found the oxytocin levels responsible for parent-infant bonding dramatically increase in women during pregnancy and the postpartum period. But men need to put in more actual effort (changing diapers, feeding baby, going for walks) to feel the same way. It’s possible your partner hasn't yet developed the brain waves for feeling that need to be involved. And if mom doesn’t give him a fair chance to play a starring role in his child’s life, those neurons won’t shine.
How Can We Co-Parent Better
The first step is realizing it's never really this 50-50 divide as we'd like to think it should be, Springmeyer points out. “I travel a lot for my new job, so the moms in our community know my husband as Mr. Mom. But I've learned to let go—my husband is capable of dressing our son for school even if it means my kid doesn't match in the slightest bit. Friends will text me saying 'You must be traveling this week because Tommy's outfits are hilarious!' and it just makes me smile. At least he's in clean clothes and he's happy,” she says.
Childrearing done mom's way doesn't make it the right way, but when a baby is totally dependent on mom, this makes her feel indispensable. Popular blogger Maya Vorderstrasse (@mayavorderstrasse) sounded off recently over her realization that she should have let her husband co-parent long ago.
As a stay-at-home mom to a toddler and a baby, she had her hands full but always adored her job as mommy. “Letting my husband take over just didn't seem necessary,” she says. Until her older daughter got sick and Vorderstrasse had to leave her nursing baby with her husband for five hours. "I had never left the baby for more than an hour or two, and it's not that I don't trust my husband or he's not capable, I just never really wanted to be too far from my daughters. When I was forced to take my oldest to the doctor, and I saw how smoothly things were going at home, I felt so silly for ever doubting that I couldn't leave for long," Vorderstrasse says. "My husband is as much of a parent as I am, which I've always known, but some reason I thought I was the only one able to handle any crisis or be alone with them. I like controlling things the way I'm used to doing them, which I realized from this experience I'm probably hurting his confidence big time by being so on top of it. I wish I had relaxed long ago!"
How do we help moms get to this realization a heck of a lot quicker? The secret is being vocal with your partner about a lifestyle that works for you. “After initially asking for help, I still tried to micromanage my husband when it came to the kids, and he finally said, ‘Sarah, stop telling me what to do with the kids. I’m not a babysitter, I’m their dad.’ And he was right,” says mom of three, Sarah Mae Hoover, co-author of Desperate, a book for overwhelmed moms.
For tips on sharing these responsibilities more equally, check out our piece, How to Share the Parenting Load With Your Partner.
By constantly judging or giving side-eye to a mom who's out there doing things her way, we're allowing the stigma that mom parents better and should be doing all the parenting. I might not yet be ready to let my husband take our daughter across the globe on his own, but under our own roof, I want him to be a happy co-parent, too. Until we all stop perpetuating this idea that dads can’t (and shouldn’t) parent how moms can, expectations for the men in our lives will always linger low.