This time last year, there were a flurry of stories about my daughter and I published around the world. A US writer spotted an angle for a “sweet article about (my) daughter’s outfits”, and that got noticed by the likes of The Independent & Metro in UK, Buzzfeed and ABC News in US, and then various outlets across the globe. Radio and TV appearances followed. Perhaps you are reading this because you started following my blog after coming across one of those.
The premise was basically I was an at-home parent letting my (then) 3-year-old daughter choose what she wears every morning. And the outfits were kinda cool and not traditionally ‘girly’.
When I asked, the writers of those articles told me the same thing – what made this story ‘a story’ was the fact that I was a dad of a daughter.
While it was nice to bask in the mostly supportive comments (US conservatives aside – yikes), the fact people were reacting strongly to it highlighted an issue we have with parenting.
Is dad all there is?
Expectations for dads are so low, that fathers get plaudits for simply doing what mothers do as standard. Seriously, check out any of those articles I linked to. Have you ever read anything like that about a mother?
Some comments complained that this was another example of the patriarchy at work. That this was ‘the system’ congratulating a man for doing what women do on a daily basis, without any kudos.
I have often observed that I get compliments just because I’m a dad. When I tell people I’m a stay-at-home parent, the response is usually telling me what an awesome thing it is I’m doing. Are mothers routinely told that? No, of course not. When my kid was a baby, I used to get women stopping and telling me what a great dad I was – simply because they saw me bottle feeding my baby. What mother has EVER been congratulated for formula feeding their baby? By all means, take a moment to laugh that one out before reading on…
But I don’t think it’s the patriarchy at work. To me, it’s a symptom of the low expectations society has of men as parents. Dads get plaudits for just showing a little engagement, because our role has become so emotionally removed from the nurturing aspect of parenting. More often than not, we’re just expected to be breadwinners, playmates, drivers, and – yes – babysitters. It’s a role that begins early.
‘Dads Don’t Babysit’ (apart from when we do)
The ‘Dads Don’t Babysit’ movement will be familiar to anyone who follows dad bloggers. It’s a frequent statement thrown our way when we’re out with our kids – ‘Babysitting today are we?’, or ‘Giving mum a break?’.
It drives me nuts when directed at me. Sometimes I brush it off. But other times, I go into a mini-rant about how I’m the at-home parent, and my wife gives ME a break. Which is clearly unfair, because my wife’s role in our family isn’t ‘giving dad a break’ (ha!).
But I have to admit, ‘babysitting dads’ are real. That for some, their role IS defined by ‘babysitting’ their kids, to give mum a break. The thing is, perhaps this isn’t a role they want but it’s the role that life has given them.
Here’s a familiar narrative of a dad: They want a kid with their partner, who then becomes a pregnant. This is when their role as ‘supporter’ begins. All the dad can do is support their partner while their child grows inside them. Whatever the woman wants, whatever need or desire they express, we try and fulfil. During labour, we support however we can. After the child is born, we continue to do whatever the mother wants. They just pushed a person – your child – out of them for god’s sake!
The dad then fully supports the mother breastfeeding, knowing it’s best for your child. But this is more than simply feeding. This is the forming of a bond between parent and child, the primary point of connection between mother and baby, that is exclusively theirs. The mother has become the nurturer. What is your role, dad?
I experienced this, but for a very short time. There were post-birth complications so I (very unexpectedly) had our newborn daughter at home alone with me in week 2. A few weeks later, we made the decision to stop breastfeeding (for the sake of my wife’s recovery). I noted that the parental intimacy I felt bottle feeding my daughter was like no other aspect of my new found role as father.
This isn’t the case for most dads, and I am absolutely not advocating for bottle over breast. But – in the best case scenario of a happily breast feeding baby – at what point does the dad become a nurturer too? How does he bond? When does he form an intimate, nurturing relationship with his child?
In this scenario, is it any wonder that so many dads become ‘babysitters’ – continuing this support role as the child gets older. Because that’s all that been expected – and allowed – of them since they became a father in the first place.
Don’t be a babysitter. Be a dad.
I think to stop this ‘babysitter’ mentality taking hold, dads need to find a more nurturing role in the heart of their new family as soon as possible. To do more than simply ‘give mum a break’.
Set the pattern early. Bathtime? Make it yours as default. Winding/burping? Do it whenever you can. Cuddle your child for comfort as much as possible. Start reading to them early – I know this is a thankless task at the start, but sooner than you think this will become a key source of interaction – so put yourself at the heart of it. When you start them on solids, feed them – but more than that, cook for them, delight in the delicious and nourishing foods you can create for your child. Create your own feeding bond.
From the very start, try and find ways to create a parenting space for yourself that isn’t defined as just supporting your partner. It is up to you as a dad to form a relationship with your child. No one else is going to do it for you. Your partner is too busy recovering from pushing a person out of her vagina, and dealing with an insatiable grub that sucks milk from her boobs on demand. You need to find a way to support the mother of your baby AND create a parenting space for you and your child.
Your partner will (I’m sure) recover from growing and pushing that new human out. Breastfeeding will end. But by then, your role in the family may have already been defined by being ‘the babysitter’.
Mothering and parenting are currently interchangeable terms, whereas fathering has it’s own different meaning, with frankly lower expectations. Let’s change that.