When I read Jessica Valenti’s opinion piece on cultural attitudes toward fathering, what struck me first about the interaction between Valenti’s husband and the flight attendant who found that he was changing his baby’s diaper despite the fact that his wife was on the plane as well is how incredibly creepy it is for a stranger to turn a relatively innocent interaction about parenting into an opportunity to express sexual desire for this person they don’t even know. If it was a woman going to change her baby’s diaper and some man she didn’t know told her that he found mothers to be a real turn on, she would be creeped out, and rightly so. It was especially odd in this case since the man in question had just said that he was with his wife.
But the overall piece illustrates something I have complained about many times: fathers are not valued as true parents nearly enough. Men are expected to be stoic and strong, valued by women chiefly for their abilities to earn money, fix things and do yard work. If a man falls outside a narrow accepted definition of masculinity, he is mocked as mercilessly as women who fall outside of the traditional definitions of femininity. Lavish praise to men for simple parenting tasks is the same thing as saying that we don’t really think men are capable of doing those tasks.
Another pet peeve of mine relating to men and parenting: when people talk about men babysitting their own children. That is not babysitting! You babysit other people’s children, not your own! It drives me crazy. As an example, when I was still married, after our daughter was born, my ex-husband would just tell me “I’m going to the store,” or something like that all. the. time. At first, it didn’t bother me, because it wasn’t like I was going anywhere usually, but after a while, I wondered how he would feel if I did the same thing to him.
“I’m heading to the store,” I said casually one day, keys in hand. He looked up from the computer, surprised.
“ But what about the baby?”
“What about her?”
“Who will watch her?”
“I assumed she wouldn’t need anyone else, she is with you,” I answered, in a perplexed tone.
“But I was thinking about going to see my friend John,” he said.
I am sure he was not really thinking about going to see John, but, like most people, when his options were suddenly limited, he thought of all sorts of things he wanted to do. And, despite the fact that I think my ex has many faults (we are divorced for a reason, after all), I am not really knocking him with this story. He is a product of his culture, and it simply did not occur to him that I was not the default caregiver.
From the day our daughter was born, I expected him to give real care to her, not just some playing or a bit of baby-sitting. I told him that babies bond most closely with their primary caregivers, and I was not going to have her preferring me and his feelings being hurt, just because he never met her physical needs or provided real parenting. I also trusted him to care for the baby. I did have more experience with babies, and I sometimes made suggestions, but when he did things differently than I would have done, I bit my tongue and turned away. There is no one right way to parent, and he needed to develop his own style, and I knew he could do it. And you know what? He did fine. Our daughter was safe with him, which is the most important thing. He may have picked outfits that didn’t match, but she was dressed, so who cared? She certainly didn’t.
So, as he sat there confused by my going out without even asking him to watch the baby, I knew where his confusion came from. I was the mom, wasn’t the baby my responsibility? No, she was our shared responsibility, and he knew that. He just needed reminding from time to time.
“This is what you do when you want to leave. You never ask me if I want to do anything or if it is all right if you go. You simply announce that you are leaving.”
“I do?” I never said he was a fast thinker. But, breaking a lifetime of cultural programming is hard. I am sure he didn’t really notice.
“Ok, I’ll try to stop doing that.”
“Thanks. I’ll be back in about half an hour, no more than an hour, you can go to John’s then, if you’d like.”
He looked like he was about to object, but then he stopped himself. I left, and when I came back, the baby was fine.