Daddies Unbound

The stereotype that dads don’t show much skill or interest in child-rearing should have gone out when you were still in diapers—so why does it persist?

For a few years now, I’ve been watching some of the best minds of my generation lose themselves in motherhood. Daughters of the so-called Supermoms, we were told we could have it all. Looking at the consequences, a lot of us decided it might be more accurate to say that you can have it all, just not all at the same time. The problem, it seems to me, is the waiting period. It’s killing some of us.

When I was in college, most of my girlfriends were convinced that if they one day married, it would be to men who helped equally with the children. We all agreed: The era of fathers boasting that they never changed a diaper was over. Many, if not most, of these women are now married to men who certainly do help more than their fathers ever did, but not as equally as they had hoped.

In many cases I think it is the fault of the women themselves. They want their husbands to share equally in all childcare responsibilities, but they also want to be the one, always, the children run to for comfort. I can attest: It is very strange to be a mother in a public setting and have your daughter fall, scrape her knee, and cry for daddy. People turn to look. They really do.

When my daughter was about a year old, we visited some friends in Washington, D.C., who have two young boys. Saturday morning we planned a trip to the zoo, and while I finished my coffee, my husband set about preparing the diaper bag, that sack of necessities many pledge to streamline before they have children. (Good luck, I say! You, too, will fall under its diabolical power.) Bottles, snacks, diapers, wipes, books, toys, a change of clothes, and 20 minutes later we were ready to go. My girlfriend watched in disbelief, and then confessed that her husband had never packed the diaper bag.

“Never?” I said. Her boys were four and two.

She shook her head. “He couldn’t. He’d never remember everything.”

My friend works part-time as a physician’s assistant, cooks all her family’s meals, does volunteer work for a women’s crisis hotline, and still finds time for a book club.

I told her she should let him try.

But her position is not uncommon, as far as I can see. A lot of the mothers I know profess to wanting more help from their husbands in the work of childcare, but then dictate to those husbands exactly what, when, and how things should be done. I know mothers who cook meals a week in advance, leave lists of suggested activities, and would never dream of letting Dad handle a parent-teacher conference alone. This kind of mother wants help, but she wants to be in control more. She’s the CEO of the family, at least for these waiting years while she’s the CEO of nothing else.

By the time the mother is ready for an equal partner in childcare, she’s essentially trained her best, cheapest, most loving resource to be a babysitter to whom she must give instructions.

I met a painter recently, re-emerging after 12 years of being at home with her son, who told a gathering of people at an artist colony that to make up for the heavy burden of childcare in this life, she had a plan for the next one. When the baby was born, she was going to pick it up by the ankle and hold it upside down, showing all around her that she was no more competent than the next person to care for this infant. Then, she theorized, others would have to step in.

The audience should have been a sympathetic one: We had all abandoned families of one kind or another for fellowships that allowed us to spend precious uninterrupted time on our work. But as I looked around the picnic table, the older women looked surprised and the men and younger women seemed embarrassed. I felt I was the only one who understood, and I told her I might give it a try—I was pregnant with my second child. (Later, I realized I’d blown my cover on the first kid.)

The artist’s plan is radical, but it’s true that the woman who ultimately wants to mix work and mothering would do better to delegate sooner. Otherwise it’s all too easy for the father to slip into the part of poor, bumbling Dad, who can’t even pack the diaper bag. The gender-role divide may start small, but it grows, becoming a self-propagating system, so that by the time the mother is ready for an equal partner in childcare, she’s essentially trained her best, cheapest, most loving resource to be a babysitter to whom she must give instructions.

There are, of course, exceptions. Recently I met a stay-at-home dad. We are both writers, but I don’t think this fully explains why I enjoy play dates with him more than with most of the mothers I know. A few weeks ago we drove the kids to a playground in our town. My daughter wasn’t behaving very well, but we didn’t talk about that much. Instead, we tried to talk of other things: a few new journals we’d seen recently that interested us, gun control, the disappearing farmland around our town. I sometimes talk about these things with other mothers, but with them very often the conversation eventually finds its way back to sleeping schedules, the trials of potty training, when to have another child. With J., it did not.

After the kids had played a while, J. proposed lunch at a café. When we got there, we discovered two things: The place only accepted cash or checks, and neither of us had either. The mothers I know would have aborted the lunch plan right there. We would have looked at each other, grimaced, kissed cheeks, made promises to get together again soon, then fled home to feed the children and get them down for naps on time. J. assumed the kids would be all right for a few extra minutes while he ran out to an ATM, and he was right. Then he ordered hot chocolate with whipped cream for himself and his daughter, and I did, too.

There’s no question I was enjoying a certain daddy-driven, devil-may-care attitude. Now, I don’t know what a two-father play date looks like—maybe in pairs they subtly compete and talk potty-training, just like the moms I know—but in the current mommy wars, it seems to me that women are overlooking an obvious route to realizing their working and mothering goals: giving dads a freer rein. If they forget a diaper now and then, won’t the lighter load be worth it?


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane