Recently, my son wanted me to attend an event in which he was participating. I told him I’d do my best to finish up my meetings and get home in time.
He was outraged.
My son informed me that I had yet to attend a single event at his school, while my husband has attended several. Keep in mind, we only moved at the end of January this year, but this is an event-heavy school. He said his friends were going to think his father and I were divorced, or worse: that I wasn’t even alive.
I explained to him the double standard. If I had been attending these events and his father hadn’t, would the kids assume I was divorced, or that his father had a demanding job where he wasn’t free to attend all these events. My son acknowledged this fact and apologized. Note: I did internalize the guilt and made sure I was at the event.
Since then, I’ve been thinking more about how his comment reflects just as much our expectation of fathers’ relationship to work as much as it does for mothers. I admit that I’m guilty of taking advantage of the patriarchy. Whenever we have a child home from school and one of us has to bring him or her to the office, I always make my husband do it. I reason that, when a woman brings a kid to her office, it looks like she can’t balance her work and family life. When a man does it, it looks like he’s stepping up for his family.
It is important to note that we have made progress when it comes to changing roles and expectations of fathers in society. In fact, in Deconstucting Dads: Changing Images of Fathers in Popular Culture (due out next year by Lexington Press), an edited collection I am co-editing with Dr. Janice Kelly that examines media depictions of fathers, I have studied how fathers are appearing more in active roles within media outlets. The bumbling father image, once a staple of fatherhood representation, is a bit more complicated now. In fact, when Huggies released a commercial showing a bumbling dad, fathers protested.
Yet at the same time, until we begin to make larger structural changes in society that benefit both working women and men, the ability of fathers to have the freedom to be equal players in the lives of their children and still have a successful career (a fight women have long waged) will remain a challenge. Paid family leave, access to childcare, and a decrease in the expectation that all of us need to be available and working 24 hours per day, seven days per week must be addressed. In addition to changing policy, we also need to change social expectations of men playing the role of family provider. We can look to the example of our more progressive countries regarding family policies, like Sweden, where fathers can be more able to be involved in early childcare because of generous family leave benefits. For that policy to work, though, the country had to incenticize fathers to take some of the leave days by reducing the number of days available if only mothers used the benefit. In other words, even countries way ahead of the U.S. regarding work/life/family balance need to change their cultures.
Since we seem to be, sadly, far away from the policy and legislative changes that need to happen, we can still work to change culturally how we see fathers and our expectations of them. So in honor of the upcoming Father’s Day holiday, I think we should encourage (or permit, if you are in a position of authority) fathers the chance to turn off their work on the weekend, bring their family lives into the office, arrange a playdate with a dad (a task that is usually a mom’s role) or some other activity that acknowledges and encourages the contributions of fathers as more than economic providers, but as equal caretakers of the family. Perhaps only then will society not assume that caretaking is solely mothers’ work.
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