Cheers to the Dads Who Don't Help
I still can’t believe how many people comment that I am “so lucky” my husband “helps with the baby so much!” Let’s be clear: I am deeply grateful for the shared partnership in our crazy overwhelming venture of parenthood. I am grateful for the love, devotion, and commitment of my spouse. However, he’s not “helping me”. He is parenting. He is just as vital to my son as I am. These (well-intentioned) comments carry an implication: parenting is my job, and anything my husband contributes is a generous gift to lighten my load.
There is a problem with this framework. My husband is the world to my son (and to me, let’s be honest). My son’s face lights up when he sees daddy. When he’s frustrated or hurt, he’s just as likely to seek comfort from my husband as he is from me. Maybe even more so, given how patient and creative my husband is. This means my son gets to have two caregivers who both provide nurturing. He has two parents who are equally capable of serving toddler-appropriate breakfasts, changing diapers, and performing baby-wrestling holds to get Tylenol in that resistant little teething mouth.
Just as importantly, this means my husband gets to share the blissful moments of parenting when a busy toddler takes a quick break for a hug, the joy of splash battles during a (usually much overdue) bath, and the rare quiet snuggle just before bed when we can bribe a cuddle with a bottle and books.
My husband is a full-time parent. We help each other and take turns bailing each other out when the parenting tasks are particularly overwhelming or unpleasant, but neither of us is the Boss Parent. We are in this together. We share the joys and responsibilities of this roller coaster ride between the two of us.
I’d love to reframe the idea that dads “babysit” or “help”. Bear with me here; it’s more than just semantics. The implication when someone says “dad is babysitting” is that he’s just filling in for the real caregiver. Dad who gets sold short, his role in his children’s lives vastly minimized. It is a disservice to moms who already feel wracked with guilt over nearly every decision they make to imply that when dads are stepping in, it means moms are failing to step up. It’s a disservice to dads who miss out on the full spectrum of their potential relationships with their children when we assume there are elements of parenting men are unable to competently fulfill. And, most of all, it’s a disservice to our kids who deserve as many caregivers who can meet as many of their needs as possible.
Dads are so important. This Father’s Day, let’s work to change how we talk about their role in the family. Sometimes this means we moms need to get out of the way to create space for our partners to develop confidence. Sometimes it means we need to take a beat and really determine whether what we’re about to correct is really essential. (I guess my toddler will probably survive if my husband doesn’t care about the distinction between pajama sets and play clothes the way I do). There is work to be done on accepting that slight differences in parenting styles might just be okay. In fact, they might even be healthy.
Men like my husband, my father, and the parents I treat in my practice are doing the hard work of shifting the meaning of the words “paternal” and “masculine”. These men encounter gendered bathrooms without changing tables, music classes designed for “mommy and me”, parenting books only addressed to female caregivers, and swim against the cultural current that minimizes their roles are caregivers. In our families, we can allow space for “masculine” to include the qualities of being nurturing, attentive, and gentle. The qualities of fathers.
As I watch my husband eat lunch with our toddler, evoking peals of giggles as they repeatedly “cheers” one another with their ham sandwiches, I think to myself: cheers to the dads who parent, the dads who don’t “help”.