One of the most eye-opening experiences for me as a new parent after the birth of my oldest daughter was the difference in how people see ‘moms’ and how they see ‘dads’. Moms were the ones who did the work—the feeding, the bathing, the not sleeping, the elbow-deep sh*t. And I sort of understood that (or at least resigned myself to accepting it) since I was the one who had the “maternal instinct” and was (by society’s standards) the main caretaker. It made sense, in a way.
But what DIDN’T make sense to me, then or now, was how people (and by people I mean generally, societally, as a whole) saw her dad, and dads in general. For whatever reason, he wasn’t assigned the same level of involvement or responsibility in her care, despite the fact that he was indeed as involved as he could be. And I’m not sure that I fully realized how stark the difference was until the first time someone referred to him babysitting our daughter—his daughter.
I can’t remember the exact circumstances—I think I had taken a much-needed self-care day and was getting my nails done. The receptionist and I were chatting, catching up on new mom life and she asked who was watching the baby. I said, ‘Oh, she’s at home with dad!” And she responded with something along the lines of, “Oh, dad is babysitting, how cute! Is he ok by himself?” I remember first thinking, well JFC I hope so. And then I remember feeling … aggravated. Aggravated that I was being tasked with managing my baby’s care while she wasn’t even with me. And double aggravated that her dad, who was a highly involved parent and was actually far better with diaper changes and bathtime than I was, was being dismissed as ‘just’ a babysitter. A placeholder. Someone to keep an eye on the baby in my absence. It annoyed me and truth be told, it made me a little sad. Because dads don’t babysit. They don’t babysit their own kids! They’re DADS, parents, caretakers doing the same things moms do.
Society likes to clown on dads, a bit too much for my liking. We’ve all seen the memes about dads doing really dumb stuff like boiling a bottle until it melts or putting the onesie on inside out and upside down. And then people laugh at the goofy, hapless dads who can’t possibly do as good a job as moms. ‘Can’t leave the baby with dad, he’ll probably try to power wash them after a blowout!’ It’s harmful and reductive and completely diminishes the work that dads actually do. It also reinforces antiquated stereotypes that only moms are the caregivers, the nurturers, the parents, and dads are just there for laughs. Not to mention, this stereotype is centered on the ‘traditional’ hetero-normative family unit and completely ignores the LGBTQ+ experience and different family structures; who’s the ‘bumbling dad’ when they’re both dads, or both moms?
Dads are parents. They’re not babysitters. Now, I fully appreciate and acknowledge that the level of paternal involvement varies from family to family, but…the same can be said about moms? Being a mom doesn’t guarantee any measure of committed involvement in childrearing. Relegating dads to the role of babysitter completely minimizes their role in their child’s life, and diminishes the work they are doing. AND, it places the onus for caretaking and childrearing right back onto mom. Take a look around at your friends and families—do the moms all fit the ‘traditional’ stereotype? In my life, I know corporate moms, stay-at-home-dads, mixed generation families, and families who rely on the help of beloved child caretakers and house managers. The more we fall back on this ‘mom is the caretaker and dad is the babysitter’ trope, the more we see it play out in other areas—like corporate and federal policies, the gender pay gap, and in media and culture. And all of those policies and reinforced stereotypes are damaging to more than just moms.
If the dad in your life has some areas of opportunity when it comes to taking care of the kids (and don’t we all?), let’s commit to helping them rather than just waving it off and laughing uncomfortably at their perceived ineptitude. And let’s start holding the dads in our lives (and ourselves!) to a higher, more equitable standard of care when it comes to raising kids. We don’t have to accept the status quo—we can kick it right in the teeth and change it.
Taking care of the kids you make or help raise isn’t babysitting—not when dads do it, not when moms do it, not when anyone who’s taken on the monumental task of raising a child does it. If it was, I would like to know to whom I can kindly forward my invoice for the last 11 years of ‘babysitting’. At the current market rate of $15 an hour, I’m about to get PAID.