Dad Is NOT a Synonym for Babysitter

Jasmine Peterson is against all stereotypes that position dads as the secondary parents. 

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when parents refer to father-child time as ‘babysitting’. It drives me mad. It’s based on the assumption that a mother is a ‘natural’ parent, and fathers are something else, something less. It infuriates me that this discourse of parenting, of fatherhood, is so pervasive that even fathers refer to their one-on-one time with their children as babysitting.

This attitude is not only insulting, it’s harmful – to dads, moms, and their children. When children hear Dad referred to as a ‘babysitter’ it reinforces for them that dad is a secondary parent, and that mom is THE parent. I cringe when I hear mothers convening and talking (condescendingly) about fathers fumbling with their parenting duties (like putting on a diaper backwards, or burning dinner… chortle chortle, hardy har). It makes me wonder – do they forget fumbling about themselves? That time they put the diaper on backwards, or when they felt somehow inadequate because they just didn’t know what they were doing or why baby was crying or got to the arena only to discover they’d forgotten the hockey bag at home? It happens to all of us – mothers and fathers.

Women aren’t natural nurturers. And men contrary to what many televised sitcoms would have us believe, are not naturally inept at parenting. If mothers do develop skills that overshadow those of fathers in the parenting department, it most likely has to do with getting more practice at it. Motherhood is rewarded, expected, and compulsory for women (ever heard people talk to women without children? “Oh, your dog is like your baby” or “Your work must be like your baby to you” – signifying the disbelief that any woman might choose not to parent wilfully and deliberately).

Fathers, on the other hand, are seen as an optional parent. A man who is involved with his children is lauded and praised, as though just being present in his children’s lives is something exceptional. I think this is extremely insulting to men. To suggest that even the smallest amount of effort a father puts into raising his children is worthy of commendation and praise reinforces the prevalent idea that men aren’t naturally nurturing or naturally good parents. The bar is set low, and fathers become ‘babysitters’ (fill-ins for when mothers aren’t present) or heroes for being at all involved with their children.

Having said that, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying fathers shouldn’t be acknowledged for doing a good job raising their children, just as mothers ought to be given recognition for the hard work that they do. Parenting is an exceedingly tough job, and it’s not always pretty, it’s not always smooth, and it often does warrant commendation. I just find it problematic that the standard is so low that any involvement on the part of fathers is highly commended while mothers are simply expected to perform the majority of parenting duties; no commendations for mothers for being involved parents (I’m not fishing for commendations here; I am not overly fond of the ‘good mother’ discourse, either).

People are often aghast when I say that I didn’t instantaneously love my infant the moment she was born (it goes against that whole ‘good mother’ thing). But how could I? She was a stranger that I’d just met; it took me time to get to know her and bond with her before that relationship developed. This goes against what we’re taught about motherhood. It’s almost motherly heresy to admit to such things, but in making this admission I am resisting the notion that mothers are natural nurturers and fathers something secondary.

The issue is even more complex, I think, when it comes to step-fathers. My daughter’s father has been deceased since she was a mere infant, and so my current partner has been the only father she’s ever known. As my partner, I consider him a co-parent (and a wonderful one, at that). Fortunately, I have never once heard him refer to his time with his step-daughter as ‘babysitting’. I think that step-fathers are even more marginalized than biological fathers, so I try to be cognizant of the language I use so as not to position him as a secondary parent.

As Kristin Maschka noted over at Huffington Post, it’s not just that cultural discussions of fatherhood position fathers as secondary helpers to the primary caregiver that is the mother, but the American Census Bureau has defined fathers as caregivers while rendering the work done by mothers all but invisible. It is taken for granted that mothers will parent, and that fathers are ‘help’, which has very real implications for policy planning. This delineation of mom as compulsory parent and father as childcare provider is more than just insulting; it has the potential to interfere with governmental departments’ ability to make sound decisions about legislation and services.

I was curious about how things stand here in Canada, so I did a quick search, and it appears that we’ve got a research alliance (the Father Involvement Research Alliance) that has been devoted to disseminating information and promoting evidence-based strategies that support positive father-child relationships. Perhaps we could move toward a discourse that involves fathers as co-parents and not secondary parents through research initiatives like FIRA, as well as through changing the way we talk about how we spend time with our children – a more positive vision of fatherhood than father as babysitter.

photo: istolethetv / flickr

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About Jasmine Peterson

Jasmine Peterson is a feminist and an activist. She is currently pursuing her Master's degree in Clinical Psychology. Her research has examined social constructionism, self-objectification, and, most recently, conceptions of health and their impact on males and females.

Comments

  1. Well, I hope so too. My 8 years as a stay at home (work at home) parent to 3, including a special needs child does not leave me with much optimism.

    FIRA was funded by the Canadian Federal Govt (through SSHRC grants), and is defunct – the website is maintained by the Centre for Families Work and Well-Being, at the University of Guelph. So, basically, a bunch of academics got a grant, did a bunch of secondary source review work, regurgitated some of their prior work, and when the money ran out – that was it.

    Incidentally, the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access which held hearings in 1998 would have addressed the “cultural discussions of fatherhood position fathers as secondary helpers to the primary caregiver that is the mother”. Unfortunately, the Joint Committee was not permitted to write the report following the public hearings. This role was taken on by bureaucrats in the Ministry of Justice, under MInister Anne McLellan, a Liberal. The Liberals have maintained a significant voting gender gap, and consider this a core constituency. Under pressure from feminist action groups, including National Association of Women and the Law, ONTARIO WOMEN’S NETWORK ON CHILD CUSTODY AND ACCESS, the Ontario Women’s Justice Network, and a range of domestic violence groups including DAWN, and Vancouver Rape Relief Society, the committee’s reccomendations were ignored, the question buried in federal-provincial consultations, and eventually, five years later McLellan’s successor, Cauchon made a few cosmetic changes to terminology.

    You have maintained that the feminists that you know, are egalitarian. Perhaps so. This is the public face of feminism in Canada.

  2. The funding has lapsed, but the provision and dissemination of information has not – opening up these discourses is part of the solution.

    There is more to the story than feminist action groups pressuring the committee to ignore recommendations. The process is far more nuanced than what that statement suggests. Furthermore, the CCRC states that the process involved listening to men and women in equal numbers:

    “In meetings held across the country in most of the major cities, the Committee heard from an equal number of men and women representing a great variety of views. Non-custodial parents, Grandparents, womens groups, and the legal and therapeutic communities all offered recommendations to the Committee.”

    The committee’s focus was a more family-centered approach to custody and access law. I don’t see that this is something that was or would be refuted by anyone, feminist or otherwise. The truth is, most people get the custody arrangements they want after a separation. That isn’t to say that there aren’t couples whose arrangements are unfair to one or the other parent (and, anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen this happen to both mothers and fathers).

    Interestingly, I’m talking about some of the things we might change in order to work toward greater equality, yet you address none of that and take it to a negative “feminists are out to get men” place. The system isn’t perfect, certainly, but you cannot place sole blame on feminists for that (because there are a number of groups involved in family law and there are cultural discourses that impact how legislation is made). I assert again that this is NOT my experience of feminism. 1998 was 14 years ago. Things have changed since then. I have no experience with feminists of that time period, but what I can say is that your depiction of what the face of feminism in Canada is is not consistent with my experiences. As with anything, feminist discourse is culturally and historically relevant.

    I’ve read texts from that time period that were concerned with family law – with the issue of men accusing women of attempting to alienate their children and feminists concerned that women in abusive situations might then not be believed. These were real and serious issues that needed sorting out. However, as a feminist right now, I’ve never once encountered another feminist who doesn’t want males to have equal rights when it comes to their children. If we change how we talk about fatherhood, if we stop referring to dads as secondary, then what will naturally follow is greater equality. The disparity – mother as primary, father as secondary – is not just a harmless cultural discourse, but impacts legislation and policy.

  3. Eric M. says:

    This article diminishes and is dismissive of the value that many fathers have played in their children’s lives. The gaping whole here is that parenting is about far, far, far more than diaper changing and breastfeeding. The only reason my girls know that I changed all of their overnight diapers is because we told them. The only reason they know I gave them each and every bath when they were babies and toddlers is because we have those embarrassing naked baby pictures and we’ve told the stories. Nobody remembers who did those things. Nice memories for me, nice for them to know I did those things but they don’t even remember.

    But, they DO remember who taught them to ride a bike, who built the pool in the backyard and played with them, who plays tag with them, wrestles with them, helps them with math and science homework, watches silly TV shows and movies with them, helps them with science projects, lovingly but firmly disciplines them, talks to them about driving skills even though they aren’t ready yet, takes them to baseball, basketball, and football games, tells corny jokes with them, helps them map out their educational plans to achieve their future goals, on and on. I have always worked full time while their mom has mainly been at home with them, doing what you would call nurturing, but I am very proudly just as much of a parent.

    Traditional fathers like me are no less parents than someone who stays home full time. In fact, one of the things that impressed me about my dad was that he commuted a long way, worked hard all day, but had JUST as much influence on our lives as our mom did. I love, respect, and appreciate them equally. THAT is my goal with my kids.

    • Eric M. says:

      One more thing. I’m far from the perfect father (though I keep trying to improve) but as soon as I learned of my girls’ existence, I instantly bonded with them, reading to them each and every night at bedtime throughout the pregancy. That’s the kind of thing us traditional, gender-roled dads have done for many years and still do.

    • Jasmine says:

      I’m not sure how this is dismissive to fathers? I’ve not talked explicitly about the things fathers do, so much as the manner in which the language we use when discussing fatherhood positions fathers as secondary. I’m not saying fathers *are* secondary.

      • Eric M. says:

        It’s dismissive of so much of the real parenting work that fathers have long done, of which diaper changing doesn’t even hit the scales in terms of difficulty or importance. Parenting and nurturing/cargiving are not synonymous since we don’t have babies for 22 years. So what a dad doesn’t cook and changes a small percentage of diapers? So what he isn’t that great of a cook?That matters little in the overall scheme of things.

        (Similarly, so what mom is really lousy at teaching her son to throw a baseball or understand football? That doesn’t mean she’s not really a parent)

        It’s the other myriad of things fathers do that have a greater impact on the lives of their children. The traditional work that fathers do of providing materially coupled with the things I listed above are extremly important and should be acknowledged as such.

        Should we get a medal for doing our best at being good fathers? No. We do what we are supposed to do, what we signed up for when we created another human.

        • Jasmine says:

          I still don’t see where you’re seeing this dismissiveness as my piece is not discussing things that moms and dads do. I am not talking about what either parent does; I am talking about the language we use when talking about mothering and fathering. If this were a piece about the roles of fathers, I might have addressed gendered parental duties, but this has absolutely nothing to do with things either parents does or doesn’t do. It is about how fathers are positioned as secondary when they are referred to as ‘babysitters’.

          • Eric M. says:

            Your article is dismissive of the work that fathers have long done.

            “A man who is involved with his children is lauded and praised, as though just being present in his children’s lives is something exceptional.”

            “I just find it problematic that the standard is so low that any involvement on the part of fathers is highly commended. . .”

            You are implying that fathers being involved in their children’s lives is so uncommon an occurence as to inspire surprised commendation. That is not true and dismissed the work done by many fathers. It’s less common than it formerly was due to divorce, but it’s still not uncommon.

            • Jasmine says:

              Actually, that is not at all what is being implied. What is being implied is that when we speak of fathers in that manner it suggests that men are naturally absent from their children’s lives, and so therefore a man who is present is exceptional. Quite the contrary to your reading of it, it is not at all dismissive. I am problematizing the notion that fathers naturally tend to be absent parents, which leads to this sentiment. When you read that entire paragraph from whence you took that selection, it becomes clear that I am not stating that men are commonly uninvolved, but drawing attention to the fact that when even minimal involvement is lauded what is suggested in that is that it is an exceptional circumstance (I’m saying this is inaccurate and a disservice to fathers and parents in general).

            • Eric M. says:

              “Actually, that is not at all what is being implied. What is being implied is that when we speak of fathers in that manner it suggests that men are naturally absent from their children’s lives, and so therefore a man who is present is exceptional.”

              I’m not sure how you can deny that was your implication when you stated:

              “I just find it problematic that the standard is so low that any involvement on the part of fathers is highly commended while mothers are simply expected to perform the majority of parenting duties;”

              But, whatever. Forget that. If I misunderstood you, I apologize.

              I have only visited Canada a few times, so I can’t say how it is there but here in the United States, it has long been common for fathers to be involved in their children’s upbringing, actually being fathers. So, we don’t experience what you evidently have there in Canada:

              “the standard is so low that any involvement on the part of fathers is highly commended while mothers are simply expected to perform the majority of parenting duties; “

            • Jasmine says:

              I think you’ve entirely misread the statement. I didn’t say that fathers are not involved. I didn’t make any implication about the actual involvement of fathers. Again, the piece is looking at how fathers are marginalized as parents, or made secondary, through language. The comment about the standard being low has nothing to do with actual presence or absence of fathers. It is addressing the way fatherhood is conceptualized.

            • Eric M. says:

              No, it’s written in plain, clear language. You stated that people react to seeing fathers involved by offering commendation because (in your words) “the standard is so low that any involvement on the part of fathers is highly commended.”

              People are not commended for doing the same thing that everybody eles does. In the United States, the standard is not so low that fathers are commended for just being fathers because it is not uncommon. Again, evidently it’s different in Canada.

            • Jasmine says:

              You’re misreading what is before you. This statement is based on sociological and cultural observation, not on individual situations. And it is in no way dismissive of the role of fathers. In fact, as my partner called this piece, it is ‘anti-dismissive’.

            • Eric M. says:

              No, not misreading. That’s why I quoted you verbatim.

              Your “sociological and cultural observation’s” may be true in Canada (I grant that I don’t know the state of fatherhood there). Perhaps Canadian fathers are in general as sorry as your article implies, and it’s therefore shocking when they occassionally step up and act like a parent – evoking commendation. But no such situation exists in the United States.

            • My article implies nothing about how fathers are or are not. You’re missing the point of the article. Nowhere in this article have I made any commentary to the absence or presence of fathers, to the activities fathers perform as parents. It is strictly about how language used to describe fatherhood or father-child interactions marginalized fathers as parents. It has nothing to do with Canada or America (my partner happens to be American, actually). It has nothing at all to do with what fathers may or may not do, or how present or absent they are. Nowhere in the article do I mention anything about either of those things. You’ve taken one sentence and grossly misinterpreted it.

            • Now you’ve gone completely off the farm. I have no idea what you even mean by “absence or presence of fathers.” I certainly didn’t use those terms. Your article made some very clearly statements, which I have already quoted.

              “It is strictly about how language used to describe fatherhood or father-child interactions marginalized fathers as parents. “

              The statements I quoted show that to clearly not be the case.
              “It has nothing to do with Canada or America (my partner happens to be American, actually).”

              Then what country were these “sociological and cultural observations” made in? Mexico, Guatemala, The Marshall Islands? Where, if not the United States or Canada?

              If this doesn’t apply to either country, why bother to discuss “sociological and cultural observations” here, where the majority of the audience is from the US?

              “It has nothing at all to do with what fathers may or may not do, or how present or absent they are. Nowhere in the article do I mention anything about either of those things.”

              True, you didn’t use the terms “present” or “absent” but you did say these things that now make even less sense as you state that it has “has nothing to do with Canada or America.”

              “the standard is so low that any involvement on the part of fathers is highly commended.”

              “The bar is set low, and fathers become ‘babysitters’ (fill-ins for when mothers aren’t present) or heroes for being at all involved with their children.”

              In what country is this “bar” that is set so low? We don’t have this “bar” in the United States. And, you said it has nothing to do with America anyway. So, why bother to discuss something that’s got nothing to do with the majority of the readers here?

              “Fathers, on the other hand, are seen as an optional parent.”

              Again, what country are fathers “seen as an optional parent” you talking about, since it’s not the US or Canada?

              “A man who is involved with his children is lauded and praised, as though just being present in his children’s lives is something exceptional”

              Again, where is this happening? This doesn’t happen in the US.

            • I encourage you to go read something on the social construction of fatherhood. Things will become much clearer to you, and my statement will make better sense.

              I get the sense you just wish to be argumentative. I’m not inclined to engage in such a manner.

            • You’ve read up on “the social construct of fatherhood” written by someone who is totally out of touch with the state of fatherhood in the United States.

              Regarding reading up on that: no thanks. False modesty aside, I got dis. I had/have a great father, and am doing a pretty decent job at it myself, and have a very good first hand grasp of what good fathers do. Spending time reading about “the social construct of fatherhood” written by someone who has no idea about fatherhood, at least in the country I live in, would be a waste of my time.

            • You know there are fathers who write about social constructionism, right? I would say gaining perspective is never a waste of time, even if it is something you disagree with. And, it would facilitate an understanding of what is being said here in this article. I merely suggested it because you seem to be interpreting what has been written here as something which it is not.

            • I read a LOT, every day but am selective. I have only so much time.

              What is described in this article is not even close to a common occurrence in the United States. That is a fact. Hence, I would be better served reading about what actually represents issues and experiences that are likely to affect me and others in this country.

            • I am not describing any occurrence. I am describing discourse and vernacular. And it’s common occurrence enough to lead to the national census data in America positioning fathers as childcare. That is a fact.

            • Your use of the term “when” is evidence that you are describing an occurrence.

              This statement of your describes something you claim to be a common occurrence.

              “Fathers, on the other hand, are seen as an optional parent. A man who is involved with his children is lauded and praised, as though just being present in his children’s lives is something exceptional.”

              As I explained to you, fathers being active patents has long been common. What is not common is people reacting as you claim above.

            • As I’ve asserted repeatedly, I am not saying that being involved parents is uncommon for fathers. You are still grossly misinterpreting what has been stated here.

            • Eric M. says:

              I’m haven’t interpreting anything. Feel free to post a correction, clarification, or retraction – but you are a good writer and wrote in very plain English, which I quoted above.

  4. Peter Houlihan says:

    Well *I* thought it was a nice article!

  5. Well written and well stated Jasmine. Words are more powerful than actions if you ask me. Anyone, even people who aren’t parents, can learn to change a diaper, or feed a bottle, or change a babies clothes. But it’s not actions that really matter in this case. It’s words. It’s bias, it’s sexist, it’s discriminatory words. It’s the fact that being the word “Father” is very closely related by many to being the word “secondary” or the phrase “the backup” or, worse, the word “babysitter”.

    I could go off on my own tangent about that, but I think you stated it all pretty well.

  6. Jasmine says:

    Thank you! Words are definitely at the root of this problem. If we change how we speak of fathers and fatherhood, what will follow is how we think of and treat fathers.

  7. Jasmine, people can take umbrage at just about anything. What I liked about your article wasn’t just the substance, which was unimpeachable as far as I am concerned, but I also liked your pissed off tone. tojn matters.

    • Jasmine says:

      Thank you, Jim! It does make me angry to see fathers marginalized through language, because it has real effects on how fathers are positioned in culture and within their own families. It does a disservice to everyone involved – mothers, fathers, and children – to position mothers as primary and fathers as secondary.

  8. This article hit home. Brings up deep anger for me. As stated, there are real life legal implications. In my case, in Arizona, the court gives me no support in enforcing “visitation” with my children. They have essentially made my exwife the parent, and me the person who can be “visited.” Like any neighbor. If my children want to come over, they come, if not, they don’t. Their mother traveled out of town for work, she’d send my daughter to a friend’s house to stay. I had no input, and the court said they won’t intervene. Which reinforces the image my child has of me as optional and not necessary. Tons of research shows consistent positive involvement by both parents is important to the healthy development of children.

    So I’ve worked at letting go the steam from these circumstances, reach out consistently, and try to be creative and attract my children – without going overboard and turning into the disneyland dad.

    It blows that assumptions play such a powerful and pervasive role in our society and legal foundations.

    • Jasmine says:

      I am so sorry to hear of your predicament. If we would stop speaking of fathers as secondary, it would follow that parental rights for fathers would be more equitable. It’s easy enough for a legal system to fail fathers when fathers are consistently positioned as less important than mothers (or the ‘primary’ caregivers). It sounds to me that you’re making the best of a bad situation, though, and I’m sure as your children grow they will learn to appreciate the concerted effort you make to be in their lives.

      • thanks for your comment. there’s no guarantee that my kids will ever respond or appreciate or that this will repair. my challenge is to accept that, and do what I know is important for them and me.

        keep writing – it’s important for people to hear the realities – especially from a woman

        • Jasmine says:

          Thank you for the encouragement! Some days I feel as though some of the commenters hold my being a female against me when I write about issues that affect men, but I’m just so passionate about these issues, and feel so strongly about working toward equality for all human beings. I think we’d often find that issues that affect men or women actually permeate the culture and impact everyone else in some way or another.

          And I’m not sure if this gives you any hope, but when I was a child, my mother (out of spite) moved across the country, and poisoned the minds of myself and my sister against my father. He would send gifts that we never received, he would make the trip from the other side of the country to exercise his visitation rights, and my mother would arrange for us not to be home when he arrived to pick us up (and would then tell us that he never came). He made phone calls, but eventually she even put a stop to that. BUT, in spite of all her best efforts, my father and I are very close now in adulthood. My mother and I, not so much (not that I hope that for your children). So hopefully it doesn’t take them until adulthood to appreciate what you do for them as a father, but I think that children are smart and if you do all you can, eventually they may recognize your efforts and hope to have a greater part of your life.

  9. btw – your observations do occur in the US. Like everything else – not always – but absolutely I’ve seen and heard them regularly.

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