Why Dads Matter: A Feminist Mom’s Perspective

Anne Theriault and her husband thought they had their roles all planned out, but parenthood changed those plans.

From the moment when I told my husband that I was pregnant (in a Cabbagetown pet store, while my sister was admiring a tank full of milk snakes), he knew that he wanted to be as engaged and involved a father as he possibly could. And to be honest, while our bundle of joy was still in utero, that was pretty easy; mostly it involved making midnight cupcake runs to the grocery store, and rubbing my feet when they were sore.

We also started a nightly ritual that all three of us (mom, dad and our adorable little parasite) seemed to enjoy: just before going to bed, my husband would rub lotion on my expanding belly, and then he would read to the baby, either something classical (Shakespeare was a favourite), or from a more age-appropriate source.

Our kid (we didn’t know yet whether we were having a boy or a girl) was always pretty active during this time, kicking and squirming at the sound of my husband’s voice. We even joked that the baby had a favourite book, The Going To Bed Book by Sandra Boynton, because the nights when my husband read that particular piece of infant literature always seemed to coincide with some kind of intrauterine dance party. The fact that our baby already seemed to love my husband’s voice, combined with the mad swaddling and diaper-changing skills my husband had acquired in our prenatal classes, made us think that having an equal and shared parenthood was going to be a breeze.

We’ve got this, we told each other. Everything’s going to be great.

Then I went into labour at 34 weeks, spent a week and a half in the hospital on bed rest and gave birth via c-section at 36 weeks. After that everything kind of went to hell.

I was intent on breastfeeding, but our son wouldn’t, or couldn’t latch. My husband, desperate to be an involved, helpful co-parent, could only watch as I cried and struggled to feed our son. I don’t know who felt more helpless – my husband, who really couldn’t offer any kind of aid on the breastfeeding front, or me, with my abundant milk supply and seemingly no way to get said milk into our kid’s tiny belly. We tried everything: suck-training, cup-feeding, pumping and bottle-feeding – nothing seemed to work.

After having failed to have the natural, drug-free birth that I’d wanted, being unable to breastfeed seemed like pretty much the end of the world. On top of that, it felt like it was all my fault, and all my responsibility. I was acutely aware of the fact that if I couldn’t get my son to nurse, there was really nothing my husband could do about it. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a little bitter about that fact.

So much for equal parenting, I thought.

Because we live in Canada, I was able to take a year of paid maternity leave, but my husband went back to work after only a week off. I’d had big plans about how I was going to spend my leave, thinking that with an infant who slept all day I would finally be able to excel in the cooking and cleaning departments. Those of you who have kids can stop laughing now – I definitely learned my lesson about what life with a small baby is like, and quickly. Knowing that it was impossible to get housework done didn’t make me go any easier on myself, though; I beat myself up on a daily basis for not getting the dishes done, not tidying the living room, or not cleaning the bathroom, again.

Even after my son and I had got the hang of breastfeeding, things were tough. All of my friends seemed to have babies who slept through the night at six weeks and would happily sit for what seemed like forever in their swing or bouncy chair. Meanwhile, I had a kid who woke up every hour like clockwork and cried if I tried to put him down.

If I found life with a baby stressful and perplexing, it was even worse for my husband. When he came home I would try to hand our son off to him so that I could take a nap, but more often than not I would hear a knock at the bedroom door after 10 minutes, and would answer it only to have my husband tell me, “The baby’s really upset! I think he wants you!” How the hell was I supposed to tell him that while, yes, the baby might want me right now, I really, really just wanted some time away from my son.

The stress started to take its toll on our relationship. While I felt badly about the fact that my husband couldn’t take cat naps during the day like I did, I was jealous that every morning he got to return to the land of adults for eight hours, while I was still stuck in baby-town. I was irritated with other mothers that I met who described their male partners as “babysitting” their children while they were out, rather than thinking of their what their partners did as just plain parenting. Even more annoying were the reactions that a friend of mine, who had recently become a stay-at-home father, received from friends and family. People kept congratulating him on being such a wonderful father for being willing to give up his career for a year in order to stay home and look after his sons; the way his friends and family acted, you’d think he’d just agreed to donate both kidneys to a complete stranger. Meanwhile, many of my friends seemed to think that I was on some sort of vacation, and didn’t understand why I was so miserable.

Things slowly got better, though. One thing you can say about babies is that they change, and quickly. Sometimes this is to your benefit, like when they outgrow a phase that you really hate, and sometimes to your detriment, like when you finally find a groove that works and you enjoy a week or so of peace and happiness only to have your kid change just enough so that you carefully calibrated routine totally falls apart. After a few months, our son finally grew up enough so that he didn’t feel the need to cling to me 24/7, and that, plus experience, helped my husband feel more secure in his parenting.

Now, two years into this crazy journey, I would say that we parent pretty equally. That’s not to say that we parent the same, or that our son never prefers one parent over the other, but I don’t think that either of us feels like we’re doing more of the legwork than the other person. It helps that we seem to complement each other on a lot of the big stuff. For example, my husband is great at imaginative play, and general horsing around, whereas I’m good at the stuff that requires time and patience, like teaching our son his alphabet and his colours.

Another big one is that our kid will go straight to his dad when he wants to have fun or listen to music, but will more often come to me when he wants quiet reading time or comfort for some hurt or other.

My husband and I discipline differently, too. I’m more of the, hey kiddo, let’s talk about your feelings type, whereas my husband’s style is more like get in my office right now. As much as in the heat of the moment it can be difficult to try to co-parent with someone who has ideas that are sometimes at odds with your own, at the end of the day I think that our son benefits from having both styles in his life.

What seems most important to me is that while our son does get different things from my husband and I, those things are equal in terms of how they’re helping him to grow and develop. My husband plays a crucial role in our son’s life, and so he should.

Why, then, does it seem like society thinks so little of fathers?

You only have to turn on the TV to see how the media portrays fathers – they range from totally absent, like Meredith Grey’s father on Grey’s Anatomy, to unfeeling assholes, like John Winchester on Supernatural, to just plain ridiculous, like Homer on The Simpsons or Peter on Family Guy. The fact that we have such low expectations for dads helps explain why people treated my stay-at-home dad friend as if he was some kind of superhero, whereas I felt like just being a mom all day long without managing to keep a sparkling clean apartment or maintain a busy social calendar made me some kind of failure. It also explains why people refer to their husbands as “babysitting” their children, as if looking after their own kid was some kind of job their husbands had been hired to do.

So how do we change this?

Well, first of all, we need to see more smart, thoughtful engaged fathers, both in real-life, through celebrities and other prominent men, and in the media.

A great first step would be to see more stay-at-home dads.

The problem is, before we take that step, there are a few, or maybe a lot, of things that need to be addressed.

First of all, we have to look at the reasons why more women stay home. Some of it is biology – staying home is definitely easier if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, for example. Some of it is monetary – it often makes more financial sense for a woman to stay home, partly because the gender wage gap still exists, and here in Ontario women who are working full-time, full-year jobs still make 28% less than their male counterparts. Some of it is just plain societal expectations – staying home is still viewed as a woman’s job, and men who stay home with their children are, at best, treated as a joke, and, at worst, thought to be emasculated and dominated by their female partner.

All that being said, how do we fix this?

Biology we obviously can’t change, but we, as a society, can continue to make breast pumps cheaper and more accessible to women who want to breastfeed. We can also encourage workplaces to make themselves into pumping-friendly environments, instead of asking women to pump in the washroom or only during their lunch breaks. We can renew the movement to close the gender wage gap, which seems to have lagged in recent years. Most of all, though, we can work to break down traditional gender roles, and get rid of the idea that men have no place staying at home with their children. Because, honestly, I wonder if growing up in a world where only girls are encouraged to take up babysitting as their first after-school job, where men are shunned from events like baby showers and the thought of a dude changing a diaper seems downright hilarious helped contribute to my husband’s discomfort in his early days as a parent. The plain truth was that, as a woman, I had spent far more time around babies and small children than he ever had.

Look, I’m not saying that all men should stay home all the time, or that women, even feminist women, have some kind of obligation to go back to work after having kids. And before you jump in to tell me that some women want to stay at home, and some women like traditional gender roles, trust me when I say that I already know that, and I’m totally fine with it. I don’t want to take anything away from anyone; all that I really want is for people to have choices. I want men to feel like they have an equal opportunity to be a stay at home parent. I want women to feel like they can go back to work, if that’s what they want. Most of all, I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to behave in a certain way just because of what’s between their legs.

So what does all this mean? How does any of this prove that dads matter? I’m not really sure, except that I know that they should, both because they deserve to matter, and because women and children deserve a partner and parent who is engaged and caring. I know that when we live in a society that tells us that fathers are little more than wage-earning buffoons, everyone loses out. Above all, I know that this stereotype is something that we can, and should, change. It won’t happen quickly, and it won’t happen easily but I believe that we, as a society, are up to the challenge.

I also know that my husband is a great dad, and my son and I are lucky to have him.

 

Photo—eyeliam/Flickr

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About Anne Theriault

Anne Theriault lives in Toronto with her husband and young son. She spends her days teaching yoga, reading in cafés, and trying to figure out how to negotiate in toddler-ese.

Comments

  1. Kari..I might also add that even today feminism still continues to lump all men and all women together in it’s analysis, as if there is no distinctions among groups along the socioeconomic and political fault-lines that have always, in the Western world, divided people.

    What you refer to as male bashing was in actuality male hatred, I know because I lived under it’s thumb.The negative consequences of this bashing has never been measured and it seems to me that feminists have not been held accountable. And that is my biggest issue -lack of accountability for the mistakes that have been made–and they are numerable.

    For instance,dv and rape among women, which lesbian feminists tried to do in the 70’s but were shut out by mainstream feminists, is still being mishandled by feminism. Why not just say, ” We blew it on this issue.” Dv and rape are not part of some widespread conspiracy used by men to control and subjugate women.It is an human issue that cuts across all social barriers. be cause this hasn’t been done, society-men and women- continues to suffer unnecessarily. Ironically, these same people want men to vote for them and believe in them as leaders. It seems to me that if leaders consider themselves above those they lead they are unworthy of support. This is perhaps my biggest complaint about feminism, they hold others to a higher moral standards than hold for themselves. Remember, old school feminism, my mothers brand, is dominant in Western cultures.

    • ogwriter –
      First, as an unofficial representative, let me offer a sincere apology for all the suffering you have endured in the name of Feminism. As a human rights movement, I can say that we do not condone negative treatment of any person. I am truly very sorry the individual feminists in your life have been hateful people.

      Second, I think maybe it’s important to distinguish between feminist theory, feminist advocacy, and individual feminists. (Please forgive me if you know all this already.) Theory looks at the lived experiences of real people and ties to understand the trends and commonalities as well as the exceptions and form a coherent discourse. This can often include over-generalizations and exclusions (along race or class lines, for example). Advocates take theory and turn it into arguments for why (and how) the legal/political/social structures ought to change. This is often where the most vocal spokespeople use the starkest language (like man-bashing) and draw the most uncompromising lines in the sand. Once structures change, then real life individuals have different experiences which informs the next level of theory and the cycle repeats. Of course, real people range from compassionate to abusive and every other personality. It sounds like you encountered people who chose to hate. As Anne said, they don’t represent the movement as a whole.

      As I mentioned, critics (both within and outside the movement) pointed out the classism and racism and heterosexism of Second Wave Feminism (the Betty Friedan / Gloria Steinem era). Then just like prohibition fractured the First Wave of Feminism, pornography fractured the Second Wave. Right around the time I was in college, there was a split. Some feminists started saying, “Hold on, some women are quite “masculine” and some are quite violent. If Feminism is a human rights movement, why are you ignoring the abuse and violence women inflict? And just because I can DO everything a man can DO, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t to BE a man. I like being a woman. And I like men. And I like having sex with men. I even like pornography. And if Feminism is supposed to be about increasing women’s freedom and equality, why are you Second-Wavers denouncing and judging and denying our sexual choices?” (Hence Denfeld’s title “The New Victorians”). It sounds to me like a lot of what you and Dan Flowers are talking about is the last vestiges of Second Wave Feminism. It’s slowly going away, I promise.

      Today, we’re starting to see the beginning of the so-called Third Wave of Feminism. At the level of theory, postmodern feminism got to the point of “no more generalizing” – including no more casting all men in the same light. And our discourse is much clearer about the class/race/sexual orientation limits to whatever trend we’re dissecting. However, theoretical feminism is struggling to come up with a coherent discourse around women’s bodies to better understand the lived experiences real women have with regard to sex and motherhood. Danica Patrick is like a perfect poster child – she’s a NASCAR driver AND a sex symbol. Or the Italian MP who brought her baby with her to vote in the EU Parliament – she’s a lawmaker AND a mother. And the recent contraception debate here in the US is a great example of a little backlash to this Third Wave.
      In terms of advocacy, feminism (even if not “named” as such) is certainly behind some of the new attention being paid to human trafficking and rape and female circumcision. And I think maybe the reason why these aren’t labeled “feminist” issues, as such, is because advocates are trying (even subconsciously) to do a better job addressing the complexities and not polarizing the issues.
      And then there are real women like Anne and myself you are living our lives and making choices and struggling with disappointments and just doing the best we can. And we love the men in our lives and we try to build a better place for our sons *and* daughters.

  2. Dan Flowers says:

    Anne,
    Neither gender roles nor most stereotypes appear out of thin air. Men definitely have a role in child rearing, but whoever came up with the idea that it would be equal in the first year was smoking some serious dope. As you figured out there are some things that men simply cannot do, and they should not have to bear slings and arrows because they can’t. You seem to be fairly understanding about this fact, and it is refreshing to hear you admit some unreasonable hostility because of it. Because men can’t breast-feed, are not always as nurturing and choose to work outside the home does NOT mean they are not good fathers. Children need to see a variety of social models during their early development, and I believe that seeing more traditional gender roles helps them categorize types of people and caregivers and leads them to learn important social skills such as how to deal and interact with parents or others in differing roles from the “squishy” primary nurturing caregiver, to the loving but stern authority figure. I think many children grow up today confused and socially delayed as young adults because of not having had clear-cut but very different behavior models to learn from. Homogenous parent figures, especially in couples that elevate the child as the unchallenged supreme member of the family unit, do not necessarily do that child any favors. Children should never question that they are loved, but it should not be transparent to them that the most important family-unit decisions (like whether Dad works outside the home) revolves around them, lest you create a self-absorbed, egocentric, and therefore socially crippled adult. I had a great Dad who showed me the meaning of responsibility by working outside the home to support us. He did more than his share and never complained. He was a strong role model in so many ways, he was there when I needed him but he didn’t coddle; he would set me straight when I needed it. I would NEVER trade a great man like him for a man who would quit his job to stay home and kiss boo-boo’s and try to fulfill a role he was less suited for because of my mother’s pre-conceived notions about what “equality” in child-rearing means and when it starts. If you have any boys, how about letting Dad handle the talks about how to handle bullies, how to hit the inside fastball and what to do on a first (or fourth) date…

  3. Kari… Having lived through and been a part of the Civil Rights era, the feminists movement, the black nationalist movement, and probably a few more that I have forgotten. I no longer believe in movements pre se. No movement has cornered the market on freedom and equality. As an individual human being, I give love and respect and expect it in return. That at the end of the day is all there is for me. For the most part, when people try organize respect and freedom as political ideals, eventually the weight of the politics overwhelms the sanctity and blessings of the idea. This creates a big fucking mess! I think women like you and Annie and Joan are way above the norm and I respect you and admire you. I would even if you weren’t the f word because of your values.

    • Aww, thanks! I’m kinda chuckling though at the thought that my values and my feminism are separate. And your comment that you were troubled that Anne calls herself a feminist because she’s levelheaded, as though these are absolutely incompatible. Made me smile.

      • Kari…I am glad I made you smile.However,I still contend that the freedom and or equality humans seek do not belong to political bodies,but is the natural state of humanity.

    • Anne Thériault says:

      I think that movements, be they anti-racism, anti-homophobic, anti-sexism, are still very much needed! I have been inspired by watching the Idle No More movement happening here in Canada and around the word as the Indigenous population of Canada fights to have their treaties recognized and to have fair treatment at the hands of the government. As long as there is inequality, social justice movements are for sure important. I wish I could rely on everyone else to just be a decent person and treat everyone equally and fairly, but experience has proved that this just won’t work.

      I find it odd that feminist seems to be a dirty word around here. I’m making it my mission to prove that feminists aren’t crazy, man-hating bitches. I mean, some of us are, but most of us are just smart, normal ladies who want equal rights and treatment for women.

      • I find it odd that feminist seems to be a dirty word around here. I’m making it my mission to prove that feminists aren’t crazy, man-hating bitches. I mean, some of us are, but most of us are just smart, normal ladies who want equal rights and treatment for women.
        That’s because you mileage has varied from what some of the folks around here have experienced from feminists.

        I do appreciate that you want to prove that instead of just wondering why we don’t just ignore our very real experiences that feminism isn’t just sunshine and rainbows. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard the, “You just didn’t give feminism a fair chance.”, “You should read some real feminists instead of straw feminists.”, and excuse after excuse meant to maintain that illusion of a perfectly positive monolith of sunshine and rainbows.

      • “I find it odd that feminist seems to be a dirty word around here. I’m making it my mission to prove that feminists aren’t crazy, man-hating bitches.”
        Anne – count me in on your “mission”!

  4. Kari…All the theories in the world can’t hope to improve upon a simple standard of being and living called the golden rule.

    • Well I learned in the first year of marriage that the platinum rule is better: treat others the way *they* want to be treated. :-)

  5. IS ANYONE even remotely disturbed that a post that starts with,”Your an idoit,” made it throught moderation!? And damn,where are the females voices saying ain’t cool to call a man a name?!

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Sorry — no name calling should be allowed to go through. Somehow it slipped passed the filters, but now other people have responded to that comment so it will stay. But you are absolutely right — we will adjust our moderation filters accordingly. Thank you for calling our attention to it ogwriter.

    • Anne Thériault says:

      Sorry! I am waaaay behind on answering comments on this post. Would have called it out had I seen it in time!

  6. Yeah, name calling and personal attacks are not cool and are usually a distraction so you don’t notice the weakness in their argument.

  7. Lisa…You are right,NO ONe should be called names.

  8. I would argue what we can do for fathers is elevate them to equal legal standing. As long as our country’s laws, federal and state, do not treat fathers as equal to mothers, we can expect the culture to reflect this disparity.

  9. hOrOd…I hadn’t thought about that aspect of it,good point.Our policies reflect our beleifs and values.

  10. Kari…you’re right,platinum is wwayyy better.

  11. Kari…i assumed,from Karyn’s post that, she was a feminist.

  12. Anne…I know.How’s your fam?

    • Anne Thériault says:

      They’re great! I’ve been kind of under the weather, and one of my sisters moved in somewhat unexpectedly (got a job offer in our city, so of course she’s welcome to crash on our couch til she finds a place of her own), so it’s been a bit hectic, to say the least :)

  13. @Anne … many of the things you mentioned such as formula, breast feeding in public, development of childbirth options are not exactly ground breaking issues and in my opinion, would have been developed irrespective of feminism. I’m not sure if here in the USA, feminism would even take credit for such things and if they did, I would have to say that they, like Al Gore with the internet, are misleading people.

    You appear to give a lot of credit to feminism where it relates to “motherhood” yet in the USA, feminism has been a contributor to fatherless homes and over worked mothers. 30 years ago, when we had our kids, my wife as a stay at home mom was the odd women out. She was often belittled for not wanting a business career. Feminism in the USA has done little for the women who wanted to be the stay at home moms and continues to nurture that view.

    There were campaigns that promoted women in business and little for women who didn’t want the so called career. There was little done for “motherhood” other then accommodating motherhood where it relates to career and by all means feminism didn’t see motherhood as a career.

    Feminism is a bad word in places like this. Why? Because places like this have many men who have seen feminism in many ways destroy their lives. From affirmative action to the court system, men have been left behind in many ways. How can you see feminism as helping women when there are so many fatherless children …. Single working moms?

    Early feminism painted an unreal view of the oppressive male and continues to paint men the same way. No matter how much women, feminists want to paint a different view of what feminism is today, I’ll open my door to it when they truly walk the walk and demand things change for men.

    • Tom B –
      “Feminism in the USA has done little for the women who wanted to be the stay at home moms and continues to nurture that view. . . . There was little done for “motherhood” other then accommodating motherhood where it relates to career and by all means feminism didn’t see motherhood as a career.”
      I’m a stay-at-home mother and a feminist. I listed in an earlier comment some of the ways I feel that Feminism has improved my life *as a mother* beyond my potential career opportunities. As far as I see, what happened to your wife 30 years ago is not the norm today. If anything, the pendulum has swung the other way where motherhood is held up even higher and expectations of “intensive mothering” are more the norm – which, as you can imagine, can put working mothers on the defensive. While these so-called “mommy wars” get hyped up in the media, my experience has been that real women are usually pretty supportive of each other’s choices and feel solidarity regardless of labels or lifestyles.

      “No matter how much women, feminists want to paint a different view of what feminism is today, I’ll open my door to it when they truly walk the walk and demand things change for men.”
      But you’ve already encountered a number of feminists on this thread alone who “walk the walk” and are here at GMP precisely because they care about changing things for men. Addressing the conditions of working fathers was the core of the piece I published in 2007 and it’s gaining traction more and more (like here: http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/10/work-life-balance-as-a-mens-issue-too/264273/ ). The feminists I know and work with are devoted to unraveling gendered constraints from *both* sides, not at the expense of men.
      So I guess I’m curious – I can see that you are deeply wounded by Feminism, which I totally understand (see my earlier comments). It just seems like it is going to take something more than this before you will make peace with the movement today.

  14. Considering we are at opposite ends of the social/political spectrum (I’m quite conservative) we have a lot of common ground. I heartily agree that we NEED engaged fathers who are involved with their children and that society as a whole looks down on fatherhood (in a broader sense, what I would call manhood).
    I think we will disagree on the details of what it might look like but in my opinion, there’s common ground there too. I really appreciated your article as it was a breath of fresh air in the baiting, name calling world that we live in.
    James

  15. Adam Blanch says:

    I’m glad that you thinks that dad’s matter. Now could you please tell it to your feminist colleagues who have worked so damn hard to strip separated fathers of all their parenting rights. We would really appreciate that. Oh, and when you talk about changing the public’s conception of male roles, consider that most men have no opportunity to spend much time with their kids because no one gives them 12 months off work, and the bills have to be paid, mostly by the majority of male workers who slave away in the majority of industries where no pay gap exists.

    Actually, just turn around and take a good hard look at the feminist lens through which you’ve made your assumptions about men and ask yourself if they really stack up against your experience. Dad’s don’t just matter because they are good for the baby and the mother, which is typical of feminism’s female centric narcissism. They matter because they are human beings and they are dads.

  16. Adam Blanch…I don’t think Anne meant anything,shems a good person.But I get your point.

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