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