When I was around 9 years old, my mom started a new job, at a women’s shelter, that required monthly overnight shifts. Up until then, she had worked part-time day shifts while we were at school. She juggled most of the domestic work at home by herself, from getting us ready in the mornings— including painstakingly doing all of our very long hair — to driving us home after school, making dinner, and putting us to bed. With Mom’s new job, my dad, who’d always been involved but not necessarily super-hands-on for things like meal prep or school runs, was suddenly thrust into these “mom duties” for three young girls, all under the age of 10. I distinctly remember feeling a sense of apprehension even then, like, Is this guy really going to pull this off? Does he even know how to turn the stove on? Are we going to die?
Nobody died, of course. (Although there might have been some temporary baldness from the shockingly tight — and crooked — high ponytails he managed those mornings.) We did eat a lot of fast food, but what child has ever complained about that? And though we were almost never on time for school, we otherwise mostly managed.
It was a major shift in how my parents negotiated child care — for a while. Suddenly, and temporarily, for my parents who had previously divided domestic labor along old-fashioned and gendered lines, things seemed a little more balanced. My mom, despite also working outside the home, had usually been the main parent, the emotional core, the cook, and the cleaner. But after a few months redressing this imbalance, my mom, though still doing her overnight shifts, slowly started cooking dinners again, packing our school lunches the day before, brushing out our hair so we didn’t have to rely on dad’s ponytails anymore. The sharing of labor was brief and short lived, and whatever slack my mom couldn’t pick up herself, my sisters and I learned to do for ourselves.
While on the spectrum of boomer dads, mine was nonetheless probably on the right side of good. He was still very much the picture of fatherhood that has dominated culture up until very recently: Dad as the bumbling backup player, the guy who weasels out of changing diapers and proudly calls it “babysitting” every time he has to take care of his own kids for a few hours by himself.
As with so many facets of parenting life, the pandemic began to shift our notion of how much (straight cisgender) dads are expected to carry and how it impacts the family unit. Stuck working from home without in-person schooling or child care, many men were tasked with figuring out how to manage care and work out of necessity. It’s a little harder to ignore screaming children when they’re in the background of your work Zoom, right? Although it’s worth noting, even with both parents forced into the same situation, women still ended up doing three times as much child care as men during the first year of the pandemic. So even with the notion of the pandemic as a great equalizer of care, our expectations and the realities of “dad duties” remained abysmally low.
Why is this disparity still so prevalent, especially since the past two years should have made it abundantly clear, even to anyone still choosing to be in the dark, just how overwhelming it is to manage work and care without adequate support? No one should have any doubt now about what happens when this burden is overwhelmingly on one parent. So how do we prevent it?
It has to start at the very beginning. There’s an assumption that caring for a new baby is the purview of the mom. She’s expected to be fluent in the language of child-rearing even though, in the beginning, it’s just as foreign to her as it is to her partner. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: She becomes the de facto expert because she spends the most time figuring out the solutions; then, because she knows what to do, she’s always left to do it. But there’s a way, I think, to break that loop. Where I have seen the scales balance out a little more, with my husband and with many of our friends, there’s been one common factor: dads who took parental leave.
My husband became the sole caregiver of our son when he was around 6 months old. I didn’t intend to cut my maternity leave short (in Canada, I was entitled to up to 18 months), but I ended up accepting a job offer that required me to go back sooner than expected. Before that, my husband had taken just three weeks off work after our son was born, and while it was immensely helpful to me, it didn’t necessarily mean he took on an equal amount of infant care; it just meant we were both home at the same time. But suddenly, with me back at work, he had to take on feeding (both keeping up with bottles and introducing new solid foods), bathing, adjusting new nap times, managing the vaccine schedule, taking him to doctors’ appointments, teaching him how to crawl, how to talk, how to be a person. He explored all the parks in our new city and went to the drop-ins to meet other parents (mostly moms). My husband now understood the gravity of the work required to care for a baby — “mom duties.” It lasted only four months; when my son was 10 months old, my husband accepted a job offer, and the baby went to day care. But that early care totally shifted the balance of care in our family, from bedtimes to housework.
That doesn’t mean we have some idyllic, egalitarian split but simply that the entirety of domestic responsibility doesn’t fall on me because my partner knows what it is to do all of that on your own. I’ve seen similar approaches with other friends when both parents were able to have the opportunity to figure it out early on. They take turns supporting each other both at home and with their creative or professional pursuits because they understand what it takes to manage both. Were more men to have mandated access to parental leave — not just the option to stay home but a requirement to take some amount of leave that allows them the opportunity to handle the joys and struggles of child care — it’s likely the effects would resonate far beyond the immediate ability to perfect the newborn swaddle.
As long as the domestic domain is the responsibility of mothers, we’ll remain in this dysfunctional nightmare in which millions of women can be forced out of the workforce to care for children and we hardly bat an eyelash — in which an epidemic of burnout can cripple families, run our mental health ragged, and lead to an endless chorus of cries for help with the answer from all parties seeming to be “Deal with it.”
It’s so clear, from the formula shortage to the looming threat to abortion access, that far too many men, despite being fathers, remain ignorant about how child care actually works. You will never know the haunting prospect of a hungry infant until you’re responsible for feeding that child. You will always see a forced pregnancy as something trivial until that life you mandated into the world is your sole responsibility. Any solutions that address the modern parenting crisis have to shift the burden off women and lead with the understanding that care work is work and it’s universal. And it has to begin at the very beginning. Children are not a woman’s problem, but for too long, even the most progressive men have made it so. We’re in it together or we’re not in it at all.
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