A few weeks back my husband returned from a supermarket shop with our two year old and mentioned a rather patronising series of comments that he’d had from the lady on the checkout. Now Max is pretty good in the supermarket – he loves to help with a task, so is generally happy to find things for you and put them in the trolley as you go round. But once you’ve done the shop and made it to the checkout, his patience has worn a bit thin and he gets grumpy. The lady helpfully pointed out that he wasn’t very happy, and then rather patronisingly suggested that it can help if you give them something to hold. Now, my husband is a genius when it comes to occupying Max, but ultimately, when he’s had enough, he’s had enough, and if you give him something to hold it’s just going to get thrown angrily on the floor. Much better to just plough on with packing the bags and get it over with!
When it comes to unsolicited parenting advice, I think we’ve all been on the receiving end, but it seems to me that Dads experience this far more often. If John took Max out shopping without me when he was a baby, I remember he had more than a few ‘where’s Mum?’ comments. And I’ve heard more than a few instances of my absolute pet hate – when people refer to Dad’s as ‘babysitting’. Errm… it’s not babysitting when it’s your own child, it’s usually called Parenting!
But the expectations on Dads are so different to Mums. It’s just assumed that a Mum will change a nappy if it needs doing; it’s assumed that a Mum will have prepared all the right equipment to bring out with them. And hand in hand with those expectations is the judgement that Mums experience when they don’t get it right, or when their children aren’t behaving. On the flip side, particularly from our parents’ generation, my husband will receive looks of admiration when he head off to change a nappy, and if I’m there, I’ll hear about how I’m so lucky to have a husband who is so hands on.
Yes, you can say comments like these are a hangover from previous generations where expectations were that Dad’s would be more hands off when it came to parenting. And yes, I’m lucky to be living in an age where we are equal partners in a parenting team. But why is it always viewed in the light of me, as a woman, being lucky? Why isn’t the comment about how lucky Max is to have a Dad who wants to be hands on?
We both chose to have our son after all. There are some decisions we’ve made (such as me working part time) which have meant that I have more time with our son, but ultimately we’re a team and I know that he wants to be involved as much as I am.
The low expectations we place on the capabilities of Dads doesn’t just do a disservice to all the hardworking mums out there who get no recognition; it’s patronising and demeaning to all the Dads out there who are doing a wonderful job. It results in the kind of comments like the supermarket incident I mentioned at the start of this post, where we assume that a Dad doesn’t know how to amuse his own child. But it has bigger implications too. It’s the reason that it’s so difficult to find a baby changing station that isn’t situated in the women’s toilets – because it’s assumed that the mother will be changing the baby. It’s the reason that, despite shared maternity/paternity leave, it’s still society’s expectation that the mother will be the one to take time out from her career and look after the baby. And it’s attitudes like that that stop men being the equal parents that they can be and want to be.