Saturday, August 09, 2008

Daddy Rights

As we get closer and closer to our due date (like three weeks), I have learned a lot about people's expectations for parenthood and gender roles. Something that has become very apparent to me has been the expectations for fathers. I'm not suggesting that expectations are too high. It's the subtle sexism of low expectations that's got me bothered.

Take my paternity leave, for example. Since we both work for the same university, only one of us can take an extended leave for this birth. It only makes sense that R takes the leave sin
ce she is physically having the baby. I've got no complaints there. However, when I've mentioned my own abbreviated paternity leave (about two weeks to start), I get some snickers and subtle ridicule. It's as if my time and efforts are not as valuable as my partner's. I would never begrudge a woman for taking all the time she wants to be with her child. Why can't I get that same consideration?

This got me thinking about the fathers I know and have known over the years working in summer camps and schools and elsewhere. For the most part, fathers seem
to be more and more involved than in generations past. However, the time and effort most fathers put into raising their children still pales in comparison with the mothers. Why is this? I get that only women can breast-feed and they do have a certain bond with their children we non-birthing partners can't truly understand, but there has to be another reason for the disparity.

Then it occurred to me to consider the paternity/maternity leave situation. Women physically have to take time from work, but men don't suffer as much, aside from sleep deprivation. M
en are expected to work and bring home the bacon and all of that. This is sort of silly in my house since R brings home more bacon than I do, just like my mom made more than my dad. Either way, dads are expected to keep working while the moms are to stay at home with their babies. Women are judged for not staying home to care for their children, while men are allowed (and expected) to work no matter their child's needs.

I wonder if the time after the dads return to work has an adverse effect on their roles as parents. Do they lose some connection with their kid? Do they automatically defer to the mother when the child needs attention because she does it all the time anyway? Are they less involved in the daily care for the baby?

While I think a dad's disconnect from his kid does happen when he goes back to work and the mom stays home, I don't think this is the only reason most of the childcare falls on the mother. There are some deep-seeded gender roles (or rules) to which most sets of parents succumb. No matter how progressive or enlightened couples may be, the brunt of the child-rearing falls on the mother every time.

Aside from a few exceptions to the rule, I have noticed two kinds of couples that balance childcare responsibilities: couples with a stay-at-home dad and gay parents.

In the instances where the dad stays at home, traditional gender roles have been subverted enough that Mom is no longer doing the bulk of the child-rearing. However, even though the father takes on way more responsibility with the kids, the actual split is still usually 50/50, which is pretty ideal. It's not like childcare is always assumed to be the dad's responsibility when both parents are around, the way it often is for mothers in more traditional dynamics. It's as if the only way to get a dad to do his fair share of the childcare is to make him stay at home. Besides, if the mother was not to do her share or if the kid is poorly raised, she will get the majority of the blame. All a dad has to do to be a model parent is show up, play catch a little, and dole out the weekly allowance.

In gay households, there does tend to be more of a sense of equality. Of course, this is in my limited perspective of the lesbian couples with kids that I've known over the years. I think of the couple we're friends with in COMO. They are absolutely awesome at splitting the childcare duties and at taking care of each other. (And their kid is pretty awesome!) I'm sure there are bad examples (check The L Word), but from my perspective, a family of two female parents might be the most equitable example for me to follow.

This all gets back to my point of a daddy's rights. Dads are not allowed to take significant amounts of time from work and generally care for their children in the same ways mothers are expected, sometimes causing both to become disillusioned with their parental roles and their relationships with their kids. Another way to look at it is to say that fathers seem to be let off the hook when it comes to raising their kids. Mothers, on the other hand, are expected and held accountable for how that kid grows up.

I don't want to be that traditional father who defers all childcare to my partner. I want to do my share (and more when I can) to raise this kid. It's not OK for people to give me a hard time about my paternity leave. If I need to take time off to care for our child, that's certainly my right.

Either way, I'm going to get my chance to try out my brand of parenting, whatever that is. Luckily, I had a good role-model in my own dad. He might not have split the parenting the way I want to do with R, but he raised me in a way that I can only hope emulate when Cletus (the fetus) arrives in approximately three weeks.
My dad hiking the ball to my sister.


Jessica said...

There was an article in the New York Times Magazine about this topic not too long ago. I think I saved it in my account and will try to mail it to you.

Greg and I are very lucky. He was able to move around his classes and service schedule at the university to do a make-shift paternity leave. He is only teaching a distance ed course next spring. But, I know lots of dads who are as frustrated as you are. The attitudes and expectations of both men and women are surprisingly hostile and strange when it comes to paternity leave.


Huey said...

What a great post! I 100% agree with you. The fact that you are already thinking this and making it a point to fulfill your share of the parenting means you are ahead of the game. But it is interesting how even those of us who feel the same as you end up slipping into those traditional roles. I hope I have avoided that but you never know.

I do know the more of a role you play in parenting your child, the more you get out of it as well. It is so meaningful to you, your child and your partner when that bond is very strong. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Three weeks?? Wow. Enjoy.

GE said...

Another very thoughtful post, CP. Obviously society at large has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to real joint parenting. I’m sure you will do everything in your power to make it so in your home. The only thing I will warn you is that what you toss of as a not-so-good explanation for the disparity (“I get that only women can breast-feed and they do have a certain bond with their children we non-birthing partners can't truly understand…”), is a huge deal in the first couple of months. In my experience, no matter how much you want to be an equal parenting partner those early weeks really are a party of two. If you were to have a long maternity leave, I can guarantee you you’d spend most of it doing laundry and dishes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…