Once, in public, I saw a dad completely ignore his toddler.
Recently I went to the library with my toddler son. Predictably, my son acted exactly like a toddler. He was all over the place—pulling out books, climbing on chairs, doing everything possible so that I would not complete the one simple task of checking out a library book from the computer terminal. I followed him around like a dutiful mom, taking away the books, apologizing when he grabbed a computer mouse from the hands of an elderly woman, catching him before he put his hand in the library fish tank.
Then I saw a neighborhood stay-at-home dad with a son who is exactly the same age as my son. And the little guy was exhibiting the identical toddler-like behaviors as my son, except his dad was sitting back, reading a magazine, not just reading a magazine but totally engrossed in the article. His son was climbing on the train tables, throwing library books around the room, and he just continued reading. He did precisely nothing about it. Eventually, I tapped him on the shoulder and said hello, interrupting his reading. And our eyes looked over to his son, who was in a stand-off with my son over a piece of train track.
“Oh, I just let him do his thing,” he said to me, laughing.
Do “his thing”? I couldn’t even imagine going to a public place and allowing my toddler to be “free range.” But what if I did? All the librarians know me and my son and often commented on his development. What would they say—or the other library patrons from the neighborhood—if I just sat back and read the paper? I may be wrong, but I think the reaction to a mother sitting back and relaxing while her toddler ran wild would be different than if a dad did. I’ve been to enough museums, parks, playgrounds, and birthday parties to know for a fact that there would be a difference.
Yesterday on our afternoon walk I went into a local gift store. My son had seen a tiny toy pumpkin in the window, and we decided to check it out. He had just eaten a jelly-filled cookie and was looking a little messy. Happy, but messy. The shopkeeper, an older women in her sixties, greeted us and right away started dissecting my son’s appearance and demeanor. Within five minutes, I was told that my son was too old for a pacifier, that he needed a napkin, that he looked tired, and that his shoes were on the wrong feet. (Yes, these facts about his appearance were all true.) And then she said, “Having a rough afternoon?”
Actually we weren’t. We were having a delightful afternoon. My son was in a good mood and it was a perfect fall day. But I left the store with a sour taste in my mouth.
When my son goes out with my husband, even when his clothes don’t match, my husband is never met with unsolicited advice and commentary. Rather, everyone seems to act like he’s a rockstar, a spectacular dad. Which he is.
I know I’m using anecdotal evidence, and when I took my research classes as a doctoral student, I was taught not to do that. But the fact is that expectations for good parenting differentially affect men and women. You are evaluated on different terms—whether you’re female and a CEO, a teacher, or a construction worker—than a dad is.
There are just different standards for parenting for mothers and fathers, working and nonworking. We are judged differently, parent differently, integrate parenthood into our identities differently. In our culture, mothers and fathers, for right now at least, are just, well, different. If you don’t believe me, take a few minutes to look up the infinite number of articles written about Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. I can’t imagine that anyone has ever dissected Bill Gates’ parenting choices with such emotional fervor or will ever have much to say about how Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg will potentially negotiate parenthood.
And that’s not just society’s fault. It’s often our internal inability as moms to “let go” and let dads take over more often or allow our parenting standards to ease up completely.
Maybe today I’ll start “parenting like a dad” in public and see what happens.
Do you think there are different parenting expectations and judgments for mothers and fathers?