What if a Mom Acted More Like a Dad?

Photo taken by me as an example of a stay at h...

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?

Thanks to my FTSF hosts: StephanieKristiJanine, and Kate!

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30 thoughts on “What if a Mom Acted More Like a Dad?”

  1. When mine were little, I didn’t let them just wander freely around, too paranoid I guess. It always kind of bugs me when I see little ones just “doing their thing” and the parents oblivious to it all. I don’t know why, it just does.

  2. From your description I think the library dad was a little extreme in his laxity. But on the whole, I do feel that so much of our parenting in public is performance for other adults more than it is instilling anything in our kids. And I definitely think men feel less pressure to project an outward appearance of extreme competence than women do when it comes to parenting (and just about everything else). I’m more of a hands-off mom myself, but I do feel pressure to swoop in immediately if my toddler takes a toy from another kid rather than giving them a chance to work it out, or–better yet–play with the toy together (obv, if there are hysterics, I intervene). I think I may have rubbed some parents the wrong way, but I also know that I am not singlehandedly going to change the parenting culture around here, so at times I definitely “play the game” and hover more than I want to. I haven’t found a happy medium yet. Thanks for this post!

  3. First of all, I love this, and you are right on. Second of all- that shopping incident! Ugh! How did you manage to bite your tongue? I shouldn’t be surprised by interactions like that, but I am always astonished when people feel it is their right to dispense that type of advice. Really great post here, my friend.

    1. I was more shocked than anything. And, because she was older, I felt like I was “in trouble.” It wasn’t until I left the store that I felt mad!

  4. I’m curious if that older woman would have seen the exact same situation but your child was with your husband if she would have said…”You are doing a great job!” Probably. I know that my when my kids hang out with my husband by themselves that they undoubtedly have more fun, but they often get hurt more, are covered in an extra layer of dirt, and they are usually wearing a strange combinations of clothes.

    1. I get the feeling that she would’ve had a very different reaction. My son definitely has more fun with his dad. It’s fun and adventure with Daddy!

  5. I completely agree. We have three daughters, so when my hubby takes them out, he is being the best daddy – having a daddy/daughter date, etc. It doesn’t matter if their hair is a mess or if their clothes match. I think people would be much more judgmental of me, though!

  6. Honestly, I think the guys usually get a pass because we have lower expectations of them in the first place, so it’s not really a compliment. Moms usually have it more together. And if I had noticed the shoes on the wrong feet, I would have giggled – not because they were on the wrong feet, but because I’ve been there myself. I’ve gone to work on more than one occasion over the years with two different shoes on lol. That’s what I get for not turning lights on in the winter when the mornings are darker. 😉

    1. I was never this disheveled before I had a kid. Now, more often than not, I look like a mess. But it’s also true that before I would’ve actually cared. Now I generally don’t spend that much time on my own appearance because it’s not a huge priority. Which is sort of sad.

  7. It drives me nuts when parents (moms or dads) just let their kids “do their own thing.” The woman who lives across the street from us often has her son (he’s about 3) in the front yard, alone. It drives me NUTS. I think it’s wrong and negligent and dangerous. Anyway. I’d never have the guts to just let my son be at a library. Pretty sure we’d get booted out.
    That woman at the store was a jerk, too! Sheesh!!!

  8. I think we’re still in recovery from the societal move of dads being at all involved in their children’s care in a BIG way, and the pendulum has swung too far out, and that parenting criticised in mums is tolerated or praised in dads, just to encourage them to keep doing SOMETHING.

    The pendulum will swing back at some point.

    1. I think that’s true. There are so many stay-at-home dads in my neighborhood. I’m sure things will change and they won’t get a free pass forever!

  9. Oh, I totally agree. We have reversed roles in our family, I work while hubby is raising the girls. And our older daughter’s teacher obviously has a problem with it to the point that she scrutinized every move Lily did. How in the world could a girl that is raised by a foreign father and an absent mother possibly be a normal little girl??

  10. Oh, Jessica, I think you have really hit on something here. I always hate it when I see shoutouts to husbands on facebook from wives who say “So glad my husband is playing with the kids!!” … like it is so unexpected. I know we want to appreciate all our spouses do, but I certainly wouldn’t put up a post like “Yay! He’s mowing the lawn! He changed a lightbulb!” I think often dads are portrayed as “helping out,” and it is still the mom who is expected to do the main work. And ugh, what a nasty experience in the store.

  11. This is so very thought-provoking! Now that I think about it, you’re right. Way too much is expected of moms while dads are given less scrutiny. Do let us know how your ‘dad’ experiment goes!

  12. Yes for sure my brother, father-in-law, and husband handle my kids differently in public than I do. I think you can’t just sit back and let your toddler go wild. It is up to us to teach them manners, facilitate social interactions, observe for safety and such. If we do our job, correctly, when they are young, then we can sit back more as they grow up….Great post, looking forward to linking up together. wisemommies, http://www.facebook.com/wisemommies

  13. I’m a stay-at-home dad and I don’t parent like this. I don’t hover either, but I can’t imagine being “absorbed” in anything while out on the town with my son. If there’s an automatic door nearby or an open gate, he’ll go on walkabout the instant I let down my guard.

    Earlier in the week, one of my mom friends received some unsolicited comments on how easy she has it, because she was supervising her kids at the beach while her husband was out “slaving away” for them. She took umbrage, as did I when I heard the story. Seems to me that we parents sometimes have a nice view from our office, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a job. And it seems to me like this dad with whom you crossed paths wasn’t taking his job particularly seriously. My most recent post is my version of a vigorous defense of the perils and joys of parenting. Sounds like ol’ Super Dad here could learn a thing or two from the lot of us.

  14. I think there are lax Mums as well as Dads, many times I see Mums in shopping centres just letting their kids run riot!! On the other hand I do think some Dads are experts with selective hearing…. Visiting from the SITS girls…

  15. Once a week I find myself in a situation where I’m that dad, but not by choice. It’s right after my sons finish their speech class, the teacher brings them in to the school office where i wait with my daughter and she discusses the class with me. In that short two minutes my kids turn into animals – fighting, rolling on the floor, running out of the office, touching things that don’t belong to them, while I listen to the teacher and think, don’t you see this going on? Can’t you talk faster? I call them down multiple times, but end up leaving horrified and embarrassed. We’ll see this week if they remember the consequences they had last week. I hope.

  16. do you think that it’s the perception of society that we, as moms, are responsible for the child’s behaviour and the dads are the fun ones?
    And that is where the blame comes in.
    I am very thankful in that my husband holds the same values as I do and enforces them. You won’t catch him lying low while my son gallivants around ripping things off of walls. Does my kid still do those things? Yes. Is it my fault when he does those things in public? Yes. Does my husband get the whole “Oh parenting is so hard. I sympathize” FROM MOMS themselves? We are to blame too for encouraging these views .

  17. Hi
    I totally agree how mums and dads are seen. And probably the children look at their parents in the same way – the mums are the responsible ‘boring’ ones (however much fun stuff they do with them), who keep them on the straight and narrow, while dads can get away with doing the fun stuff and are less judged on that that a mum is. I think a lot of the time it’s women doing the judging as well, and that’s what we’re reacting to, in not wanting to be judged because we recognise what society ‘expects’ and it’s almost inbuilt that women will tow the line.

    I like to think that in a safe and open environment I’m fairly relaxed about my toddler. As long as he’s not particularly ruining anyone’s meal or experience, then he’s allowed free rein within reason. In our household, my husband’s the one who’s more uptight – mainly because he spends virtually no time outside the house with us due to his work, so isn’t used to seeing what our son can do safely and without annoying anyone. So it is almost a reversal. (Having said that, I think I’ve trained my son to behave pretty well, so even him running amok isn’t likely to raise too many eyebrows).

    Definitely an interesting post – glad I came across it and look forward to reading more of your blog.

  18. Very Interesting. I have been a single mom since my two were 7 and 5. From readinig this and the comments I have come to realize I don’t really care what judgement is passed by viewing me and mine. My concern was for my childrens safety and well being first and foremost. I taught them to be polite and respectful of others. I drilled everyone has feelings, even people you don’t particularly care for. We did a lot of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Likewise I am the same myself. I don’t care who thinks I should wear make up. I guess since their dad wasn’t really in the picture I never really thought too much about it. It did make me mad when he had them on weekends and got compliments on how well behaved his children were. Like he had anything to do with it. whatever, I don’t want to rant about what a jerk he is. I too wonder what some parents are thinking but I remind myself that isn’t my place. Mine wanted nothing more than to run to the car in a parking lot. Not until I could clearly see that it would be safe for them. I am amazed at the number of parents/caregivers who walk along with the toddler trailing behind thru a busy parking lot.

    Whew. Sorry for rambling. In any event I am proud of the people my now 21 and almost 23 year old babies have become. And proud of myself for helping that happen. (that last statement is a new one for me too. Really. Just now came to me) 🙂

  19. I think you are right on! The parent expectations are different between moms and dads. I know that I have gotten more looks when I’m out with my kids when they are not behaving then when my husband is out with them. I think there is a fine line between being “laid back” and completely ignoring your child in a public situation. The Dad might have been laid back, but it was more ignoring to me and the older woman in the store needed to keep her opinions to herself. 🙂

  20. I completely agree. Dads (at least where I live) are given lots of slack when they’re out and about with kids. Moms are freely criticized. The attitude is kind of like, “Oh, well, he’s trying at least!” when a dad is having a hard time controlling his kids. But when a mom is having a tough time, she gets the hairy eyeball from those around her. Annoying, to say the least!

  21. Rolland St. Aubin

    I know from experience that a dad traveling on a plane with a crying infant is treated with much more tolerance than the equivalent mom. Fair? No. Reality? Yes.

  22. Oh my God, this is SO TRUE. My hubby takes our girls out regularly in their jammies on Saturday mornings for donuts. No one thinks twice, but if I did that. Um, total judgment. LOVE this post!-Ashley

  23. SUCH a good post. I totally agree. I’ve ever stood back and observed people look over at my son and his father with gracious eyes, ignoring the fact he’s screaming his head off. They see it as cute. But if that were me, I would get snoody looks and the “oh dear, she can’t even control her child” whispers. I see it happen almost on a daily basis.

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