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Partnerships Beyond Pretense: A Challenge to Moms and Dads
By Randi B. Wolfe, Ph.D.

Over the past 20 years of childrearing, my husband and I have tried to share parenting responsibilities fully, defying stereotypical role expectations, and bringing enlightened meaning to both motherhood and fatherhood.

In large part, we've succeeded. I've used initiative and resourcefulness to maintain the delicate balance between moving forward my career and finding time to enjoy and sustain my children as my first priority. My husband chose a career which affords sufficient challenge and income, while requiring no more than 40 hours per week and allowing him summers at home. And over the years, we have successfully and flexibly negotiated the changing demands of child care and family maintenance.

Yet throughout our parenting, despite our efforts and successes, there has been an underlying assumption about the nature of family life that is particularly difficult to defy: mom is necessary and fundamental; dad is expendable, although very nice to have around. And I don't believe that ours is the only household in which this attitude prevails. So what unspoken agreements allow this mistaken belief to endure, unnoticed at worst and unchallenged at best?

To begin with, despite noble intentions and flowery rhetoric, most of us still believe that 'mother knows best' when it comes to housework and childrearing. In reality, there's nothing particularly female about bathing an infant, and genetics plays an insignificant role in wiping down kitchen counters. But because we believe that mother knows best, dad lacks confidence in his judgment and abilities, and mom is uneasy when dad tries to do things in his own way.

For things to change, these attitudes must be examined and overhauled. Moms need to remember that mistakes are part of learning, confidence grows with experience, and people learn better from appreciation than from invalidation. Dads must be given the freedom to ruin the pot roast, send a child to school in mismatched socks, or accidentally get shampoo in a little one's eyes - without fear of humiliation, criticism, or the denial of similar opportunities in the future.

On the other hand, dads need to take more initiative in daily family operations. Whether it's getting the children ready each morning, noticing when a diaper needs to be changed, or determining whether to take an umbrella on an outing, dads must do more than follow orders in the name of sharing responsibilities. They need to pay attention to details and take action without being asked or prompted by mom. Only then will women be able to relax and surrender the exhausting habit of thinking for everyone in order to keep things moving things forward.

Another factor in the mom-is-important-and-dad-is-insignificant attitude is that while moms may want dads to assume equal family responsibility, most are unwilling to relinquish the decision-making power typically given them within the family. But we can't have it both ways! If mothers want fathers to dress the children, we have to stop dictating what constitutes an appropriate outfit. If we want dads to prepare meals, they must be given freedom to plan menus. If moms want help with the laundry, we may have to be less compulsive about how fitted sheets are folded. Equality around the house is not about teaching dad to do things mom's way!

The oppression of women leaves many mothers feeling as if there are few areas other than childrearing and homemaking in which they can feel self-confident and fully in charge. As such, their uneasiness about giving up control of the domestic domain is understandable. To challenge the situation, while men begin to take greater initiative within the home, women must begin to seek outside avenues in which to exercise their judgment and express their creativity. Only as mothers begin to see themselves as capable and significant in many arenas will they be more willing and able to relinquish control of the home front.

Another part of the story is that historically, fatherly worth has been measured by a man's ability to financially provide for his family, while motherly worth has been measured by a woman's capacity to nurture and support. Although there may have been economic or cultural underpinnings for this division of parental roles, they no longer exist and have certainly outlasted their usefulness.

In the battle toward valuing fathers along lines other than economic viability, men must join women in the fight for fair treatment of parents in the workplace. Fathers have a right to care deeply about their children, to put the needs of their family above all else, and to spend time being close to and enjoying their children as they grow. To protect these rights, men must fight to assure that women are paid equitably so that fathers are not forced to shoulder more than their share of the family financial burden. They must fight for excellent child care options, paid parental leave, time off with sick children, ample vacation time, reasonable hours, and rational levels of stress. They must fight for employment that supports their parenting in all regards.

When the workplace begins to honestly support fatherhood, dads will be freer to assume their full role in the emotional caretaking of children. We've labored too long under the misguided notion that while men are fully capable of providing emotional support to the women in their lives, they somehow come up short in their ability to soothe a child's wounded spirit or dry a child's tears. Although society has made it difficult for men to boldly nurture and demonstrate caring, we have only to look at the transformation of the delivery room into the family birthing center to recognize how eager fathers are to participate in the caring aspects of parenthood.

Children need and deserve our love and attention. Toward more fully meeting those needs, we need to challenge the limited parenting roles into which we've been coerced. We need to reject the outdated, unworkable assumptions that have dominated and undermined our family relationships. Let's work together -moms and dads - so that every parent is fully respected and fully welcomed as an equal and essential partner in the task of rearing healthy, happy children.

Randi B. Wolfe, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in Early Childhood
Education at Northern Illinois University. She is also the creator of
"Listening to Children," a program of parent education and family support
based on the theory and practice of Re-evaluation Counseling. Wolfe
lectures extensively to teachers, parents, and family professionals, and
consults widely to schools and social service agencies on parent involvement in schools, early childhood classroom practice, and working effectively with diverse populations. She is the mother of a 20-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son. Contact: rwolfe@niu.edu.

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