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
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
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.
B. Wolfe, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in Early Childhood
Education at Northern Illinois University. She is also the creator
"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,
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.