Over at the New York Times, Katrin Beinnhold writes about the experience her husband and she had when they reversed typical gender roles as parents:
I did something countless men do — in the military, on oil rigs, as consultants or even correspondents — in following a professional calling and temporarily living apart from the family. But few mothers of young children (at least in the West) have or make this choice, and few working dads are primary caregivers.
Her physical separation from her children made it necessary that her husband take on responsibilities which typically fall to the mother: diapering, midnight feedings, midday emergency room visits, and the like. This served as both a blessing and a curse. Beinnhold speaks of the empowerment her husband felt and the liberation she experienced at the hands of their “gender reset”. But she also describes the “sting of rejection when a child strains to be soothed by the other parent” and recalls her father-in-law describing her husband as “…look[ing] gray. I’ve never seen him so tired.”
Ultimately, though, she adds to the growing chorus of people who are willing to challenge traditional gender roles in parenting and demonstrate that families and children can grow happily and healthily with any combination of parenting roles. This is a message I wholly support. And a movement of which I am a part: my wife returned to work last week, leaving me as the primary care giver for the rest of my summer break.
But then she goes and does something weird. She culminates her piece with a flourish that completely undermines the entirety of her argument. She says:
But as the past year showed, fathers can be mothers, too.
I think I understand what Beinnhold was going for here. Unfortunately, I think it was a big swing and a miss. While facing the wrong direction. And holding the bat upside down.
Fathers, even those like her husband who spend extended periods as the primary caregiver, are not mothers. If we declare that fathers who take on the caregiver role are not really fathers, but are some sort of mothers-in-disguise, than we are not really challenging gender roles; we are simply wedging men into the traditional female role. We are still defining that role as the mother’s, one the man might take on, but still the realm of mom.
Fathers are not mothers. Even those who are primary caregivers, who wake up for midnight feedings, whose children utter “Dada” before “Mama”, who remember the diaper cream. They are fathers. They are fathers who do all those things, but fathers nonetheless. Challenging gender norms means abandoning the notion that we ought to have gender norms. It is not simply the adoption of a non-traditional role, but recognizing that each individual and couple ought to define for themselves what their role will be, free of society’s constructs and pressures.
I reject the “Mr. Mom” moniker. I am not Mr. Mom. I am not any type of mom. I will never be Mayonnaise’s mom. I am his father. And always will be. Zazzy is his mother. And always will be. Her return to work, where she is the primary breadwinner, does not change that. My time at home, changing diapers and battling through tummy time, doesn’t make me a mother. It makes me a father. A different sort of father than my father was. But a father all the same.