Fathers Aren’t Mothers

tumblr_ll09biTOVg1qfz94uo1_1280Over 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.

Um… what?

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.

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51 thoughts on “Fathers Aren’t Mothers

  1. “Challenging gender norms means abandoning the notion that we ought to have gender norms.”

    Truly.

    This is an issue where I get into trouble a lot in discussions of gender. I am all for rejecting the traditional gendered binary, one that’s also based on sexual organs or chromosomes. But I’m for rejecting them wholesale. Don’t try to be a woman, or be a man, or be the substitute mother, or substitute father–just be yourself, and the best parent you can.

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  2. Parenting is like speaking French or playing tennis. You start with a bit of natural talent, but to get good you need practice, practice, practice. A good teacher is really helpful, too.
    I used to be an expert on parenting until I had a child!
    What is the mother/father difference that you are concerned about?

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    • I object to the idea that changing diapers, waking up for midnight feedings, and the other things that come with being a primary caregiver are seen as part of being a “mother” and that fathers that do this are evidence that “fathers can be mothers, too”.

      Those aren’t aspects of mothering. They are aspects of parenting.

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      • From the start, I helped with diapering, feeding, etc. I was a college student working part time at a supermarket when my son was born. I would come home on my breaks for dinner and also give him his bath before going to work. I never thought of myself as “being mom,” I was just doing what needed to be done and trying to have a relationship with my kid.

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  3. I love the essay, but are you worried it will lend some credence to the crowd who thinks that kids raised in gay households will suffer from the “lack of a father and a mother” factor? Or do you mean to say that we should get rid of the notion that gender matters in parenting style at all, at least in individual cases?

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    • Hmmm… I don’t think I see within it a real opportunity to bolster that argument, but I’m obviously a bit biased. If there are pieces that do that, let me know and I’ll address that.

      In a vacuum, I think there is very little that a mother can do that a father can’t, and all of it is related to the development of mammary glands. Try as I might, I can’t breastfeed my son. Other than that, though, I don’t think it is impossible for men or women to overcome the real differences that do exist between the sexes/gender, be they physiological or socialized.

      My wife shared an article with me recently on the value of fathers, and it spoke about how men tend to parent differently than women and children benefit from getting both of these styles. It spoke of how men tend to be more comfortable taking risk and they can pass this on to their children through their play styles and other interactions. And I’d agree with all of that. But those are generalizations. In my work as a teacher, I’ve come across couples wherein the mother is the risk taker and the father the nurturer.

      I think the ideal is for the child to get a range and full compliment of interactions with adults, be they parents or other loved ones (and I include teachers in this). Traditionally, this has been achieved via a mother/father pairing with each one holding a specific, complimentary role. But I don’t think that is the only way to do it. It might require more of parents who are more alike (be it because they are the same gender or otherwise) or single parents, but it is far from impossible.

      Ultimately, as I see it, the gender of the parent matters only so far as the parent lets it matter. If a father says, “I don’t change diapers, that is women’s work,” then he had better hope his partner, whatever gender they may be, is comfortable changing diapers. But if both/all/the parents say, “We’re going to do what we need to do for our child, be in changing a diaper, kissing a booboo, or helping them go down the slide for the first reason,” I think the kid will be a-okay.

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      • I think your argument could be erroneously hijacked by that crowd. To accept such an argument, though, one would have to not only buy into an un-supported notion of gender essentialism, but would also have to assume that that gender essentialism applies 100% to each and every person (at least in terms of parenting), which is, really, ludicrous.

        As to the notion that fathers and mother might tend to parent differently (again, tend) that doesn’t support any such gender essentialist argument. If we socialize men and women to behave differently, its understandable that they might tend to behave differently. I would argue that your essay is on the side of the argument that doesn’t assume certain chores, activities and tendencies are the inherent realm of one parent, while a different set of chores, activities and tendencies are the inherent realm of the other parent, based solely on their genitals.

        Oh, and I read a story of a biological man taking domperidone to initiate lactation (there may have been other hormones, as well, I believe it was a pre-op transexual). So, hey, maybe you could breastfeed little mayo.

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        • Well said. My argument is very much against gender essentialism.

          I fully concede that there are some real, physiological differences between the sexes. The sound of a baby’s cry, any baby’s cry, makes Zazzy’s breasts swell and ache. That doesn’t happy to me. But that is such a tiny piece of who she is, both as an individual and as a mother, that it should not be deterministic in the roles we assume as parents.

          But our differences are much more socialized. And if people want to submit to that, great! I won’t argue with a couple that willingly accept traditional gender roles for themselves and their spouse. Power to them! Freedom of choice! But just as they are learned, they can be unlearned. Challenged. Broken down. Rejected.

          Given how Zazzy has described what breast feeding feels like, I think I’m good with my role in that piece of his upbringing. :-)

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          • “But our differences are much more socialized. And if people want to submit to that, great! I won’t argue with a couple that willingly accept traditional gender roles for themselves and their spouse.”

            The only concern I have is what they’re doing to their kids. If Mom, the little woman, always knows her place, what does that do to the daughters and sons?

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            • I should have been clearer… if the woman opts to do the dishes and the cooking while the father opts to take out the garbage and do the yard work, I don’t see much harm there.

              Other sort of “traditional gender norms”… where women are seen as less than or subservient to men… that is likely to be harmful. Hopefully those children have other adults in their life that can serves as models that challenge that.

              A college professor once taught us that, for better or worse, our parents become our models for the relationship we will one day have. If for no other reason than that, I’d implore all parents to reflect on exactly what they are teaching their children.

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    • Speaking as a woman and a mother, I think this whole discussion reveals something else: the need for male feminism. Over the decades, the world open up to women; they can work, they can vote, they can serve in combat. They can wear pants or a skirt.

      Men have not had the same expansion in their roles. Men as primary caregiver is novel; we’re just seeing the beginnings of it, seeing discussions of it on the pages of the NYT.

      There are many things considered traditionally feminine that are worthwhile and rewarding; ways of dressing, hobbies, professions that should be open to anyone who wishes to pursue them without condemnation of ‘that’s for girls.’ Whenever you hear that, think that, pause and remember: outside of the biological functions of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and menopause, that’s silly. There is nothing that should be for girls or for boys; there are girls who may navigate to ‘girly’ things; but boys too, and doing so should not be cause for condemnation, any more then being a tomboy should be condemned.

      It’s men who are ending up losing out on rich and varied experience here. By clinging the the perceived power of male roles and activities, men loose out on the rich and rewarding things women do, even as they now find (with women at work) they can’t avoid the drudgery of housework and diaper changes.

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      • As one of the few men in early childhood education (a situation that only slightly improves in elementary education), I take this role very seriously. Based on current staffing, a student in our Primary division will see 10 women and just two men. If we include specialists, the numbers shift to 15 and three. By sheer chance, the children, boys and girls alike, will see a variety of representations of what a woman can be. They will see the nurturing PK3 teacher, the loud, dramatic music teacher, the sporty, tough as nails gym teacher, the artsty fartsy art teacher, the girly-girl K teacher, the dress-wearing Tom Boy 3rd grade teacher, etc. While there are forces to the contrary, at least via modeling, they will see women in a variety of roles, with a variety of temperaments, and with a variety of ways of being. Oh, and they’ll see a female Head of School. Wow.

        But the men they see? Well, there’s me. There is the new assistant teacher in 2nd grade. And there is a gym teacher. As such, I make a point for the children, again boys and girls alike, to see me in a variety of roles, even if they are roles that I wouldn’t normally take on in my private life. They see me engage in rough-and-tumble play on the playground -AND- dress the baby dolls in dramatic play. They see me roar with the animal figurines and and quietly draw pictures of my family at the art table. They see me tough, firm, soft, funny, vulnerable, angry, loving, etc. In a way, I seek to be as many representations of maleness as possible, to break down the idea of “boys” and “girls” things. Hell, part of the reason I kept my hair long (besides laziness) was to challenge kids on this. “Only girls have long hair.” “What about me?” “Ummm…”

        I wish more attention was paid to this throughout our education system. I wish it didn’t happen merely by accident with the women. Should we lose our 3rd grade teacher, will the kids no longer think that women can wear skirts and spend their summers climbing mountains? But there are few things more powerful than modeling for children and I wish this was a bigger focus, especially during the formative years.

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  4. Really good stuff Kazzy. Very true. Parenting is parenting. There is no special mother or father actions. Both can rough house, play ball, read books or sooth children after an owie.

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  5. Goddamnit! I was really hoping to drum up a bit of controversy with this post… maybe draw some attention from the NYT even and get boatloads of comments! But all we’re doing is agreeing with each other. What a bunch of betas we all are. :-)

    In all seriousness, thanks for the kind words on the piece!

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  6. On Facebook, someone took issue with Conor’s post about primary fatherhood by saying that men should absolutely not be “encouraged” (through positive reinforcement) to do what women do as a matter of course. On the one hand, I agreed. We don’t need parades. We shouldn’t be considered honorary mothers and the phrase “Mr. Mom” is actually kind of problematic when you think about it.

    On the other hand, we are where we are and this is how we think about things. I sort of feel like pretending otherwise, by saying refusing to compliment guys that take on the more feminine-cast chores and so on, is sort of like feigning color-blindness. It ignores the extent to which guys are regularly questioned by strangers and popular media on their competence and the appropriateness of what they’re doing*.

    Having said that, I feel compelled to say that outside of popular media and the Internet, I have experienced very little of this ill-will. And a lot of support. Which I’m not asking for parades, but I appreciate the countervailing words of encouragement in light of the periodic otherwise (again, not yet once from strangers on the street or in “real life” outside of media).

    * – Including the NYT a while back, which had a really harsh piece on SAHD as layabouts with lots of complaints from anonymous wives who wish their husbands would just get a job like real men.

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    • When I’m out with Mayo, people are exceedingly nice. I like this. But I do sometimes wonder how much of it is the result of, “Hey, he hasn’t killed the kid yet. Good on him!” type thinking.

      I forget which comedian made the joke, but he talked about a black politician (I think it was before Obama… maybe Colin Powell?) who always got complimented on how “articulate” he was, basically wondering, “What did you expect him to sound like?”

      When praise comes because of lowered expectations, it doesn’t feel nearly as good as that which is genuinely earned.

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      • I think that we will be in a better position to take offense when we stop hearing less stories about guys that are randomly criticized and assumed incompetent. I agree about the sort of condescension involved, but I think we’re still at the point where going out of one’s way to acknowledge certain things positively isn’t an altogether bad thing. I hope that we aren’t in this situation long, but I do think it is still the situation we (by which I mean society as a whole as much as fathers) are in.

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        • Great point. I don’t generally register offense as much as just a half-hearted sigh. But I am fortunate to have not yet received the assumption of incompetence and/or criticism.

          An employee at the grocery store recently approached Mayo, who was crying in the stroller and said something about, “Mommy being here soon.” I thought of Russell’s post on the matter, but then realized I’ve seen this woman dozens of times at the store, often with Zazzy, and she likely was remembering that and not just being presumptuous.

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  7. But as the past year showed, fathers can be mothers, too.

    Oh, Good Lord, it’s simply a metonym for “Fathers can do the jobs generally associated with mothers,” no different from quoting a 12-year-old giving a mature bit of comforting advice to his mother and saying “Children can be parents too.”

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  8. This is not going to be a popular comment, and I want to be clear that it is not an argument but merely something I have to confess that I have had to turn over in my head during the SSM debates.

    I don’t know if I agree that a father can’t be a mother. But let’s say it’s true. We would generally say that a kid who grows up without a mother has gotten a tough shake in life, wouldn’t we? If a father can’t be a mother, does it (or does it not?) follow that a kid who grows up with two fathers gets a tough shake, or at least misses something, compared to a kid who grows up with a mother and a father does? Again, I don’t think it really does (though I’m not sure why exactly), but I have to confess that this is something I’ve had to think through in SSM debate, not something that was just blindingly obvious to me and a function of just managing not to be a horrible bigot.

    This was the basic argument made by anti-SSM advocates in the Prop 8 case, and Judge Walker rejected it as without a rational basis if I am not mistaken. The evidence seems to support that kids aren’t materially harmed by having two parents of the same sex. Nevertheless, the thrust of this post would seem to suggest to me that, unless we think it’s irrelevant to a kid’s well-being whether she has does have a mother, that a kid with two fathers would seem to be missing something (namely a mother) as compared to a kid with a mother and a father. Unless maybe one father can’t be a mother, but between two fathers, somewhere in there there can be a mother. I don’t think this concern rises to a rational basis on which to disallow SSM that makes that policy not mainly motivated by animus. But I can see where, if you believe that a father, or two fathers, can never really be a mother, that might make you have to think for a moment about whether there’s really no affect on kids with two parents who don’t have a mother as compared to those who do.

    So I guess in my view we want to be careful before we decide to say that father can’t be a mother and mean it. I tend to think that, for all intents and purposes, a father can be a a mother. I would be interested in a deeper reflection from this author (the mother), on just what it is that makes someone a mother, that allowed her husband to be one (as opposed to just being a father doing a great job being a father in absence of the mother [but then again there, why even should we think it’s good to view really good fathering as perhaps tantamount to mothering, as if fathering is normally just a luke-warm version of mothering? Is that what we think? Maybe we should, because it would definitely allow fathers to be mothers with enough effort. But I nevertheless don’t much like that formulation.])

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      • But it seems to me like you’re saying in your post that a necessary attribute is being a woman, though I’m not sure.

        Incidentally, I’m not insisting that kids who don’t have a mother get a bad shake, and I certainly think that if it is true, then it’s also true of fathers. But maybe we should dispute that premise. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all that a kid who has only a mother doesn’t have a father, or that a kid who has only a father doesn’t have a mother; maybe all that matter in both cases is that the kid only has one parent. If that’s the basis on which people think I should dismiss this concern (which, as I say below, is in any case very marginal, and in terms of its impact in the debate over SSM, swamped by other factors, namely that SS parents are likely to be on average better parents (IMO)), I will absolutely listen to that argument.

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        • I think it depends on how we define the terms. If we define the term mother as “female parent”, than, yes, it requires that she be a woman. But for me, the operative part of the definition is “parent”. I am Mayo’s father. Zazzy is Mayo’s mother. We are both his parents and the role we serve as parents can be damn near anything.

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    • It is not that fathers cannot serve the function as mothers, it is that it is demeaning to call them mothers. A father who changes diapers, bathes and feeds his kids, etc. is not being a mother, he is just being a parent.

      It follows that, if a man can do either role equally well (actually, it is really the same role), a child with two fathers (or two mothers) would not suffer for it.

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    • Michael, I think the important thing here is that children generally do better with two parents. Those parents have backup for one another, can spell each other when one approaches exhaustion (the most dangerous time for a child; a tired parent is less in control of him/herself). Two parents also teaches some flexibility; they will never respond exactly the same to any given situation, so the child learns early on that things are not so concrete; this builds in resiliency from the get go.

      Single parents don’t get a break, they’re on 24 hours a day. Though children also often do better then we give them credit for, and I suspect there’s some benefit for children who spend time it two loving homes; again, building in flexibility and resiliency.

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      • Zic, I agree that is th largest part of the concern. You want kids to have two parents, and as long they do, I think at least 95% of the conern with missing either a mother or a father is taken care of. That’s why I’ absolutely for SSM and same-sex parenting (because so much good come from allowing all those families to be created that otherwise wouldn’t exist at all, or from sanctioning them through marriage).

        It’s just that I’m not sure that in that last <5% or <1%, I'm not sure there doesn't remain some difference, among cases of kids who do have two parents, between having a mother and not having a mother, or having a father and not having a father, between the cases where. I'm not sure, which is to say, I'm not at all sure there is any difference that matters to the kid, either. I’m just not sure. And as I say, I’m also not sure that it’s not the case that kids who have two parents of the same sex don’t in every important way in fact have; a mother and a father. That seems like it likely depends on the quality of the people doing the parenting, as, indeed, does the majority of all difference kids experience among their upbringings.

        I.e., in this discussion I’ve neglected to make explicit the certeris paribus assumption, where I’m comparing parents of similar “quality” to be sort of vulgar about it. I haven’t for one second meant to suggest that many kids who have two parents of the same sex aren’t going to be miles better off than lots of kids with two parents just because their parents are far better parents than lots of opposite-sex parents. indeed, that’s anther reason I’m so pro-SSM, because I think that as a matter of how things actually are on the ground, I think (and this is really just a hunch, but a strong one) SS parents are (or, do) tend to be, on average, better parents (regardless of whether they somehow constitute a mother and a father or are just two really good fathers, even if I think that might matter a tiny bit, again, certeris paribus) than opposite-sex parents. The reason for this seems pretty obvious: opposite-sex parents are so much more likely to find themselves in that situation at least somewhat unintentionally, while it seems to me the SS parents, like adoptive parents basically have to be very intentional about becoming parents in order for it to happen at all.

        My wondering about the mother/father thing is really almost idle speculation in light of those larger determinants of difference in upbringings, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to make that clear, because I didn’t. This is not significant enough to cause me to doubt for a second support for SSM or think it’s not good for kids or something. At some level, while considering SSM I did have to think about the having a mother/having a father versus not thing, that’s all I’m saying. I had the thoughts, and put them to bed as described above. But I did want to make this process that I went through known, for whatever reason.

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      • I’ll support what zic has said. I’ll add that I don’t believe that it matters if the parents are same or opposite sex, there is always a difference in how each parent interacts with their children regardless of sex and that benefits the child. In our family, when one of the girls hurts herself, she will run for compassion to her dad first. As the daughter of a nurse, I learned that unless it was falling off or broken I was to suck it up so I’m not always quick to react to every little bump and scratch. I also don’t want to say single parent families can’t be successful, just that having two different humans jointly raising the children is optimal.

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        • just that having two different humans jointly raising the children is optimal.

          Is it optimal? I agree that two good parents is typically going to be better than one good single parent. I think one good single parent is generally going to be better than one good parent plus one horrible parent. Would three good parents be even better? Four?

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          • The odds of more that two people agreeing on parenting I suspect diminishes parenting effectiveness and that imho isn’t optimal. Of course a horrible parent would never be optimal. I am totally fine with extended families raising children and the only real examples of poly families I know of I’m seeing more confusion about familial roles and more power struggles. Even where there are grandparents there is often role confusion but it seems easier to differentiate parents/other relatives than a set of 3 or more people all with role of “parent”. I guess if I witnessed a poly family who could actually get it together as smoothly as a good couple then I could be convinced otherwise.

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