A Gay Father’s Take on Why Mothers Have it Harder

How does that nursery rhyme go? The one with the monkeys jumping on the bed? The one that teaches kids how to count and that women in our society are forced into a position of primary caregiver?

Oh, right. Two little monkeys jumping on the bed / one fell off and bumped his head / momma called the doctor and the doctor said…

…nothing, because maybe poppa called the doctor because momma was in a meeting.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Whether poppa calls the doctor or not, and there are many poppas that do call the doctor, it is ingrained in our society that momma calls the doctor.

As a gay father raising a baby with another gay father, I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to the prevalence in our society of these preconceived notions that the woman be the primary caregiver. And all it is doing is hurting women.

This goes beyond the cutesy stick figure sign on the bathroom door in the café showing a woman changing a baby, beyond the woman who asks me where the mother is and beyond the fact that company policies routinely give women longer parental leave because they are the ones giving birth. Obviously, policies should take into account the physicality of giving birth — women delivering children should be afforded time to adjust and recuperate (both prior to delivery and afterward). This goes to the inherent sexism in our society that forces the foregoing list to happen in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong. Every relationship has its idiosyncrasies, its discussions, its negotiations, its compromises. And every baby is different — some take to being fed a bottle, some refuse, some sleep more, some sleep less. Some fathers raise the babies on their own, some stay at home while the woman goes to work. Straight men who are fathers of the year — please don’t be bitter (or vain, this article isn’t about you). Bird’s eye view: women raising children with men face an uphill battle and to break the cycle of “woman as primary caregiver,” we (meaning everyone) need to take a look at how we are treating mothers.

What’s hurting women most is the expectation that they need to take care of the baby. Obviously, they need to take care of the baby. But what I mean by this is they don’t need to be the only one taking care of the baby. My little brother, the psychology major, told me about a concept called social loafing, i.e., when you work in a group, it is likely that some member(s) of the group will take on more responsibility and some will coast. In applying this to the topic at hand, it seems that parenting (both heterosexual and homosexual) has a gendered, social loafing aspect to it. And for a lot of couples, the woman ends up being the “loafee” with respect to the child, and her partner in the relationship can, whether consciously or unconsciously, ride in the passenger seat (or, be the “loafer”). That’s how it is — that’s the expectation right now — the woman will give birth, will nurse, will take leave, will choose a nanny, will pick a daycare, will find a “mommy and me” class (already problematic), will pick out the stroller, will figure out why the baby doesn’t like the mat on the changing table, will wonder if the laundry detergent is giving him that rash on his back, will talk to the pediatrician, and so on and so on.

The expectation manifests itself with the list above all the time. When I go out with the baby, I always get, “…and the mother?” But when I see a mother with a newborn, no one asks about the father. This permeates everything I do. I’m with our baby all day every day and it is so ubiquitous — the looks, the questions, the stares — “WHERE IS THE MOTHER?!?!”.

Every parent knows that parenting is hard and tiring. There’s so much to worry about. But, when you’re at Starbucks and a stranger turns to the father holding the baby and says, “What a great dad you are!” while the mother is in the bathroom pumping and answering a work e-mail and responding by text to the pediatrician and, “oh great, did I just get my period? Can I even get my period?” thoughts creep into her head and…and…sorry, the mom dozed off for a second only to wake up to a knock on the bathroom door…,“Babe, he’s crying, can you try feeding him”… that stranger is helping no one. We need to start telling women at Starbucks holding babies what great mothers they are. Or not tell strangers what great parents they are at all. Because that’s weird. And we have no idea if they are great parents. If I had a nickel for every time I kissed my son in public only to look up and find someone gawking at me and mouth, “how sweet”, I’d probably have about 85 cents (but that’s only because he’s so young — it actually happens a lot).

We were out the other day and a father asked us “how do you guys know what to do?” Mind you this was following us feeding our child. We said, “we don’t know what to do.” Then, his wife chimed in — “no one knows what to do!” That social loafing thought hit me again. It seems like there’s usually a parent that takes the backseat — the parent that says, as alluded to above, whether consciously or unconsciously, “I hear the baby crying but I’m going to keep sleeping because they’ll take care of it.” The loafer will often think that if they do put in effort it won’t mean as much because someone is already taking care of it. Additionally, individuals might loaf more when their partners are expected to perform well. There you go — women are shamed (often by other women) for not nursing, for returning to work too early, for going out and for so many other things that fathers wouldn’t ever be shamed for. The expectation that the woman be the better performer is already there, leaving the loafer position to the man — whether it is because of biology, societal expectations, nursing, — it really doesn’t matter. I think that overall men need to start overcompensating to break this cycle. Then maybe men won’t ask, “How do you know how to do it?” because they’ll also know how to do it. By the way, the answer to “How do you know how to do it” is Google for most things, sometimes Bing, but mostly Google.

I think the main thing to remember is that being a woman is already difficult. Lower pay, healthcare, job searches, stigmas, and everything else in life. Add being a parent and it just compounds it. I’m not saying I think that being a male gay parent (or a male parent in general) is going to be a walk in the park — it will surely have its obstacles and we will face them. For women, however, the obstacles are less obvious and more accepted as a given in our society, making them even more difficult to overcome.

This isn’t about individual couples (although, that is a nice oxymoron). This is about all of us moving past our expectations that women are somehow better suited to be parents than men. How? I don’t know but it starts with things like gender-neutral leave policies at the office, not referring to fathers as “helpers” or “babysitters”, not ogling a father with a baby as “Parent of the Year” and all the other daily things we do that keep women in the position of primary (read: sole) caregiver.

There are so many men that are great parents. And there are lots of women that are not-so-great parents. My goal here is to try and steer us in a direction of helping level the playing field and lessen the expectation that women take the lead.