Does Society Expect Less of Fathers Than Mothers?

Today, December 6, is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.  Dad Central Ontario believes strongly in the importance of a caring, supportive relationship between parents.  This post reminds all of us of the value of motherhood in the healthy development of children. -ed.

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by John Hoffman

When I started taking our first baby out in public alone, I felt very self-conscious and unsure of myself at first. I thought everyone had eyes on me because I was a man out with a baby, with no mom in sight. But I stuck with it and by the time our second child was born I was very comfortable being out and about with babies. Then I had this interesting and odd experience one day as I strolled down our local mall with three-month-old Jesse in the carriage.

At one end of the mall a “grandmotherly” woman came up and, after exclaiming at how cute Jesse was, told me she thought he was too hot. I smiled politely and went on my way, ignoring her advice. Then, at the other end of the mall I had a similar encounter with another grandmother. She told me Jesse looked too cold.

Ha! I found this amusing more than anything else. But I also felt a little picked on. I figured I was getting this advice because I was a man, and therefore a semi-competent child-minder in need of advice that would not be given to a mother.

I told this story to a female friend who had the baby about the same age as ours. And I said it showed how people judged fathers more harshly than mothers. “Humpf,” she snorted. “If a father is with his baby everybody thinks he’s a hero just for being there. But a mother has to be good.”

“If a father is with his baby everybody thinks he’s a hero just for being there. But a mother has to be good.”

Quickly I realized she was right. It’s not that I was completely wrong. But it’s absolutely true that mothers are held to a higher standard in parenting than fathers. They do get judged more harshly for any shortcomings (real and perceived). And I have been often given the hero father treatment.

I’ve thought about this difference in our expectations for moms and dads many times over the years. I thought about it again when I read about a recent study. This study found that the amount of danger people judged unsupervised children to be in was highly affected by their moral judgment of the parent’s behaviour. That is, people felt that children on their own were in more danger when they judged the parent’s behaviour to be morally wrong, for example, if they left the child alone intentionally rather than unintentionally.

Objectively this makes no sense. A child left alone for a short period of time may or may not be in danger. But why the parent left the child alone is irrelevant.

The researchers presented several scenarios to people in this experiment. One was that the child was left alone because the parent had to go to work. That scenario was judged more harshly if the parent who left the child was a mother (by both women and men).

Several columnists have commented that this study shows that mothers get judged more than fathers. And, you could say that. But more interesting to me is how it reminds us of the enormous pressure women feel to be good mothers, and that some of that pressure comes from themselves. Dads feel pressure too, but not as much.

So, for me, the take-home lesson for dads is that this study reminds us of yet another reason that our partners need our support. Supporting our partners includes our involvement in day-to-day parenting. But it also includes understanding the pressure our partner’s feel and how it affects them.

Not feeling supported and feeling alone in your responsibilities is stressful. That adds to the burden of pressure women feel to be good moms. And when people are feeling pressure the thing that really helps them is support and practical help. That’s something we fathers can give them.

Appreciating the amount of pressure your female partner feels can also help you “reframe” her behaviour sometimes, that is, see her behaviour differently. When you feel pressure, your stress alarms are turned on. That affects the way you think, feel, and behave. It can make you feel edgy, sometimes irritable and, most importantly for dads, hypervigilant. So, if mom seems to be keeping an eagle eye on how you are changing, bathing, or holding the baby; if she “corrects” you, or steps in to take over, some of that may be due to the amount of pressure she feels.

Guys sometimes take their (female) partner’s unwanted advice, comments, or taking over, as interference or signs that they think we’re incompetent. It can be frustrating and discouraging. I’ve been there. But try to remember that a lot of that “gatekeeping,” as some people call it, is less about us and more about the amount of pressure moms feel to make sure their babies are OK and well-looked after.

If we can understand this, and be supportive, helpful and not take it too personally when Mom seems to act as a gatekeeper, I think we’ll be helping both our partners and ourselves. A well-supported mother is usually a less stressed, and therefore more content and confident mother. And feeling content and confident makes it easier for her to support your involvement. It’s a win-win.

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(This is a gender-based dynamic. I have no idea whether or not, or how, this sort of dynamic might play out in gay father couples. But I’d love to hear from gay dads on this issue. Please e-mail me if you have stories or thoughts to share: jhoffman@cogeco.ca)

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