Many people believe the stereotype that moms are naturally inclined to parenthood and that dads are less capable parents, despite all the accumulating evidence to the contrary. There are, however, two things dads can’t do as well as moms:
1. Giving Birth
Almost all of the remaining difference in parenting capabilities can be attributed to experience and time on task. These are problems because of a few suboptimal dynamics in our society.
First, women are socialized early on to be comfortable caring for children, and men are not. Many teen girls babysit, while most families would never hire a boy. Most child care workers and early education teachers are women, reinforcing the notion that caring for children is women’s work. I don’t think I need to talk about the pressure to buy gendered toys for kids. All of this leads to the belief that there are many things dads can’t do as well as moms.
Second, the disparity in maternity and paternity leave, and the pressures put on families when children are born often lead even very egalitarian couples to revert to traditional gender norms when they become parents. As I wrote in previous article:
Since many workplaces and our society are not conducive to shared parental care, very often one spouse (usually the dad) works far more than they would prefer, and the other (usually the mom) works far less. Both are trapped into traditional gender roles that neither of them signed up for. (See here and here for great articles about this phenomenon).
When a child is born, the mom often takes some time off work, and in many cases stays home to be a full-time caretaker. Men often take less than two weeks of cobbled-together accumulated time off, and usually wind up working more hours in the year after a child is born, not less.
It is easy to see why time on task leads to differences between the skill level between moms and dads. The mom more often can spend the one-on-one time to get in rhythm with her baby, while the dad is back in the office and unable to get in tune. Once this pattern is set, it is deceptively easy to fall into a routine in which the mom is the expert primary parent and the dad is the less competent helper parent. It then becomes both perception and reality that there are things dads can’t do as well as moms.
From my personal experience, it is vitally important that both parents get the opportunity to spend time at home together after the birth of children, and that they adjust to parenting life together as equals. From my book:
Because we shared so much of the parenting load and each got to see how wonderful the other was with [our son] Nick, we became very confident in each other as parents… I have never felt like “the helper” as opposed to an equal parent. This was essential for our desire for a shared-care approach to parenting. Further, the fact that I was a fully capable parent allowed [my wife] Amy to return to work with confidence. She was back on stage three months after Nick as born, and she was able to do so with peace of mind because she knew I had it covered.
I see how important being home for the first few weeks of Nick’s life was for my development as a father and for setting the stage for my family’s dynamics. It makes me angry that more dads don’t have the opportunity I did. This opportunity to develop as a person, a parent and spouse should not be reserved just for new moms, or just for the lucky few new dads with ultra-flexible jobs or awesomely progressive employers.
I believe all dads deserve this opportunity, and that dads, moms, kids, families and our society all benefit when dads get to immerse themselves in the life of their children in such a uniquely intimate and transformative way. I’m not just an advocate for working dads because of my professional interests. For me, paternity leave is personal.
When dads get the opportunity to thrive as caretakers, there are only two things dads can’t do as well as moms. So, dads, take the time to become fully up to speed. Moms, allow your husband the opportunity to get competent and confident. Employers, support working parents- both moms and dads. Congress, let’s get real about what makes families thrive.
What do you think about the things dads can’t do? Let’s discuss in the comments.
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