Family Nature

Prelude to Father’s Day: When is a Dad…a Mom?

A Guest Post by Alexandra Macqueen

Father’s Day is approaching, and so I’ve been thinking lately about how to acknowledge the role my spouse has played in parenting our kids. My partner is a very, very involved dad: everything I’ve ever done with my kids, with the exception of actually giving birth to them and breastfeeding them, he’s also done; from diapering to babywearing to playing with them (this takes more than you might think) to helping me wade through the many challenges of parenthood, from food choices to school choices.

And even those few things he couldn’t do, he made possible for me, because he organized his life around those choices. Partly because I’ve been dealing with (and now recovering from) a serious illness for the past few years, and partly because that’s just the kind of guy he is, Warren has been, in many ways, the primary parent to our two children.

I was thinking idly about these issues when I came across an article in this past Sunday’s New York Times Sports section. No one in our house reads the sports section, usually; but my attention was drawn by a lovely picture of Tiger Woods and his wife and two children. “All eyes are on Tiger Woods, the Father,” the article was titled. The article describes Wood’s devotion to his children: as a “diaper-changing, peek-a-boo-playing homebody” who cuts short his practices to be with his kids and says he misses them terribly when he’s on the road. Wood’s public embrace of fatherhood, the article goes on to say, “has given the 21st century male a new paradigm: the alpha athlete as ardent second-string mom.”

Wait, what? A second-string mom? A second-string mom? What is the Times saying?

Well, first, the article is suggesting that when this particular father misses his kids, and spends time with them, and takes care of the things they need taking care of, he’s acting like a mom. But not to worry, he’s only a second-string mom.

I looked that up, the phrase, “second-string” (I told you nobody in this house reads the Sports section). Here are the definitions I found:

  • a squad of players that are available either individually or as a team to relieve or replace the players who started the game;
  • being a replacement or substitute for a regular member of a team; “a second-string pitcher;”
  • not as good; of a lower quality or condition.

Here’s what I think: what the Times described – the ordinary moments of parenthood that Tiger Woods is carrying out and participating in – these are not activities which are exclusive to moms. There’s nothing that prevents dads from taking on those activities as their own.

But the article not only defines these activities as the purview of moms, it intimates that when dads take them on, they only do so as “second-string” (substitute, not as good) moms.  In the metaphor of the second-stringer, we moms started the game – dads are called on to participate only as required, when the moms run out of energy, and need replacing.  Dads are benched for most of the parenting game. They are just alternates, usually unnecessary.

Somehow, with that broad-brush analogy, the Times manages to demean both mothers and fathers: mothers, because the scope of their lives is defined and narrowed by suggesting there is a range of activities which we are both expert at and limited to; and fathers, because there is the suggestion that no matter how hard they try or how much they love parenting, they can only become – at best – a “second stringer” to mom: her stand-in or replacement, not fully occupying the precious role of involved parent as their own.

But we do fathers a terrible, terrible disservice when we suggest that their contributions to parenting their own children are unusual, outside the terrain they can be expected to cover and master – and that parenting children is not completely a masculine, fatherly activity. There is no reason to suggest that by wholly participating in the raising of their children, men are substitute moms. They are not: they are dads, with all the wonder and glory being a dad brings.

And why does this matter? (Who cares what one article said about one, albeit prominent, dad?) Because the children we are raising now are making decisions about how they will parent their own children in future. Because with our words, we create a river of conversations about how life is and what our places are in it.

And it can be very difficult to step in a fast-moving river and try to go against the flow. All of our children need to know that while there are boxes that others will try to put them in, they do not have to remain constrained. The job of raising kids – the wonderful, terrifying joy and responsibility of it all – belongs equally to the mothers and the fathers of the world. As we approach Fathers Day, and think about the roles fathers play in the world – let’s not sell dads short by suggesting otherwise. A dad’s place in the lives of his children is as big as he makes it, and there’s nothing motherly about that, not at all.

Alexandra Macqueen lives in Toronto with her partner and two spunky daughters.  You can read more from her at her blog The Wealthy Baker.  You can also find her on twitter, she’s @MoneyGal.

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9 thoughts on “Prelude to Father’s Day: When is a Dad…a Mom?

  1. phdinparenting

    What a great post! I wrote recently about feminism and fathers and I think that the attitudes you described here is one of the reasons that many men are hesitant to step up as equal parents. They are either made to feel inadequate as a “first-string” parent or made to feel less manly for wanting to play a strong nurturing role.

    In case you are interested, here is my post:

    http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/05/18/feminism-fathers-and-valuing-parenthood/

  2. CatrinkaS

    I think mothers and fathers are different – as are men and women. But I think “second string” denies the role they play as FATHERS. You summarize well the fallacies in the Times argument – but, too, the mothers who perpetuate the myth with “you’re so lucky! MY husband wouldn’t know what to DO if he were left alone to ‘babysit’ the kids for a week!” It seems, to me, that there are moms who treasure and protect their roles as ‘the only one who’ can whatever it is in the house, who set expectations so low that husbands / dads are relegated to second string.

  3. Rebecca

    Wonderful post! Loved it.

    It bothers me to no end when people suggest that dads are ‘babysitting’ the kids.

    It’s too bad if society still sees dads as second-string, but hopefully dad don’t feel that way (although, I suspect some do.)

    So well written, thank you.

  4. Chris

    Just wanted to echo some of the previous comments. It also makes me crazy when I go to work and people ask if dh is ‘babysitting’ the kids. I just get this quizzical look on my face and say ‘no, he’s their father’.

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  7. Crystal

    Great Great Post! You really boiled it down to call-out the sexism that is still so very prevalent in our media. A lot of women also buy into the stereotype, believing fathers are “incapable” of parenting as well as the mom, but I know that a man can handle it (the duties of raising their children) as well as any women, and nothing less should be expected.