My husband has been a father for less than two years and seems to be complimented for things I’m expected to do on a daily basis. And frankly, it’s an insult.
For example, last year, a woman on line at the airport expressed her awe when she found out my husband was changing our daughter’s diaper in the bathroom. Stating the obvious, my response was, “Well, he’s a parent too.” A week before that, when my hair stylist asked me who was taking care of our daughter while I was getting a haircut, I said my husband was. Her response? “Oh, wow; that’s so great.” Again, he’s a parent too. Most recently, my husband’s assistant told him what a great dad he was for going to our daughter’s pediatrician appointments. No one has ever complimented me for taking our daughter to the pediatrician, changing her diaper or taking care of her while my husband’s at the barbershop ... and I wouldn’t expect anyone to.
What does warrant praise? When my husband held our toddler for two hours while she napped on him during a cross-country flight so my five-months-pregnant ass could periodically get up to stretch my legs. When he slept on a glider holding our stomach bug–ridden toddler the entire night because I was worried she’d choke on her vomit if we laid her back in the crib (even though the pediatrician said she’d be fine), while I comfortably slept in our bed. Did I mention he has a bad back? These are the parenting actions any parent, regardless of gender, deserves equal praise for.
But please, please don’t praise my husband or any dad for going to a prenatal appointment at the ob-gyn or a parent-teacher meeting. It took the two of us to make these babies, so we should be equally involved in monitoring our children’s growth. Don’t praise dads for changing a child’s diaper, dressing them, feeding them, doing bedtime or generally keeping them alive. This is called parenting. Don’t praise dads for “babysitting” because they’re watching their child one evening while their co-parent is out. And if they’re lucky enough to have it, don’t praise dads for taking their full paternity leave. In fact, don’t ask dads if they’re really going to take their paternity leave. Do you praise mothers for taking their full maternity leave or ask them if they’re going to take their leave at all? No, because society just expects moms to stay home after giving birth for as long as possible. Dads don’t need to receive nor do they deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for watching their child or being involved in their child’s life.
I’m not saying to never praise dads. Being a parent is hard, tiring work. But when society doles out these daddy accolades for every basic parenting duty under the sun–even when there’s no malice behind the comments–they perpetuate a stereotype that fathers are less capable and less involved than mothers. And frankly, dads deserve more respect than that.
The reality is that today’s fathers are not secondary parents, nor do they feel that way. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that fathers are just as likely as mothers to say that parenting is extremely important to their identity, and nearly as many dads as moms see parenting as central to their identity. Today’s fathers spend three times as much time with their kids as dads 50 years ago.
It’s up to us to help reframe society’s perception of parenting and gender roles, and it starts by recognizing the contributions that both mothers and fathers make to their children. Just as women deserve equal pay for equal work, parents of both genders deserve equal recognition for equal work.
So before you compliment the dad who had to rush out of work early for a pediatrician appointment or took care of his child “all on his own” for an afternoon, consider whether you’d give the same accolades to a mom. If so, compliment away!
Jacalyn Lee is an award-winning public relations executive with extensive experience leading communications strategy for consumer tech, media, and e-commerce brands, such as XO Group Inc. (formerly known as The Knot Inc.), Amazon and Care.com. Jacalyn resides in New York City with her husband, toddler and dog, and is expecting a new addition to her family in summer 2017.