Dads will be dads

So we’ve all seen Three Men and a Baby, yes? The 1987 film where Ted Danson, Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg live in an impossibly glamorous penthouse apartment, caught between a farcical drug deal and the unexpected need to change obviously empty nappies with high-larious results? (You forgot the drug deal part, didn’t you? There’s more narcotics than you remember in this film. It’s mostly a drug farce with a bonus surprise baby). They don’t make ’em that way any more. Because not only are nappies really not that hard to deal with, but that view of comically inept fatherhood is as out of date as the shoulder pads and peplums worn by the female characters, right? Right?

Yeah, right. The casual dismissal of paternal competence is as alive as it ever was. This post got quite a bit of traction recently, and I agree with its key sentiments entirely: characterising fathers as laughably inept is unfair. It’s unfair to all the lone dads, to the dads who stay at home while mum works, to all the pairs of dads raising children together, and to all the common-or-garden dads who parent perfectly adequately – nay, admirably – within the commonly-assumed division of labour. It’s equally unfair to lump women with the burden of being the only responsible, competent parents in this equation. How could the human race have survived so long if half the population hadn’t pulled its weight? It’s bonkers that any of us have put up with this nonsense so long.

…but then I see a post like this one, and the comments beneath it in which a number of gentlemen appear to guiltily agree with the author, and I think, “that sounds kind of familiar.” I do let my own dinner go cold while I sort out our own daughter’s bawling  while Darien sits there and shovels  food into his face reading Reddit, apparently oblivious to the screams two feet to his left.  I put this to him, “That sounds familiar,” he agrees. “But why is it like that?” I press. “Why is it me who lets my dinner go cold, while you stuff your face?” “Because you’re the better parent,” he replies.

There’s danger in those words. A blithely-uttered statement of a similar ilk about laundry is probably the reason why it’s recently come to my attention that my husband can’t operate the washing machine. (I blame myself for that one, I really do.) But there’s a flattering truth in them as well. We’ ve had our fair share of high-larious fatherly cockups: tights put on back to front, bonnets put on upside-down, and on one memorable occasion, mittens on the feet. (Darien: “How was I supposed to tell the difference?” Me: “Because the booties look like feet.” Darien: “But they all look the same!” Me: “LIKE FEET.”)

In the early days, I had to beg Darien not to prop the bottle when feeding her so he could play addictive yet fundamentally non-essential puzzle games on his smartphone. When she used to require a parental hand on her tummy to nap in the daytime, I caught him substituting a pillow so he could play with his dots. That sort of thing. It drove me a little nuts that I would spend hours reading baby books and online forums to figure out how to keep our child alive and happy, and Darien would just wing it with extremely mixed results. But you know what? We both lived, we both learned, and we’re both more confident and probably more competent now.

Like so many things in life – whether it’s the work you do for money, the hobby you do for fun, or any other skill – it’s repeated practice, not some inborn talent, that makes one a capable parent. In two-parent hetero families, Mum still tends to get the early exposure owing to a combination of biology and social convention, and that means Dad might be a few cumulative hours behind in the night-feeding and sick-mopping stakes. But to suggest women are naturally better at parenting than men is unjust to men, belabours women with essentialist nonsense, and doesn’t reflect the circumstances of many modern families. Let dads be dads. With hilarious (and awesome) results.




7 thoughts on “Dads will be dads

  1. From Rick on Facebook:

    I think what you’re really seeing is one parent taking the primary carer role and the other taking the supporting role. I know woman-man parents, man-man parents and man-woman parents (where primary carer is listed first), and in each case primary carer does the heavy lifting during things like dinner time and has a much better idea of the little pats, tickles and toys the baby needs to keep the smiles flowing. I genuinely don’t think gender has an innate role here, though of course a lot of alpha straight dads will define their roles based on a cultural understanding of their gender.

    I think I’ve only noted two innate gender divisions in my adventures as primary carer: women lactate very efficiently and we had to outsource this role; and mothers seem to be much more emotionally affected by the sound of a baby crying. For me it is a signal, for many mothers I’ve met it can be a cause of distress itself.

    Everything else is individual personality, not gender, I reckon.

    • From Lani on Facebook:

      I suspect even your second is more role-based or personality based, but since the boys were born a baby crying has some sort of shortcut into my brain – reflex rather than signal perhaps? I can also pick it (or “mummy”) out of background noise so much better than any other sound. So not a cause of distress itself, but definitely emotion/hindbrain/preconscious at work rather than rational reaction to a signal.

  2. From Matt M on Facebook:

    Why are most crimes and misdemeanours committed? Because the perpetrators think there’s a good chance they can get away with it… And our society has really low expectations for dadly competence.

  3. From Alex R on Facebook:

    So Ash had zero experience with babies and I had some, but he is fundamentally a much nicer person than I am and also I am very messy. Also, he does the cat box, so nappies were never a problem. Over time he has become the more domestic person in the household. Also, he’s freelance and I’m not, so more often than not he ends up running the top and tail of the day. And he is better at delivering ALL of his attention, whereas I’m very, very easily distracted and tend to have one of two phones in my hand (which might be why Ramona and I now sit side-by-side, on different devices, playing Tsum Tsum). I am the scarier parent and tend to extract the better behaviour, but I’m also the one most requested when there are illnesses and upsets. So I’ve yet to work out which one is the primary parent. And whether this is a scenario that is common but social narrative doesn’t reflect it, or we’re just weird.

  4. From Henry on Facebook:

    Seven weeks in and so far J has caught exactly (counts) four pooey changes. Ours just prefers to save it for Papa, letting go while on the mat.

    And now she can hold her posture a bit I can sit her up with a pillow, wedge her feet against my hip, support her head with my upper arm, and hold the bottle with the same hand. Candycrushtastic, or more likely leaving a hand free to wield the muslin.

    I do feel that, balancing all the physical changes that come with motherhood, new fathers really need to grow an extra arm. So much baby-wrangling would be easier with three hands.

  5. From Jen on Twitter:

    Related bad habit: We eat dinner in shifts late in the evening, after her bedtime, because I got SO ANNOYED being interrupted!

  6. Pingback: So Emotional | Baby plus two

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