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 Because not only are nappies really not that hard to deal with, but that view of comically inept fatherhood is as out of date as the shoulder pads and peplums worn by the female characters, right?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.