Why do dads need to justify being the responsible parent?
Settling Little Bear into nursery I was asked to fill in the emergency contact details in case they needed to get hold of us during the day. Naturally, I put mine down first. My first instinct (as for many blokes) is to try to explain why I put my name first rather than his mum’s, and I have to explain it in terms of why my wife couldn’t be the first point of call. I want to explain that: ‘my wife is really busy during the week’ or ‘my work is closer than my wife’s to the nursery’ or ‘she’s often abroad so it’s easier to get hold of me’. I struggled to stop myself giving these justifications to the nursery staff for me accepting a pretty basic parental responsibility. I was of course treated to a ‘are you sure you want to put your name there?’ from the nursery staff ‘you realise it means we’ll contact you first, before mummy?’ [yes, this is what ‘first point of contact’ normally means]
On the way to the swimming pool the other week, I met a dad holding his 4 month old in the café and got chatting. He was clearly a natural parent, talking while prepping a bottle with one hand and easily holding his little one in the other as she was starting to reach for a feed. ‘So are you on parental leave?’ I asked. ‘No no, I’m just helping out my wife and giving her a break. I get Monday mornings off work so she can have a rest from the little lady’.
‘Do you have a holiday today?’ I’m asked by a mum whilst we play with Little Bear in the new soft play area at the Barbican. ‘No, I work part-time and look after the little man a couple o’days a week’. ‘Really!?’ the mum responds enthusiastically. ‘Yea, my wife earns more and just got promoted so it works better that I take the time off during the weekdays… Just works out better that way’. [Seriously Dave? ‘Just works better’ than what?]
Why do we dads make ourselves the ‘backup' or babysitting parent? Why do we need to justify why we’re the ones parenting, and not the mum?
Think of the mum at the nursery filling in the forms. ‘Are you sure you want to be contacted first if something goes wrong? It means we’ll contact you before daddy’ the carer explains. ‘Well, Little Bear’s dad works a lot further away, and can often get caught up in important meetings. His dad travels a lot so probably wont be available as the first point of contact so I better be put down’. Not a likely conversation at nursery
Asking a mum at soft play ‘do you have a holiday today?’. ‘Yes, I’m just helping her dad out, giving him a little break today’ said no mum, ever. Or ‘No, his dad couldn’t look after him during the week because his job wouldn’t let him go part time, so I ended up doing it. It was just more convenient for us that way’ felt no mum the need to explain.
My guess is that there are a few reasons why dads feel the need to justify their parental responsibility where mums don’t. Firstly us dads are used to mums being the ones in charge during the pregnancy. Is it just a spill over from that? Well, probably a bit, although really, if she just carried the bairn for 9 months and went through countless body changes, pains and some serious exhaustion, shouldn’t we be the ones to take over when the baby comes out given that the experience was relatively unpunishing for us?
A more serious reason we relegate ourselves to the back-up parent role is what people expect from dads. Nursery staff have contacted us 5 times since Little Bear started nursery, from two nurseries. I put my name down as the main point of contact for both nurseries.
But who do they call first? His mum of course. After being directed to me by my wife, the nursery staff always start with ‘as Little Bear’s mummy has probably told you’. Last time they rang they finally got the message that they should try me. On my way to pick up the phone to answer their call they hang-up (after 3 rings). I immediately rang back but the phone was engaged. 1 minute later my wife rings ‘the nursery just called, they want me to pick him up’. Really? Don’t get me wrong, I like the nursery staff, but couldn’t they just have held on for dad just a few extra seconds, or try him just one more time? It felt like they gave me a quick token ring before they contacted the rang the 'real' parent.
These little things add up. They send dads (and mums) signals to say ‘mum’s the real parent'. 'Dad’s just there to help her out or give her a break from parenting’. ‘If decisions need to be made, or a parent is needed to take care of the little person, mum is always the first port of call because she's responsible and knows better than dad’. ‘Dad’s playing an active role means they’re supporting mum, not fulfilling their parental obligations in their own right’
Parentalcare or ParentNet don’t make sense as brands because dads aren’t responsible for buying baby clothes or looking up advice on how to deal with bad sleeping patterns or odd sounding hiccups. So MumsNet and Mothercare make more ‘sense’. Advice on baby feeding should only be aimed at different sorts of mums, because dads aren’t in charge of deciding how to feed a baby.
But there’s a third reason, which probably also comes from other people’s limited expectations on dads: our expectations on ourselves. It was me that felt I needed to justify why I was working part-time instead of Little Bear’s mum. It was me who wanted to explain to the nursery staff why they should contact me first rather than my wife if he gets sick. It was the dad I met on the way to swimming that felt he need to justify why he was looking after his daughter by explaining that his wife ‘needed a break’.
If we’re going to start changing these expectations and making it clear that dads are fully responsible parents too, and mums aren’t always the only ones taking care of their kids, we can probably start with challenging these expectations in ourselves. So next time someone asks why I’m with Little Bear during a week day, a simple ‘I’m looking after my toddler’ should suffice.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots