The Problems of Gendering Parenthood

I read a great article yesterday about how so much advertising aimed at women is actually advertising aimed at parents. When the infamous “They” say that women like something, what they often mean is “parents may find this convenient.” Obviously, approaching all parents as women and all women as mothers is inherently problematic, and the author of the article—a single woman with a sister who has a passel of kids—examines that better than I could. If you haven’t already, please read her article for that aspect of this issue (and because this post pretty much assumes you’ve read what she has to say).

The other problem comes from not viewing men as fitting the category of “parent.” Gendering parenthood as female is bad for mothers and fathers. This includes the way that men in general but fathers in particular are portrayed in sitcoms and commercials. They’re incompetent bumbling idiots, barely more than overgrown children themselves, who are just lucky if they don’t lose the children and burn down the house. (Update: Here’s a great commentary on a recent Christmas ad from the UK.)

It may seem like harmless humor, but when society mocks a father’s attempts to do anything besides mow the lawn, grill some meat, and throw a football with his kid, then we’re not doing any of us any favors. You want to make some serious strides toward equality for women? Maybe we should stop assuming that men are idiots about housework and childcare. Yeah, statistically women bear the brunt of those responsibilities, but if we stopped raising boys to believe they can’t do that work because any man who tries is an idiot worthy of derision, maybe that would stop being the case. If we supported men who are the primary caretakers of kids, if we stopped assuming that there’s something special about housework and childcare that means that only women take to it naturally, then maybe we’d start seeing a more even split.

Maybe it’s because I’m the mother of a son. Maybe it’s because I’m so aware of the many sacrifices my husband makes to try to be everything to all of us. But a lot of the male stereotypes really tick me off. And these stereotypes are bad for men and boys, for women and girls, and for society in general. (Plus there’s plenty of evidence that most of these stereotypes are things we socialized into boys anyway.)

Sure, in TV shows and commercials, those are fictional dads, exaggerated for humor’s sake. But it feeds our perceptions of what roles men are capable of taking on. And those stereotypes can become real problems.

It’s a problem when a dad who is the primary caretaker of three boys takes them on errands and “helpful” people try to give advice about how to handle kids during “Mommy’s day off.”

It’s a problem when you have to train daycares and schools to interact with dads as if they were parents and not just people who drive kids around and deliver messages to the real parent.

It’s a problem when a dad drops his kid off at dance class and all the moms look at him like he’s an alien, certainly unwelcome in their conversations.

It’s a problem when, to take advantage of services and programs aimed at helping primary caretakers, a dad has to be part of something clearly aimed at moms. It’s the grown up version of the pink toy strollers and ovens or the games with no female characters. It says, “Yeah, you can come in, but only if you’re willing to walk into a place we clearly didn’t intend you to go.”

It’s a problem when fathers have trouble getting time off for the births of children or sick kid days or ball games or dance recitals or dinner with the family because that’s not what they’re supposed to be doing. Doesn’t the mom have that stuff covered?

It’s a problem when women who are primary providers and men who are primary caretakers have to constantly fight the little implicit (and occasionally hugely explicit) suggestions from society that they’re doing it wrong.

It’s a problem when boys don’t see positive role models. It’s a problem when boys grow up feeling like taking care of kids and helping around the house is only going to get them laughed at. It’s a problem when those roles continue to fall to girls by default.

It makes no sense to gender “parent”—it’s a perfectly good gender-neutral word. And, at least in advertising, you can probably safely make more assumptions about what “parents” like than what “women” like. Dealing with a car full of kids is a little easier with that extra cupholder or underseat storage, whether you’re a male or female parent.

But part of that requires starting to view fathers as viable parents. Until both parents are seen as equal, we’ll keep seeing the equation of parent = mother = woman with all of the problems that brings for all of us, male and female.

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6 Responses to The Problems of Gendering Parenthood

  1. Tiara says:

    My brother is a single father because of his ex’s complete lack of bonding with their daughter and her subsequent abandonment (the best thing that could have happened, honestly). He had a horrible time when he was on public aid after losing a job. WIC (Women/Infants/Children) program immediately excluded him and made him feel even worse for not being able to provide for his daughter. Surely MEN won’t need this program! Additionally, I come from a home where Mom was the one working two jobs, Dad did all the cooking, and cleaning was a chore handled on a family Sunday. Mom was useful for building dioramas but couldn’t even make Duncan Hines cupcakes from a box. My husband is our primary housekeeper because I’m miserable at it. Pop culture does such a disservice to the amazing men in my life.

    • ayvalentine says:

      It’s crazy and sad that WIC excluded him.

      Clark does most of the cooking and baking, lots of stuff around the house – we split up household chores by who’s available or who hates something less, not on “men’s roles” vs. “women’s roles” and I just don’t think we’re that unusual.

  2. Deborah Donoghue says:

    Ya know, I’ve never seen my son care about which parent does what based on gender. He divvies us up based on competence, quite ruthlessly, and will insist that we trade out entirely based on who does it right in his opinion. I can map this out from the experience of being sent to fetch the other parent. Daddy cooks. Mommy organizes. Daddy is *excellent* adventure and reads books with the correct voice. (He’s right. I’m dreadful at the voices.) Mommy understands which stuffed animals are related to or are friends with which. Daddy does not turn on the jets right, but he’s fantastic at boardgames. Mommy fixes things. Jamie operates off merit.

    Roles schmoles. Gender roles are inherently sexist because they are roles based on the sex of the people in question. Masculine, feminine, what men do, what women do, what men want, what women want… it’s all sexism. People are people. Partner people with people and they can sort out who does laundry in their own individual ways.

    That’s simplistic, but it’s also true. Rob’s gender has nothing to do with the ways in which he is awesome and my opinion of how he folds laundry. It’s insulting to reduce him to a hero because he grasps that ‘clothes in washer’ ought to become ‘clothes in dryer’. He’s not an idiot. Washing machines require no special knowledge, until you’re trying to get socks out of the #*%^#$ pump and discover that this one is built differently than your last one.

    The problem is built into the language, too, of common advice: ‘learn to ask your husband for help’. Why is it help? Why is it a day off? The terms used assume that ‘she’ needs ‘him’ to provide additional support for her responsibilities. Since when is he not obligated, as a functional human being, to participate in the household? It sets him up, too. It ought to be ‘learn to work with your partner to figure out how to get things done together’, ‘learn how to communicate and come to an agreement that you both find comfortable’.

    It’s equally annoying to me when someone says, “I have a real job! I produce income! You don’t! Neener!” (They don’t use those words, generally, but we’ve all heard it, usually with pronouns.) It’s equally annoying when a stay at home parent declares to a parent with a job outside the home, “I work 24/7! I do what *really* matters, and you’re a daycare parent.” Dude, we all work 24/7, whether we’re parents, single, divorced, have nannies, career driven – no one’s life is free of responsibility and contributions. No one gets the special merit of having a harder load of responsibilities and no one gets to value dollar signs over clean dishes. Try living without either. As a lifestyle, it sucks.

    I’m done now. Apologies for rant.

    • ayvalentine says:

      It’s a good rant! And you’re totally right. I think part of what ticks me off, raising a boy and a girl, is that parts of their personality are often explained through gender–for instance, my extroverted girl isn’t a social creature because she’s a girl. It’s because she’s naturally an extreme extrovert. It makes me almost feel bad or worried when my kids *are* stereotypical, like maybe I’m inadvertently enforcing gender roles or something.

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