A few weeks after giving birth, I was scrolling through one of my online stay-at-home mom (SAHM) groups when I came across a photo a mom shared, with horror, from another Facebook page. It was a picture of three men standing by three young kids in strollers at the mall. Literally, they were just standing by kids, but the original comments were effusive in their praise — "Fathers of the year!" "Role models for the next generation!"— all for just happening to be in the presence of children. People worship stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) for things SAHMs do every day, usually with no fanfare or even with significant criticism.
For moms, our every choice is scrutinized. If that had been a picture of three moms, the comments would have picked apart everything; from whether the kids were buckled into the strollers properly, to questioning why the kids were even in strollers instead of being worn (though if it was a photo of three babywearing moms, somebody would have said something about that, too), to freaking out over the fact that there were bottles (potentially filled with — gasp! — formula!) visible in the shot. However, because they're guys it's all fine, and they're basically heroes for breathing the same air as children. Seriously?
I sincerely hope that someday people will recognize that it's totally normal and worthwhile for anyone to care for any member of their family or community, rather than assuming that caring for children (and everyone else in our lives) is women's default role in life, but that same (or often, far less) care constitutes a giant favor when it's done by anyone else. It's insulting to SAHDs when people assume that every little thing they do is a cute attempt at courtesy for their families, rather than real-deal parenting. It also devalues the hard work SAHMs do day in and day out, often without acknowledgement or support, when people act like the following things are somehow a big deal when men do them, but are just expected of us when we do them.
Should it be a big deal when dads buy books with their kids or take them to story time at the library? Probably not. Is it a big deal when dads buy books with their kids or take them to story time at the library? Yes.
When my husband was home with us after I gave birth to my son, he put himself in charge of diapers because that made the most sense. "You're in charge of what goes in, so I'm in charge of what comes out." Everyone who heard that was like, "Oh, wow! He's a keeper!"
Like, yeah, I was planning on keeping him anyway, but also, why is it a giant deal if he changes diapers for a child I made with my body and feed with my body? It should be weird if he didn't do that.
I love going to the grocery store in the middle of the day, because there's usually not that many other people around. However, I've never once been stopped and praised for buying food so my family doesn't starve. This frequently happens to SAHDs (and really, any guy who goes shopping with a baby, as my husband can attest).
SAHMs are judged for what we feed our kids literally from birth — "Breast or bottle?" — and at every step of the food preparation process. Purchasing organic baby food instead of making it? Tsk tsk. Meanwhile, if dads pack balanced lunches or prepare moderately healthy snacks, they're heroes.
Women are "keepers" if we cook well. Men are "keepers" if they don't leave a trail of broken dishes behind them as they burn the house down every time they set foot in the kitchen.
Taking time off from paid work to care for children is a sacrifice no matter who does it (and it really shouldn't be). But when women take leave or quit their jobs after having children, it's treated like a normal thing. When men do it, it's treated (by some) like a giant favor to his partner and her career.
(To be fair, some dads do also catch flack for this from even less enlightened folks, who think men caring for children is somehow beneath them.)
Prioritizing care work over professional pursuits, and family over money, is a radical act (as well as a huge privilege, in many cases) by anyone who does it. But because we have this weird assumption that women should do that, we lose sight of how much it actually goes against the grain in our money-over-everything society, no matter who does it.
When SAHMs memorize and anticipate everyone's needs, tastes, preferences, schedules, special requests, appointments, and the like, it's not noteworthy. It's just assumed, unremarked upon, taken for granted. When SAHDs do it, it's like they're wizards. "You remembered a thing, without being reminded eighty times? Your family is so lucky to have you!" Gag.
Women are told we're "lucky" when we have partners who actually do things for our families besides pay bills. Men are not told this when their female partners do that same work, unless it's done to Martha Stewart levels of obvious perfection. If then.
There's an episode of Blackish where Andre brings in cupcakes to his kids' school and everyone basically falls all over themselves praising him for it, even though moms do stuff like that all the time. I couldn't even finish watching it in one sitting, because the double standard was way too real for my beleaguered postpartum soul when it aired.
By gushing over dads who volunteer at school, or play with their kids, or put them to bed, or care for them when they're sick or any of that, people reveal (and send the message to kids listening to all this) that they consider mothering to be mandatory, while fathering is optional. It's not. It'd be nice if all parents got genuine appreciation and less judgment for what we do; even better if parents got some meaningful public support. But it makes no sense to set the bar so low for SAHDs, and set it so high for SAHMs. It's insulting to them, and exasperating for us.