One dynamic I see nearly daily is one I’d dubbed, before I had kids: “dumb dad, shrewish mom.” I’m sure you’ve seen it too: the dad unloading juice boxes and balloons at the party place while the mother barks directions for goody-bag assembly; the dad who can barely manage to change a diaper on a park bench without asking his wife for help, which she will only offer with a big sigh and eye roll; the dad who’s never taken his two kids out on his own because he just can’t handle it and/or his wife doesn’t trust him.
Jennifer Senior, as recounted in this New York Times story, wrote to all 100 senators’ offices, asking them what they offered their staffers in the way of maternity and paternity leave. It turns out that some Republican senators are more generous than their public stances would indicate: Marco Rubio, for example, offers 12 weeks of maternity leave and six weeks of paternity leave.
Senior urges employers to offer paternity leave for the sake of tranquility at home—to avoid this dynamic, familiar to any mother who’s been home with an infant while her partner works: “‘When my husband comes home from work, he wants to comfort the baby, but he can’t, because the baby is used to me.’ And then the fights begin. Because Mom is tired. Mom wants a break.”
My husband, Fran, had a generous amount of leave with both our kids: the whole summer for our first son and eight weeks with our second. It was a godsend. The birth of our older child was unexpectedly awful; I had a fever that lasted for weeks and no small amount of pain. There was probably some mild post-partum depression—I remember hunching in the kitchen in the middle of the night, sporting the mesh hospital underwear, and weeping. I remember shoving down a spiking sense of dread and whispering to my husband, “This is the kind of hullaballoo that happens right before someone dies. A lot of people come to the house, and you buy a bunch of weird stuff you’ll never use again, and then someone dies.”
Fran took over all baby duties and slept in the living room with the bassinet at night. He fed the baby and noted the dirty diapers in the log. He folded stacks of hand-me-down baby clothes and arranged them in the dresser; he set up a makeshift changing table and bassinet (our son was early and we were seriously underprepared). He took him to the pediatrician appointments, because I couldn’t manage to get myself out of the house. When I felt a little better, some weeks later, he showed me how to change a diaper. To this day, I have never dealt with anyone’s umbilical cord.
I don’t know what we would have done if I’d delivered the baby on a Saturday and he’d gone back to work on Monday. As Senior says, a lot of families are “small, fragile, closed little loops of two parents (if that).” Even if you do have other family members to help (and we did, for which I am eternally grateful), nothing substitutes for your partner knowing what the hell is going on.
Paternity leave set the stage for the rest of our parenting life together. Even though I’m now the primary caregiver, those early weeks of being in charge had a lasting effect: He knows where all the gear is kept (or what the gear is, even—I don’t have to do a tutorial on an Ergo or a baby bathtub net thingy). He knows the snack routine: if the baby can now manage a whole banana or whether he still has to have little pieces. He knows, when the kids are flipping out in Trader Joe’s, to come home, because hey, kids sometimes just flip their shit in the supermarket.
This mirrors the experience of other dads I know who had generous leave. Tom, a labor lawyer, had 10 weeks off with both of his kids. And even though his wife is the primary caregiver, he seems perfectly comfortable juggling both kids when he’s on duty. I asked if he felt like his paternity leave had anything to do with that, and he said in a message: “I’ve never really thought of it that way, but probably. I’ve got a leave-less friend whose kids are the same ages as mine, and he only recently had his first weekend alone with them. [The younger child is about 18 months old and the older about 4.] He’s a good dad, very engaged, etc., but that initial period where the mom was alone with the kids…seems to have set up a dynamic where the mom felt like she couldn’t leave the kids and the dad felt like it’d be too much to handle alone.”
So yeah, those dads are not dumb, they just never got the breaking-in period that the mothers got. It takes some time to learn how to take care of a child—you’re not dumb if you don’t get it immediately, and you need ongoing practice. If, before I had kids, someone had handed me a baby and a toddler and left for the day, I too would have been like, Uh, what do these kids eat? How small does the food have to be cut up? Can a 10-month-old walk? Climb? OK, this one can. Shit, this kid can really climb! Hey, get off the fucking shelves!
And those mothers are not shrewish: Women don’t especially want to do a lengthy child-care tutorial every time dad takes the kids out, but a lack of family-friendly policies means that women are often forced out of the workforce and dads are working more—and doing less child care—to make up for it. And so Mom inevitably becomes the Keeper of All the Baby Knowledge, and Dad just the occasional babysitter. I don’t want to be the only one who knows what size diaper to buy, or where to locate the pacifiers in the bag, or what TV show will keep them entertained long enough to make dinner, and I would be very, very, irritable if I were forced into that role.
Caring for children is a skill that has a learning curve—a skill that this country doesn’t value. We provide no training or education for child-care workers and pay them poverty wages, reasoning that it’s “unskilled” labor. And we expect mothers to learn it while on unpaid leave and fathers, I guess, to never learn it at all.