Enraging sexism

Why Are We Still So Surprised That Dads Are Parents, Too?

Even when both partners are working full time, moms are still the first call. How is this still the case?

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Mothers are often assumed to be their child's primary caregiver, which can damage their hold in the ...

When Raina Brands got a second call from her child’s daycare in one day, after having asked repeatedly that they please call her husband instead, she took to Twitter to express her frustration.

“Today they called and I asked them to always call my partner first and 2 hours later THEY CALLED ME AGAIN,” Brands wrote in her Twitter thread, which has garnered over 20,000 likes. “What makes this more absurd is the fact that my partner has always been the main point of contact!” she continued, “but they are incapable of viewing him as a primary caregiver.”

Brands, a professor at the University College of London School of Management, is an expert on issues affecting women in the workplace, and was quick to put a name to the societal issue illustrated by her experience.

“When I say gender inequality is a self-reinforcing system, this is what I’m talking about,” she wrote.

Moms — and plenty of dads, too — were eager to share their own experiences navigating everyday sexism while parenting.

Alyssa Burgart, MD, an anesthesiologist, wrote: “This is my life. My partner is the primary contact for everything. ‘Hey, I’m in the operating room, please call their dad.’”

A user named Ahnalee Brinks wrote: “The dentist office called me with an update on a long appointment even though my husband had accompanied her to the appointment, checked her in at the front desk, and was literally IN THEIR OFFICE waiting for the appointment to end.”

Naming the problem

The assumption that moms are the primary caregiver, and that dads couldn’t possibly be of help, is, of course, bigger than any one telephone call.

“Often when we think about gender bias and sexism it’s interpersonal,” Brands explains, such as an interaction between a parent and one other person, such as a childcare provider or school secretary. “But it’s on a bigger level, too.” Parental leave — or lack of it — has huge ramifications, as we all know.

On a micro level, small interactions, like Brands’ phone calls with her child’s daycare center, can snowball into big consequences for women and families. It’s not hard to see how the cumulative effect of gender bias can have a huge impact on family dynamics, and on a woman’s lifetime earnings.

“Even in my household where we try really hard to be quite equal in how much care we do, it feels like we’re swimming upstream,” Brands tells Scary Mommy.

Where to begin? Mel Faxon, COO and co-founder of Mirza, shared with Scary Mommy a few suggestions for companies, and for families, of action they can take to bring about a more egalitarian division of labor.

How employers can support equal parenting

First, companies need to offer parental leave, and cultivate a culture of men using all of it. “It should be equal leave for all parents, non-gendered,” says Faxon. “It really needs to be like a top down kind of thing, where we see leaders in the company taking that leave, especially men.” Facebook, for example, offers four months of leave to all new parents, and according to Faxon “has really flipped” their culture to one where the norm for men is to take all four months of leave.

Next, Faxon says that companies should offer flexible hours and the option to work from home, but, again, these moves only benefit women when there’s a culture of both men and women taking advantage of these options. “Deliverable-focused work rather than face-time-focused work is essential,” says Faxon.

While the pandemic seems to have pushed some companies in the direction of more flexible work, any gains made have been dwarfed by the childcare crisis wreaked by Covid-19 and visited, primarily, upon moms. The sudden loss of childcare pushed women out of the workforce, and childcare assistance is one way to bring them back, and help retain them.

Planning for equal sharing at home

Of course, company policy will only take you so far if the way your household divides the labor is out of balance. Faxon says that a common mistake couples make is being reactive instead of proactive, addressing issues only once they have become a problem. “The more you can discuss that in advance, the better.”

She recommends that families plan around dads taking paternity leave, and that when calculating childcare costs, couples think of the expense as one they are both taking, equally, rather than just thinking of the cost of daycare in proportion to mom’s salary. It’s also important to take the long view when thinking about wages. Although childcare may be almost as much as mom’s take home pay right now, leaving the workforce will impact her future salaries, her lifetime earnings, and her retirement savings.

When divvying up the chores at home, figure out ‘end-to-end ownership.’ This means that laundry duty includes knowing when uniforms have to be clean for practice, and when it’s time to buy more detergent. It requires constant communication — think weekly scheduled meetings rather than incessant nagging. There are now apps, such as Maple, that can help you strategize on the home front, but there has to be a shared commitment to equality.

Changing the conversation

When we talk about moms being viewed as the default parent, both inside and outside of their home, we tend to focus on the way moms are suffering. But, we also talk less about “what men miss out on,” says Brands.

“We’ re robbing men of the ability to be dads,” echoes Faxon, who wonders what results we could get if we were to “spin this as a loss for men.”

We can support men by checking our assumptions about other families. How many times have we sent birthday invitations only to moms’ email addresses? Including fathers on invites, texts, and email chains shows that we see them as equally responsible for their children.

Advocate for changing tables in men’s restrooms, and recommend that paperwork from school, doctor, dentist and elsewhere ask for contact information for Parent/Guardian 1 and 2, rather than mother and father, both to help involve dads and to be inclusive of different family structures.

Contain your surprise when you learn that a dad is the primary caregiver to a child, and refrain from making pandering comments about how lucky the mother is to have his help. If we want dads to change diapers, cook, and clean, we have to normalize men engaging in these tasks.

We also need to remember that our kids are watching us, learning about how to imagine their own futures.

In an ideal world, says Brands, we are “making space for both women and men to lead fulfilling lives in multiple spheres.” While it can seem like we’re still a long ways from meeting that goal, the good news is that the choices we make within our own families can bring us closer to gender parity.

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