The first time I heard “can’t your wife take care of that?” was while waiting tables. I was 24, a college student, and the father of a one-year-old son. A co-worker asked if I could cover a shift, and I told him I had to take my son to his one-year check-up with our pediatrician. He rolled his eyes as though that sort of thing was a mother’s job, made the comment about my wife doing it instead, and then pressed me to cover the shift for him.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. In fact, part of me expected it. Even though no one had ever said something like that outright to me as a father, I’d assumed people felt it. My father never went to doctor visits. That was my mother’s job, along with grocery shopping and meal preparation. Those antiquated and patriarchal ideas still lingered.
As a grad student, when I left early from class to take my daughter to urgent care, I was questioned about my dedication. When I took paternity leave after the birth of my third child, my supervisor pulled me aside and explained that, since my wife was a stay-at-home mom, I really didn’t need to take all that time off. He said the students I worked with would really struggle without me around. I had been working at the job for less than a year, and wanted to make a good impression in my new career, so I caved to the pressure. I only took two weeks off when my daughter was born, even though I could (and should) have taken more. It wasn’t until much later that I realized what my supervisor had done was unethical, if not illegal.
I could go on with other examples, but over the years, I’ve been faced with a lot of stigma when it comes to my career and parenting, especially when it comes to taking time off for my kids.
And when I haven’t received criticism, I have received praise. Just a couple weeks ago, I stayed home with my oldest daughter because she had a fever. Mel and I both work full time now. She stayed home the time before, so it was my turn. I emailed my coworkers to let them know that I wasn’t going to be in, and I received a reply letting me know that I’m a great father.
Look, of course, the positive feedback was appreciated. Heck, any time a parent receives praise it’s appreciated, but I know for a fact when a mother stays home in my office with a sick child no one sends her a note. Nobody tells her she’s a “great mother.” So what is so unique about me doing the same thing?
But ultimately, that is the problem. Although they may want to, many fathers don’t stay home with their children when they are ill. They don’t leave work during the day for parent-teacher conferences (something I have received comments for, as well). While I know that many fathers are stepping up as parents, being more involved and engaged, and striving for an egalitarian relationship, in my workplace, most people still assume that mothers take time off for children, fathers do not.
And this is a problem for many reasons — not only because it puts additional strain on all mothers (working or not), but it also can cause supervisors to question hiring women because they might be asking for time off to care for their children, a responsibility that should be shared by both parents (and should not deter employers from hiring qualified candidates).
Not to mention that many dads want to be there for their kids. Every time I stay home with a sick child, I learn more about them and our relationship grows. I learn a lot about my kids by going to their parent-teacher conferences. Last time, for instance, I saw a whole new side to my son. I even found out that he had a nickname (Little T). When I stay home with my kids, I am more invested in my marriage and my family. I feel closer to them, and I show my kids that marriage and family works best when it’s an equal partnership.
So if you are an employer, realize that fathers are parents too. They have an equal responsibility to take care of children outside the workplace. If you are a co-worker, realize the same. And fathers, please don’t be fearful to ask for time off to care for your child. I know that not all jobs allow this, but for those with jobs that do, please step up. It really is the only way this stigma is going to change.
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