The woman chased my husband and daughter across the grocery store parking lot. “Put a hat on that youngster!” she cried. It was ten degrees. He laughed as he relayed this to me, but there was a tinge of anger in his voice; this stranger felt that she must tell him, at top volume, that he was doing it wrong.
There’s no shortage of people ready at any moment to lecture parents about what they must or must not do to avoid ruining their children. But what he felt was the narrative that underpins our cultural narrative about dads: they just don’t know what they’re doing
Thinking back to the early days of parenthood, I recall only a fog of sleep deprivation, sore nipples, tears, and love. He remembers feeling torn between needing to go make a living and wanting to be at home with his new baby.
It was hard for both of us, but hard in very different ways. Our biggest shared project was somehow something in which we had such different roles. And now, since I’ve retained the role of primary caregiver through her whole life, I see the effects of that story we tell about how families work: the one of us who is more comfortable wrangling our spirited toddler is, of course, the person who’s spent more time in the parenting trenches, and the one whose gender prescribes nurturance.
He’s a great dad. He’s fun and funny and loving and much more patient than I am. If the first two years of life are developmentally the most critical, in particular where emotional attachment is concerned, shouldn’t he get to share in some of that bonding?
Forty years ago, Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce paid parental leave, and in Norway, fathers are entitled to 26 fully paid weeks off, or 36 weeks at 80% pay. Research shows that fathers in those countries are more likely to be primary caregivers than fathers in other European countries where no such provisions exist, perhaps owing to time spent finding their feet in that role early in their children’s lives.
I spoke with one family in which Mom stayed home for the first two years, then went back to work and now Dad is at home with their child. The statement that really stuck with me when discussing this experience with them was, “It really helped our relationship … because we were finally in the right roles, for us.”
Here’s the crux of it: defining the right roles in our families, unbound by stereotypes about who can and can’t care for children or economic anxieties. If we still believe in our unspoken cultural subconscious that dads can’t properly care for their children, how can we make those choices in a way that promotes family harmony, facilitates even sharing of unpaid domestic and emotional labour, and supports secure attachment between both parents and their kids?
What if we made it easier for dads — or for both parents of any gender — to take time to spend with their small children by extending parental leave and having a use-it-or-lose-it provision for the higher earning partner?
This would help to normalize fathers taking on the majority of domestic responsibilities, and help change the way men and society at large view their roles in the family. On a long enough timeline, it might even silence hat-pushing busibodies in the parking lots of our nation.