Care and Feeding

Why Do Fathers Get Dismissed as the “Inferior” Parent?

Our society still often encourages girls and women to see themselves as nurturers while failing to institute those values in most men and boys.

A man smiling while holding his son on his shoulders.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding from Jamilah Lemieux every week.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a longtime reader and have noticed that in many of the questions written by mothers complaining about fathers, the mothers refer to their children in the singular possessive “my kids”; this recently happened in “Please Just Turn It Off.”

This is about more than the grammatical inaccuracy of that language; it strikes me as reflective of a mindset that views fathers as inferior when they have a different perspective on parenting. I think this attitude can erode the soul of a marriage.

While I think parents should be on the same page about many issues big and small, I also think it’s OK for children to be exposed to different attitudes and approaches to life. What do you think?

—Different but Equal

Dear DbE,

Though this was more of an observation than a call for a reply, I think there’s fodder for a rich conversation here.

Certainly there are parents of all genders and relationship statuses who are guilty of having a “my kids” versus “our kids” lens; however, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the ways that parental labor has been gendered historically leads many women (and some men) to feel that children belong in greater part to their mothers than they do their fathers. We can attribute some of that to the fact that the majority of moms carried said kids in their bodies for the better part of a 10-month occupation, but also to how the work of parenting is often divided postpartum.

As a single mother to a child who splits her time almost evenly between her father’s home and mine, I am often made aware that our choice of such an arrangement is still a somewhat unique one (especially in situations where the family never lived in one house as a unit to begin with). When I think about the way other women, including my mother, have reacted to our situation, and how few of the other co-parenting families I know have even considered such a routine, it seems that there’s a clear belief among many of them that the mother is, by default, best suited to do the work of parenting. However, an honest look at our family would lead me to say that the two of us have strengths and weaknesses as parents that overlap, that complement one another, that are sometimes in conflict—but that we are, at the very least, comparable in terms of our ability to care for our daughter.

That isn’t always the case for all parents, and while we could debate the role that nature plays in that reality, it’s still overwhelmingly true that our society encourages girls and women to see themselves as nurturers while failing to institute those values in most men and boys. It’s not shocking that the parent who has been changing doll diapers since she was wearing them herself would be more comfortable handling baby care than the one who may have been raised to think that it simply wasn’t his job. I’m of the opinion that parents of all genders and children suffer when we don’t insist that dads should be super hands-on when it comes to child rearing; or that mothers deserve the support and freedom that comes from fully participatory co-parenting (either in a shared household or two separate ones); or that fathers would come to love the additional time with their offspring if they were willing and given the option to have it.

I don’t want to come down too hard on those moms who may seem like they are monopolizing their kids’ schedules or staking too great a claim on their kids’ lives, because this is what we are often taught to do from birth. However, your note is a reminder that parenting is just but one of the many spaces in our world where we owe it to ourselves, and our progeny, to reimagine how we perform gender.