I was almost finished making dinner when my husband returned home from a long day at work. He spotted our younger daughter, C, playing and cooing in her walker, picked her up and took her into the living room. A short time later the two of them returned to the kitchen and we all ate together. Then, Mr. Mustard went back to the living room alone. By that time, C was getting tired and a bit clingy. I knew she wouldn’t allow me to put her down while I cleaned up the dishes, so I brought her to her dad and sat her next to him on the couch.
“No thank you,” he said. “I already held her while you were cooking.” Now friends, I don’t get much sleep lately and it’s sometimes hard for me to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable things for a man to say to his wife. I was annoyed, but I picked C up and took her back to the kitchen with me. I realized Mr. Mustard had worked hard all day, but so had I, and it certainly would have been nice if he could have helped me. In hindsight, I see that the problem lies in my ever wanting/hoping for/requesting help from him in the first place. Real men don’t help with their children.
You see, help is something voluntary, which should always be appreciated. The term implies that the helper is doing the helpee a favor, and etiquette would dictate that some form of compensation or reciprocity is in order. To help is to give of one’s own time and energy in order to lighten someone else’s load. Helping is noble. Helping is admirable. Helping is going above and beyond the call of duty and bearing someone else’s burdens. If my teenage niece comes over and plays with my children while I run to the grocery store, she is helping. If my husband entertains our daughters long enough for me to clean the kitchen or take a shower, he is not. He is parenting. He is carrying his own weight, fulfilling his own obligations, and *gasp* raising his own children.
By labeling interactions with their own children as ‘helpful,’ society has made fathers impervious to the guilt and judgement that plague mothers. Men can either decline to help, turning their wives into nags or martyrs (after all, help is not something one can force another person into), or they can comply with our requests and feel entitled to gratitude and accolades in return. It may sound like a win-win situation for men, but make no mistake–it is costing them dearly. The semantics is demeaning to men; it diminishes their role in the lives of their children, implying they are neither essential nor capable of anything more than holding down the fort while their wives indulge in the occasional well-deserved break. This mindset is harmful to both parents, and particularly detrimental to children.
While a mother’s need for help is transient, a child’s need for love and attention from her father is enduring. Dads who see themselves as second-string parents often feel justified in ‘checking out’ when their wives have life under control. Whether they excel or miss the mark in their role as parenting assistants, these men are missing out on the opportunity to act as hands-on fathers. They relish a certain freedom from monotony and responsibility, while withholding their contribution to those simple and priceless memories that solidify the bond between parent and child. In time, these dads begin to question why the children are closer to their mothers, and they withdrawal further as a result of feeling excluded from the family dynamic.
How can we, as families and as a society, bring an end to this vicious cycle and restore a healthy level of accountability and respect to the role of fatherhood? We can start by eradicating the word ‘help’ from a dad’s job description. Let’s not fuss and swoon when we see a man at the local park playing with his children. Let’s not act as if he deserves a medal because our husbands “never help us out with the kids.” Let’s not ask our fellow mothers, when we see them out alone, if their husbands are babysitting. My daughters’ birth certificates (too politically correct now to use gender-specific terms) list my husband as a co-parent. Not an assistant parent, not a backup parent, not an intermittent childcare provider–a co-parent. So the next time I’m tempted to ask for his help with the girls, I will choose not to insult him and shortchange them. I will simply remind him, instead, that his children need him.