Dads can lean in, too.
By Grant J. Schneider (Washington Post)
The administrator at our children’s school recently called our house and asked if she could speak with “Mrs. Diamond.” I understood instantly — she wanted to speak to the mom. But my kids don’t have a mom. They have two dads. Sighing deeply, I replied, “This is Mrs. Diamond.”
The administrator apologized, explaining that she had recently returned from a leave of absence. But my mind was racing: Why do schools and so many aspects of child care – from baby-product commercials to changing stations in public restrooms – focus on moms and exclude dads, gay or not? When coordinating school parties and carpools, moms at our kids’ school often assume that everyone on the list is a woman, opening the e-mail chain with “Dear Ladies.” When we travel with our kids on a trip, strangers frequently ask if we gave their moms a weekend off. Even as women have rapidly moved out of the home and into the workplace, even as our society has increasingly accepted diverse family structures (including two-dad families), and even as more dads are staying home with their children, the perception of mom as sole caregiver has persisted.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is challenging this notion. In recent years, she has pushed to increase women’s power in the workplace with her “lean in” mantra. Now she’s asking men to join that effort, with a new “Lean in Together” campaign that encourages men not only to advocate for women in the office, but to also take on more responsibility at home. I am thrilled that men have been invited to the “lean in” conversation, and I share Sandberg’s gender-equality goal. Her noble aspiration to broaden society’s perceptions of what women can accomplish in the workplace is matched by my hope to broaden perceptions of what men do at home. In a Yahoo News interview, Sandberg got it right when she said, “We also haven’t supported men as caregivers. … Women get discriminated against in the office; men get discriminated against when it comes to care.”
Addressing gender equality in the home has mostly focused on getting men involved in housework. As a dad in the mommy-centric world of child care, I often have a front-row seat to moms’ conversations at school events, ballet lessons and playing fields, as they discuss how challenging it is to juggle the demands of their jobs with the demands of their families. They feel unsupported when it comes to everyday responsibilities, ranging from taking care of a sick child to getting dinner on the table. Maybe, just maybe, Dad could load the dishwasher? Sandberg has validated this experience, insisting that men stand to gain when they “lean in” to the laundry. There’s a carrot at the end of all that choreplay, she says: Research shows that couples who share chores equally have more sex.
But the burden should not be just on dads. Moms – and society in general – seem to be under the impression that dads are incompetent when it comes to matters of the home. A very smart mom I know shared with me her secret to dividing labor and keeping harmony in her house. When her husband makes the bed she says “thank you”— even if he doesn’t make the bed the right way. And she never remakes the bed after him, to ensure she is not always stuck doing the chore. Validating that her husband is capable of doing housework was the key to freeing up her time.
As in housework, dads have more to provide in child care than they are given credit for. In a recent PopSugar.com piece, a mom expounded on her motherly wisdom and insisted on her infallibility “because I’m a mom!” From the most everyday occurrence of parenthood to the most tragic, she believes that mothers have more empathy than non-mothers. I have encountered this idea for 10 years, from mothers providing tips on everything from setting a sleep schedule to dealing with preteen mood swings. While I am grateful for these pearls of wisdom, the “I know because I am a mom” refrain insists that women know more, feel more, intuit more. It assumes that moms are naturally better at this parenting game than dads. My experience hasn’t supported that. One simple example happened recently when my 10-year-old daughter insisted she wanted bouncy hairjust like Jessie on the Disney Channel. One YouTube lesson later, her hair was more “That Girl” than Disney, but she was happy. Some moms around town were astounded and exclaimed, “I couldn’t do that, much less my husband.”
Sometimes I hear my mom friends say that their husbands are “babysitting” their kids, implying that dad is not a true parent but just an inferior caregiver. If we want more gender equality at home, we have to get rid of these outdated notions. Moms and dads have come a long way from the “Leave it to Beaver” days. The assumption that moms have a greater sense of connection to and empathy for their children is based on outdated gender roles. Asserting superiority alienates fathers and undermines society’s effort to bring more gender balance to parenting.
There is some evidence that these notions are changing. If we believe what we saw in the latest Super Bowl commercials, there is a new dad in town. In between the tackles and touchdowns, there were images of dads dancing with their daughters and hugging their sons. Dove compiled images of dads taking care of their kids – lathering them in sunscreen, brushing their hair, comforting them and kissing them – under the tagline “care makes a man stronger.” As a marketer, I know this softer and more helpful guy must exist if advertisers are willing to spend $150,000 a second to reach him. This enlightened dad also knows what detergent to use to get out food stains, sweeps up behind his kids and sentimentally records moments in his child’s life. It appears that we are on the cusp of a lean-in dad archetype.
It’s about time that we realized that dads can clear both the dishes and their sons’ tears. Just as outmoded gender stereotypes are being challenged by women in the office, old assumptions about roles in the family need to be thrown out, as well. Society, schools and even some moms need to get comfortable with men contributing to a traditionally female domain. Dads are ready to lean in, and many already are. With 10 years’ experience as “Mrs. Diamond,” I am happy to be among them.
Grant J. Schneider leads Fox Meadow Consulting, a brand strategy firm. He lives in New York with his husband and their 10-year-old twins.