Recently seen on social media: a long post written by an acquaintance, praising her husband for being such a good father. Or at least that’s what she thought it was. What it turned out to be was a rather depressing description of how she learned to accept traditional gender roles in her marriage. About how she was wrong to expect him to be a mother, because of course he couldn’t be a mother, he was a father.
The line that really stuck in my head was about how she had been unreasonable to expect that he would “instinctively” know when to change their kids’ diapers. But it was OK! Because he wasn’t overprotective and he had better insight on discipline and [insert additional stereotypically manly qualities here].
Now, in general, I don’t care all that much about how an individual couple divides the work of parenting and running a household, as long as both are contributing. What works for you is what works for you, and there’s nothing wrong with splitting chores along your strengths. It’s when it gets justified with explicitly gendered language that it bothers me.
“Instinct” about changing diapers? Nobody has instinct about changing diapers, at least not in the very beginning. There’s a reason why newborn diapers nowadays come with those lines that change color to let you know when they’re wet. Fortunately, for new parents, there’s a simple set of rules. You know it’s time for a diaper change when:
- Your kid stinks.
- It’s been more than 2–3 hours since the last diaper change.
- Your kid is crying inexplicably and you want to rule out possible causes.
And that’s it. No instinct required. If a dad doesn’t figure that out, it’s because he’s not trying, not because he’s male.
This kind of gendered language about instincts frustrates me for two reasons. One, it lets men off the hook for doing the work of parenting and housekeeping—work which men are perfectly capable of doing. (This is a good place to note that my husband changed more than 90% of Little Boy’s diapers for the first week, and continues to share that job today.) Second, this language implies that I, as a women, am supposed to be “instinctively” skilled at this stuff. I’m not! And there’s nothing wrong with that! I learned by doing it, just like anyone else can.
Tell me, readers, what are you good at? Is it the stuff you’re “supposed” to be good at?