It doesn’t take instinct to change a diaper

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:

  1. Your kid stinks.
  2. It’s been more than 2–3 hours since the last diaper change.
  3. 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?

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28 thoughts on “It doesn’t take instinct to change a diaper

  1. My husband is much better at diaper management than I am. Why? PRACTICE. With our first we made an agreement that I would be in charge of inputs and he would be in charge of outputs. That means I only changed diapers when he wasn’t around.

    With anything, even if one person starts out better, that just means the other person needs more practice and to try harder. That’s true in school and work as well as at home.

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  2. I’m SO SICK of people glorifying fathers for doing the absolute bare minimum. Nope, your husband/boyfriend/baby’s dad is not THE BEST FATHER EVER WHO DESERVES TO BE PUBLICLY PRAISED just because he changed a diaper, spent time with his kids alone for an hour or did his daughter’s hair. He’s a parent. These things are his responsibility. The end.

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  4. Once, before we had kids, my FIL was taking about when Dr. S was a baby. ‘Mrs. S left me with him and when I changed his (cloth) diaper I didn’t know what to do with it so I just threw it in the trash! And she never made me change a diaper again! Ha, ha!’

    Me: (horrified look)

    Later I told Dr. S that I would have done a tutorial and made him change ALL the diapers until he got it right. Because NO.

    (My in laws are terrible.)

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    • Dudes do that on purpose because it works. Ugh. Like you, he would have been on punishment detail for wasting a diaper and being a jerk. Or you know, divorce because if he thought he’d get away with sloughing off work because he’s a CHILD…

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      • Replying to Jenny: Yes but your reason makes sense! Revolting = sometimes just toss it. The anecdote was a thing that I have only ever heard men gleefully recount: doing something “stupid” knowing full well it’s not the right thing to do in order to claim ignorance and therefore get out of ever doing that work again. And it never matters if they’ve wasted or ruined a thing for no good reason, their good reason was ALWAYS “but I never had to do it again, so yay me!”

        Eeesh.

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  6. I chastised my feminist 70+ year old friend who said my husband was babysitting so I could have an overnight away from baby responsibility. Excuse me but no.

    He’s not a great babysitter unless that kid of ours was actually immaculately conceived (nope).

    Anyway. He’s great at feeding, bathing and changing the kidlet, and entertaining as long as he remains conscious. (He, not ze. There’s a reason ze crawled into the kitchen while I was cooking and raided the pantry while hir dear dad was passed out on the ground.) He’s great at getting up early with hir every morning no matter how early ze wakes. I’m good at keeping hir alive and having patience with hir shenanigans after I regain consciousness, and taking the night shift. Everything to do with accommodating our sleep patterns. Also I’m excellent with our money management and husband is lucky to have me at the financial reins! Also also I’m excellent at travel arrangements and household management but he bests my cleaning abilities, hands down. We do pretty well together.

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  7. Quite right! I find it strange the way so many educated, modern women seem to fall into these (to my mind) old fashioned stereotypes when they have kids. He’s not babysitting. He’s perfectly capable of all of the things mothers do except for actual breastfeeding. As regards what I’m good at that maybe I’m not ‘supposed’ to be: having a job (working makes me a *better* mother) and reading maps 🙂 Love your blog by the way! I’ve had depressive episodes for many years plus postnatal depression with 2nd child so good to read about others’ experiences.

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    • Thanks, and welcome! Working makes me a much better mother, too. It’s such an awful cultural myth that motherhood should be The Sole Source of Fulfillment for women.

      (I’m also good at reading maps, but my brain routinely forgets which ways the words “left” and “right” refer to, so I’m not so great at giving directions.)

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