Today my son’s class had its holiday celebration. As the classroom parent representative, I was in charge of organizing it and arranging to get a class gift. Not a terribly onerous set of tasks: a handful of emails asking others to bring in some food or beverage, reminding parents when and where the even would occur, and asking for donations for the gift. The most difficult and time consuming part was finding a local store that sold maps and globes.
I did nothing beyond what countless mothers have done year in and year out. Yet for some reason nearly every person approached me and thanked me profusely for going to so much effort, as if I had orchestrated a pull-out from Iraq, in just 10 days and with only 10 gallons of fuel in my three-passenger Cessna.
Let me be clear, I appreciate the recognition, as anybody who has worked to organize an event would. Sadly, however, their compliments highlight a disturbing inequity: women are expected to be capable parents while men are expected to fall short.
Michael Chabon points out in his essay “William and I” that it is generally pretty easy to be a dad:
The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low. One day a few years back I took my youngest son to the market around the corner from our house in Berkeley, California, a town where, in my estimation, fathers generally do a passable job, with some fathers having been known to go a little overboard. I was holding my twenty-month-old in one arm and unloading the shopping cart onto the checkout counter with the other. I don’t remember what I was thinking about at the time, but it is as likely to have been the original 1979 jingle for Honey Nut Cheerios or nothing at all as it was the needs, demands, or ineffable wonder of my son. I wan’t quite sure why the woman in line behind us—when I became aware of her—kept beaming so fondly in our direction. She had on rainbow leggings, and I thought she might be a little crazy and therefore fond of everyone.
“You are such a good dad,” she said finally. “I can tell.”
I looked at my son. He was chewing on the paper coating of a wire twist tie. A choking hazard, without a doubt; the wire could have pierced his lip or tongue. His hairstyle tended to the cartoonier pole of the Woodstock-Einstein continuum. His face was probably a tad on the smudgy side. Dirty, even. One might have been tempted to employ the word crust.1
There is a double standard here. Again, as Chabon remarked, for a mom to elicit such an observation from a complete stranger is nearly impossible. Yet as long a dad isn’t actively harming his child, he is a good father. Chabon acknowledges that double standard and, further, confesses his occasional gratitude for it. He also admits that he works really hard at being a father, not so he can be complimented but so he can enjoy the intimacy that comes being a good father.
What Chabon doesn’t explore is the way that such compliments reinforce the assumption that men continue to fail at parenting. By virtue of our Y chromosome, we are somehow deficient in the parenting department. Society doesn’t expect too much from us, as if we are some real-life Lennie Small—feeble minded and inherently a risk to our child. If through some stroke of luck and rare alignment of the planets we haven’t yet hurt our child, we need to be complimented, to be told we are succeeding at being a parent, to be encouraged to stay the course and remain diligent lest we lose our concentration and like some bad re-enactment of “Raising Arizona,” we leave Nathan Junior on top of the car as we drive off. That probably won’t happen.
Please don’t see me as ungrateful for the thanks so generously expressed. I greatly appreciate the gratitude. But please keep it in line with what you would say to a woman. Not just because it is fair to mothers, but because it is fair to fathers too.
1From Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs, 11–12.⇑