Disempowered Dads; Martyred Moms

Never one to dissapoint, I've pulled this old column out while I work on my post about clubbing baby seals.

It ran as a two part column, but I've put it together here so you can read it in it's entirety - in other words, brace yourselves and go pee now, you might be here a while:

It was a national conference on health and family literacy. I was seated at a table with five other professionals: three from the public health field, and two others – like me – from the literacy field. Our assignment was to discuss some of the stresses, good or bad in origin, which could occur throughout a family’s life. We were discussing childbirth. One of the women brought up Postpartum Depression in mothers.

“It’s also an issue for fathers,” I said. Murmurs of agreement followed. Of course, fathers have to learn to deal with the mother’s depression. “No,” I clarified, “Dads get Postpartum too.”

Looks of amazement and laughter followed this statement. One of the nurses replied: “Well, my five year old was pretty upset when the baby came along too. He was no longer the center of attention. But I wouldn’t call it depression.” More laughter and nods of agreement followed this belittling remark.

I was amazed to find health professionals talking in such a dismissive way about a serious medical issue. Fathers do get Postpartum Depression. About 10% of new fathers, actually, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. New mothers were found to be afflicted at a slightly higher rate of 14%.

But had anyone at that table two years ago (around the time that study was published) heard of it? No. And if they had, I doubt they would have taken notice.

You see, we were a table full of women.

There’s something that happens when women – especially moms – get together. It’s something we’re not proud of and hate to admit. It’s something that has the potential to tear down men, tear families apart, and destroy good relationships.

We complain about and criticise the men in our lives - the fathers of our children in particular.

It happens when we gather at groups for new moms. It happens in groups of two and three at school functions. It happens during gossipy phone calls with friends. It happens far too often.

When our first child was born, I attended a breastfeeding support group weekly. It happened there. And I’m sad to say I participated:

“He comes home and accuses me of spending all day on the couch! I’m breastfeeding! Does he think I want to be stuck on the couch all day? Does he notice all the work I did in between feedings? And even if I did spend all day on the couch, I deserve it. It’s not like he ever gets up with baby at night!”
Can I blame my poor judgment on sleep deprivation? I’ve tried very hard since those first few months as a new mother to avoid publically criticising my spouse. But it’s difficult. It’s just such a latent practice when women get together.

Why do we do it? I imagine because it seems the acceptable thing to do.

After all, watch any commercial or TV show and it’s obvious that any married man, a dad in particular, is a doofus. Women run families. Women work their fingers to the bone. Women look fit and put together. Dads are lazy, forgetful, inconsiderate, slobs. They can’t follow simple instructions and are utterly incapable of taking care of the children – or even the laundry – without explicit instruction and guidance from their wives.

The only fathers in the media who do a halfway decent job at parenting are those forced to do so because their wife is dead or gone.

For decades, discussion has been about the stresses on mothers. Working mothers are expected to work outside the home, run a good home, devote themselves to the children and show up at school functions. Stay at home mothers are expected to enrich their children’s lives daily, cook delicious, healthy meals, keep a tidy home, and neglect their own appearance and needs for those of the children.

We’ve all heard about Super Mom Syndrome.

But what about Super Dad? Why is the stress on fathers completely ignored? Are they not facing a lot of the same issues?

And is their stress made worse by the fact that we, as a society, refuse to acknowledge it?

Not that long ago families were made up of a mother and father in their traditional roles. Fathers worked all day and were expected to be the disciplinarians in the home, spending some time in the evenings and on weekends with their children. Mothers worked too, but in the home, childrearing and “keeping the house.” Single parent and mixed families were uncommon.

Television shows like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ lead us to believe that this was the norm and something that made home-life run smoother. But many women and men who lived during that time will tell you that it wasn’t necessarily like that.

It’s the same today. In the media we see goof-off dads and hardworking moms; but, in reality, most dads participate in household chores and childrearing. Fathers are expected to help raise the kids and do housework, as well as work outside the home -- just like mothers. But they do so under stresses not commonly acknowledged.

At work, a father is considered unprofessional and undedicated if he starts taking time off to take Timmy to soccer practice or Tara to her doctor’s appointment. If his child is sick, a father is expected to show up at work regardless. Employers tend to be more understanding of a mother’s need to take family time.

At home, a mother might wonder why her partner isn’t doing more, why the at-home responsibilities are all hers. Often, though, when fathers do try to pitch in and help out as best they can, they are often told they are doing it “wrong.”

How many women reading this have told their husband he has loaded the dishwasher wrong or done the laundry incorrectly? Did the world end when the glasses ended up on the bottom rack or everyone’s underwear turned pink?

Maybe not, but your husband’s incentive to help ended when he was criticised. Of course most women don’t mean to be critical. The problem is often that the mother considers the housework to be her ultimate responsibility and wants to make sure it’s done “right.” Like any workplace, a home has established routines and ways of doing things.

The problem is that we are not quite sure of our roles anymore. In our struggle to make mothers and fathers equal partners at home, we’ve blurred the boundaries which our traditional understanding of ‘his’ and ‘her’ responsibilities made clear. Yet, at the same time, we’ve yet to arrive at a commonly understood alternative.

And, again, in spite of our struggle to democratize the parenting dynamic, we still find it hard to let go of the traditional notion of the woman as the main parent and house-keeper. Despite the fact that both parents have the option of taking parental leave, in most families -- and in the workforce -- it is naturally assumed the mother will be the one to take time off.

Women are struggling with the stress that shifting responsibilities at home and outside the home bring into their relationship. Just as men suffer from the media image that they are useless, women are still led to believe through the media that they can and should be superhumanly capable of doing it all.

They internalise those feelings and end up feeling like Dana, a mother of one from St. John’s who says: “It always feels like things are ultimately my responsibility. (My husband) encourages me to go out, to go back to work whenever I feel ready, and to have him take care of stuff -- but in my mind all I think is ‘no, I’m the mommy.’”

Unfortunately, such feelings -- when expressed through not leaving children in the care of their fathers, or not leaving housework in the father’s hands -- can lead to fathers believing they’re not considered capable of handling these things.

Better communication and increased understanding between spouses can clarify each other’s expectations, but it’s especially hard for new parents to find the time to talk to one another. There’s the stress brought on by the new child, of course, but there’s also the stress of adapting to the new regime of who-does-what.

It’s actually disturbing when, because of perceived or real spousal distrust, fathers are not permitted to father. Mothers have to learn to ‘let go’ from taking the majority of parenting responsibility. As counter-instinctual as it may be, mothers have to learn to trust fathers to do what is ‘right’ and ‘acceptable.’

In 2006, the National Fatherhood Initiative published the results of a survey titled “Pop’s Culture.” In it, respondents were asked where they look for help on becoming a better father. Almost 90% reported that their wife or child’s mother was who they turned to.

While it is great that fathers look to their spouses to give them appropriate parenting advice, this pattern of behaviour reinforces fathers not trusting themselves to make parenting decisions. Ironically, the more often they consult with the mother, fathers learn not to so much to parent but to become better mothers.

Men and women parent differently. And this range in approach and style is important to the family dynamic. Fathers’ attitudes towards parenting and the way they approach such matters as conflict resolution often differ from those of mothers. This doesn’t make them wrong; it just makes them different. Many experts agree that a father’s natural approach to parenting is important in teaching children concepts such as independence.

Most importantly, though, fathers serve as role models for their sons. And a mother’s actions towards the father reflect upon her son as well. When a father is told or shown that he can’t be trusted to parent appropriately, a boy learns that he cannot be a father.

And the cycle begins anew.


  1. God bless you. It's interesting to reflect what you have said onto my own experience of fathering. I do a lot of the housework. I change 90% of the nappies of my youngest son. My wife and I try to split time off from work to look after sick children 50/50. My employer accepts this but isn't always happy about it - those old traditional notions remain. But for all I try to be a modern dad I'm aware that when I'm stressed and tired - all too often - it's easy even for me to slip back into that traditional way of thinking and start moaning "why am I doing this?" But really; why shouldn't I? I suspect it will take a few generations for things to bed down properly. As for disrespecting our partners when in same sex company... well, even men do it. And you're right - it's not nice. I think we all feel a little dirty afterwards.

  2. I must confess I am also guilty of slipping into the stereotype gender bashing talk when with other women folk. I think it's inbuilt, FWIW I want it on record that my husband is a brilliant father - not that he'll ever read this though. x

  3. Fuck. Does that mean I have to apologise now to my OH for all the slagging off of the past 7-odd years since we became parents?


    Can you do it for me? I'll pay.

    LCM x

  4. I always feel a little guilty about slagging off the other half when I'm with women friends. The only worse thing to hear is some noble female saying in that patronising sickly sweet voice'oh but he's really good, really, he does help..' Ick.
    It's really difficult when you reform a family and bring children into a family where the man - playing the father/stepfather role - has never had children. There are no nappies to change or bond over, and no information available about how to be 'an instant father'. Not only do you have the complication of trying to figure out who does what in the spousal relationship and how to fit in two careers, but then there's also the issue of trying to figure out how to divvy up the parenting responsibilities. When I first arrived here, my poor Englishman would arrive home from work to a kitchen full of dishes,teenagers strewn around the lounge glued to TV and no idea what (or even whether he should!) cook for dinner. I'd get home after an 1.5 hours commuting, in a foul mood and then have to try and calm everyone down, and get dinner sorted. Really difficult. It has helped working from home, so at least I am around when the teens get back and I can sort of cajole them into helping to keep the household operating. My Englishman is doing a great job of learning how to be a stepfather. But my god it's been one hell of a learning curve!

  5. oooh, this is an interesting one Dara. As I am a stay at home mother and he works, bloody long hours in a very physical job really, I do consider the housework to be my responsibility. the child raising and getting up in the nights etc I don't, the children are half his after all, but I'm happy to do the house stuff since he has to go out to work and I've never quite got the women that think they should be stay at home mums but their husband should do half the housework.

    That said I have been guilty of the joining in on the ritual slagging off of our other halves, it's almost like a girly bonding session, isn't it? It does make me feel guilty though, but also it kind of helps get things off my chest that have been bothering me, silly inconsequential things really, like loading the dishwasher wrong, say, that niggle and annoy but really aren't worth telling your husband about.

    Maybe it's better to have the bitching sessions behind their backs than to them, makes for a much more harmonised living situation! :)

  6. Interesting.

    As an expectant mother who recently attended antenatal classes with my husband, it was amusing when, split in to two teams for a "getting-baby-ready-for-bedtime task", we women mocked the men's efforts to bathe and clothe the doll. Granted, they did douse the baby in so much talcum powder it looked like it had been rummaging its head through the Class-A contents of Paris Hilton's handbag, and the babygrow was only half done-up because the boys wanted to get the job done quicker than the girls and 'every other popper will do'.

    But perhaps we were a little quick with our jibes. Perhaps we even had them ready before the task had started. We assumed the guys would be less competent, which is a terrible assumption to make.

  7. @Steve: It's funny because most men I know say they never really *complain* about their wives. Make the odd joke, yes, but not complain. Meanwhile, yes, I think it's easier for men to say "why am I doing this?" as there is still that traditional sense for women. Though if we go back to antiquity, there have been many eras and societies where childcare and housework were shared chores

  8. @Bored: Too bad he won't read it. Bet it would make him feel good. I make a concentrated effort not to bitch about my husband. Sometimes in a one-on-one situation with a good friend I let loose, but never in casual company.

  9. @LCM: How much? I do have my integrity you know.... No I don't. How much?

  10. @Vix: Yeah it must be tough for him, not only does he have to try to do things "right" but he doesn't have the family history context to figure it all out. I don't like those saccharin wives, either, but I prefer them to the bitter nags.

  11. @Heather: I guess, though I think if we all communicated more then there'd be less frustation to vent. There are some things we can get worked up over that are so inconsequential - like the dishwasher. Sometimes I think of our relationship much like I think of the kids. There's my ABC priorities, if somethings A then I'll let him know, if it's B I'll try to ignore it, if it's C I let it go.

  12. @Contented?: That's exactly it. Men are set up to fail before they've even tried. This particular era is one of great change where each generation of men is doing more on the homefront than that before them - they've no reference for this behaviour. Meanwhile, the class leader shouldn't have set it up with the sexes divided like that - makes it even harder to be a cohesive parenting unit if from before your child is born you're taught to compete with each other.


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