Why are moms so hesitant to view their male partners as full, competent parents?

Guest post by Lyla Cicero
Family Walk
By: www.GlynLowe.comCC BY 2.0

The first time it happened, I was at a Mothers of Multiples Club welcome brunch. My fantasy was that my terror of the impending birth of my twins would dissipate as soon as I met the wise kindred spirits who would be guiding me through the transition to multiple-motherhood. Much to my surprise, however, brunch soon descended into a partner-bashing session, replete with the kind of ominous warnings I would receive over and over during my pregnancy.

“Make sure you leave the house when they’re a few months old. I waited three years to leave my kids alone with my husband, and now he refuses to babysit,” one mom insisted. My initial response was confusion. I was planning to leave the house the first week. I had written my doctoral dissertation on equally shared parenting for frig’s sake! Caught totally off guard, I responded, “That’s not going to be a problem for me.” Several of the women chuckled sweetly, shooting me the pitying “you’ll see” glance I would receive time and time again.

What was this strange land I was entering? These were smart, accomplished moms — some working, some stay-at-home — all of whom swore that when kids came into the picture, roles changed overnight. Were the brilliant, creative, feminist women I’d known in college really now accepting such arrangements? My twin terror was quickly compounded by the fear of losing the egalitarian marriage I so valued.

Well, fourteen months into motherhood my marriage is as egalitarian as ever. However, the “our husbands suck and don’t do anything” motif turned out to be rampant at the mommy meet-ups and play-dates that were supposed to help maintain my sanity during the first year with infant twins. Now don’t get me wrong, my husband can be an ass. Then again, so can I! But the truth is — (hushed whisper) I like my husband. He is a fantastic husband. No one has the perfect marriage, but it was the gendered aspects of the husband-bashing which eluded me most — husbands not “helping” around the house, never “watching the kids,” oblivious to routines and childcare tasks.

Despite my relief that my own marriage hadn’t followed this path, my own parenting experience felt utterly erased during these conversations. I would feel like a total asshole if I sat there repeating, “My husband does do that,” and adding obnoxiously, “My husband cleans more than I do.” So instead I just passed, keeping my identity practicing equally shared parenting hidden. I was also a queer mom passing as straight at these gatherings, but amazingly, stating, “My husband taught me how to swaddle,” or “Sometimes Seth is more comfortable with our kids than I am,” felt more threatening than announcing I was queer.

When I really examined my fear, I realized it felt like I would be “coming out” as a bad mom. Had we somehow gotten the message that fairness and equality were okay for us to enjoy in our marriages but to be good mothers, we had to be the ones drastically rearranging our lives to make room for children? If my husband was parenting as well as me, must I not be parenting well at all?

I desperately want to be accepted by my peers. After all, this mothering thing is hard, and I am going to need them. Then again, am I really even there if I just hide out at playgroups, nod and pass, not only as straight — but as June Cleaver? And the truth is husband-bashing isn’t the kind of support that I need anyway. What about adult stimulation? What about moms who can talk politics, who are activists? What about discussing how the hell we are going to give our kids the space to explore flexible gender identities and orientations toward love and sex while media and culture steer them onto narrow, limiting paths? What about the massive, profound transition that is becoming a mother? Let’s talk about the guilt, the ecstasy, the terror, trying to find balance, trying to hold on to ourselves! Some moms I’ve met seem so burdened with the lion’s share of childcare that they’ve had to lose the rest of themselves to manage it. Is this the culturally-accepted ideal of motherhood? No selves allowed?

"Daddy is not my babysitter" tshirt available here
“Daddy is not my babysitter” tshirt available here

I’m still trying to work out why my husband and I never walked through that time warp back to the 1950s that all those couples who “swore it wouldn’t happen to them” walked through. I ask myself if these women complaining about their male partners’ traditional responses to parenting were themselves willing to be flexible in their own gender roles. As long as we have the attitude that we can do it better, men probably won’t step up, because what man enjoys feeling incompetent?

That mom who didn’t leave the children with her husband for three years obviously didn’t see him as a competent caretaker, but now seems bitter that he’s not one. We have to believe men can care for children and manage homes, just as we believe we can run companies and nations, rather than expect them to “help” while we maintain control over the private domain. How would we react to that kind of attitude toward our work in the public sphere? Imagine men expecting to supervise and micromanage our works as CEOs?

So why are moms so hesitant to view their male partners as full, competent parents? Is it just that hard to picture? I don’t think so. I think it’s because deep down there is a part of us that believes if we demand equal parenting, if we demand holding onto ourselves — as our husbands do when children come into the picture — then we are not good mothers.

I can understand this fear. When I really sit and think about it, I have it, too. When I work, when I take time to write, when I keep up with friends, go out with other adults, and spend time fantasizing about things I’m passionate about, there is always this little nagging feeling that a “good mom” would have let go of these things.

I’ve held onto my egalitarian marriage and my sense of self, but I haven’t managed to not beat myself up about it. So my husband has all the parenting skills and responsibility I do, but I still look at him and he seems unburdened, free of the guilt and self-doubt that plagues me. But no more: if he can be a full person and also believe he is a good parent, I can be out and proud as an egalitarian mother.

Comments on Why are moms so hesitant to view their male partners as full, competent parents?

  1. One of the main reasons I married my husband is because I knew he would be an awesome father. He is.
    From the time the baby comes home, you have to be in partnership with the father. Trust him and give him time with his baby. Because it’s not just yours, it both of your baby.

    No not everything is equal all the time. When one of us is tired, the other one steps to parent.

    If you can’t trust your partner to parent, makes me wonder why you had a baby with him in the first place?

  2. I am a mother of twins (who are now 8 months old) and I can totally relate to your thoughts. I’ve had so much trouble connecting to other moms because of the “dad” bashing. This weekend I got salmonella and my husband totally took over 100% parenting – and EVERYTHING else for 4 days. If he weren’t an equal parent he wouldn’t have known what to do and I wouldn’t have been able to rest. I want to print this as a part of my thank you note to him for running things while I was sick. Thank you for sticking up for the dads!

  3. Sometimes I want to ask if you can’t stand your husband so much, why on earth did you choose to have kids with him. I don’t, partially because I know some of it is venting. Mostly because I just don’t want to hear it. It never occurred to me to question or fear my husband’s abilities. He has risen to every occasion, even embracing cloth diapers and all the work that goes along with them.
    He is home full time with our daughter and soon to be next child. A decision we made before we ever got pregnant. Sure, he is on the computer more than I would like. He lets our daughter graze all day instead of giving her full meals, but she’e healthy, happy and growing like a weed, so who am I to say that because he does things different than I would, that he is doing it wrong.

    • “…so who am I to say that because he does things different than I would, that he is doing it wrong.”

      I think that is what a lot of primary caregivers, especially of the female variety, fear. Well, OK, it is what I feared the most initially. “OHEMGEE YOU GAVE HIM CEREAL INSTEAD OF A BOTTLE FIRST!?!!?” -panicflail- Something like that, you know. I haven’t ever doubted my husband’s ability to care for our child, it just freaked me out when he did things differently. I didn’t even really have that many things I was particular about or have our son on a schedule, etc. Silly crazy paranoia.

  4. I know for a fact that my husband wife-bashes with his married friends, and that’s fine with me. Just like when I bash him with my friends, it’s therapy, it’s talking to other people who love being married MOST of the time but have problems like any other relationship. I don’t think the bashing is inherently bad.

    You’re lucky if things have stayed totally equal. I don’t think they usually are. My husband does A LOT, and he would be absolutely, 100% fine if I wasn’t around, as far as routines and keeping our kid healthy and happy. BUT, he definitely knows that I will pick up any slack, and takes advantage of that. I think that moms naturally do everything and maybe make it too easy for dads to do less than their fair share. It’s complicated!

    • “I think that moms naturally do everything.” Oof. I’m uncomfortable with the level of generalizing going on in that statement. What about gay/lesbian families with two dads or two moms? What about families where mom works fulltime and dad stays home? What about having a uterus would possibly make you “more natural” at getting shit done?

      While I totally agree there are heavily entrenched social roles that people accept, I don’t accept that “moms naturally do everything.”

      • I know so many mothers who did not naturally do anything. Actually one of my cousins and I just talked about this fact. She didn’t insta-bond with her child and so doing things was a struggle, whereas her partner was the primary care giver and kicked butt and took names for the most part. (He didn’t do well with interrupted sleep, but hey who can.) A year later she runs a tight ship, but I think that is just because she’s borderline OCD. I think moms think they have to do everything, out of unfounded guilt or pressure from things they have learned through society, but it doesn’t naturally occur. Dads can and do bond with their children and ‘naturally’ do lots of things too.

    • I *do* think the bashing is inherently bad. I sort of feel like the comments, innocuous as they may seem, gradually chip away at the mutual respect a couple has for one another.

  5. What an amazing post! Thank you for putting this out there. My mom has mentioned several times throughout the years that she can’t hang out in large groups of women because all conversations seem to devolve into husband bashing, which she, as half of a completely egalitarian and gender blind relationship could not identify with. Now it’s my turn. Thankfully it’s not something I’ve had to deal with much yet, though I’m still only four months pregnant with our first and haven’t joined any parenting groups yet. I’m hoping the holistic variety has more equality.

    But I was so flummoxed when I was eating with a bunch of female coworkers, and the talk turned to how none of their husbands could cook so they had to do it all themselves. The tone was such, “Oh, those men! They’re just so helpless! I have to do everything because he just can’t manage anything in the kitchen! Silly men!” What the hell ladies? If your partner can’t cook, teach them how. Cooking is a pretty essential skill and it’s really not that hard. When I met my husband he couldn’t cook and so I taught him. And guess what? Right now, as I type this, he’s in our kitchen making me dinner from scratch. Not from a recipe, just making it up as he goes along. Because cooking and parenting are learnable skills. And I have no doubt in my mind that he will be an absolutely amazing father who will equally share in the care of our children.

  6. I want to thank the original poster for writing this. I felt like I could have written in (although I don’t have twins). I have become disillusioned with mom’s groups for this reason, and feel like I don’t fit in anywhere because I don’t like bitching about my husband and children. It’s SO BORING to sit through the man-bashing.

    Can I be your friend?

  7. This was a great article, really. My experience has been kind of iffy with my now husband with our child. Being a stay at home mother most of the “burden” is on me for caring for our son and I know his routines and cues, etc. I would get frustrated with my husband when he didn’t understand what our son wanted or needed, or when he did something differently than I did. I realized that I was just being a control freak, which is /really/ weird for me. I’m super easy going about everything. Until I had a baby. :] Since I realized what I was doing, I backed off quite a bit about nagging him. I did occasionally have to ‘force’ him to do those not-fun aspects of parenting, but as our son has hit toddler age now he loves doing everything with him. He also realized that ‘oh shizz I’m missing stuff like bath time.’

    I think part of the reason that I was so concerned about doing things my way or the highway was because my dad sucked at parenting. He was never around and when he was he was usually strung out on something, so not so good father-vibe. I did get a great role model through my step-father, but by then I was a teenager, so those deeply ingrained childhood memories resurfaced. I conquered them for the most part. Crap, my husband actually took our son out by himself for the first time and I didn’t even worry. I was just happy to have alone time. (Note: The only reason he hasn’t gone out with kiddo is because we pretty much do most outings together since I’m like available all the time.)

    Kudos to you for having equal expectations, truly. Fathers are just as much of a parent as mothers, most mothers probably just need to back off a bit and worry a little less.

  8. I do not have children but I completely appreciate this post. Thought I do not have children, I have been in similar situations when friends are sharing (bashing) about their partners’ shortcomings when it comes to chores and domestic duties. I have also heard mothers partner bashing about dad’s inactivity/inability with their babies.
    What I find so frustrating is that many of these women don’t realize the role they play in their partners “inability.” If you rush in everytime and takeover, no he won’t learn how to do it. I have an uncle who used to run and bring my cousin to his wife when the baby started pooping. That was the dynamic they decided worked for their family. She didn’t complain because he did other things. If you have a problem, quit bitching and get your partner involved. We all learned how to do certain things at one point, all humans learn by doing.

  9. I just wanted to say that I love this post and it has helped me to think about some of my own expectations and hopes for how parenting will be with my husband. And I’m going to ask him to read this so that we can have a good discussion about the things it brings up. THANK YOU!

  10. I love this post. I know every family is different, but I’ve always hated the partner bashing, in each direction! that seems to populate the media as well. The whole “my wife is overbearing” and “my husband is stupid” sort of attitude, even in a joking manner, never struck a good chord with me.

  11. I recently read a great book called Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine that explored this very issue, so I am ecstatic to see it raised on Offbeatmama. One particular quote from the book will stick with me forever: “Women will never be equal in the workplace until men are equal in the home”.

    Although my partner and I do not yet have children, they are on the cards! We fully intend to split parenting, home and money-earning responsibilities as equally as possible, taking advantage of our right to apply for part-time/flexible working hours here in the UK (and hopefully have our applications approved!).

    I refuse to resign myself to the outdated notion that women nurture and dedicate themselves solely to their families, while men earn money and carve out a life for themselves outside the home, without any crossover between the two gender-split roles. I think there are a lot of people who would like to see a change in the way these roles are allocated, but who feel as if they somehow don’t have the power to question them. You most certainly do!

  12. I think that the attitude propagates itself too. Kids pick up on it, and then when they grow up, it keeps going. I find myself doing it almost automatically. Then I realize that I’m just not giving him a chance because 1. I want things done the ‘right’ way, and he does it his way and 2. I’m worried that he’ll do it better and then I’ll just be superfluous. It’s dumb. But when I let him, he is marvelous.

  13. There is a complementary unequal parenting treatment: hailing fathers in an unequal way for equal work.

    Like, “Look at this dad with a baby in a baby carrier! He is carrying his baby! What a GREAT father!”

    It’s totally possible that Example Man With Baby Carrier is a great father. It’s totally possible that he isn’t. Either way, lauding the father for any involvement is another way of highlighting the difference in who we expect the real, natural, responsible parent.

  14. My husband has been quite a gifted parent from day one. We cloth-diapered, and my aunt said, “That is the neatest diaper I’ve ever seen.” Since I’m an emergency doctor and his job is more predictable as an engineer, he often picks up and drops off the kids at day care now, and he’s built his own relationship with them, joking them out of bad moods and reading to them at bedtime.

    “Marry well,” advises one of the Mothers in Medicine bloggers, and I completely agree. Well, you don’t have to get married, but you can’t have a high-powered (or even moderately-powered) career easily while raising kids *and* doing the heavy lifting for your partner.

    Treating him/her like crap is not only terrible for everyone’s self-esteem and grotesque for everyone else to watch, but a poor use of resources. You’re exhausted and crabby, and you have a capable adult ready and willing to help! Go for it.

  15. Viewing their partners as “full competent parents” would simply remove a level of complaint that mothers use to make them feel happier and more secure.
    As one who, on the birth of his younger brother in 1964, became the usual changer of nappies, I was proficient through practice and happily able and confident upon the birth of our first child that I would be able to do the same and relive my wife of some of the burden.
    My wife, who had admitted to having changed about 4 nappies in her life, decided that my first attempt did not meet her high, experienced standards and jumped in, pushed me aside and, with the complete confidence and skills magically granted to a new mother, completed the task while telling me that I was not doing it right.
    I never repeated the attempt.
    It was never mentioned and I merely put up with the regular accusations that her status as a mother was, 1oo%, my fault.

    As a child with a mother I had already learned that my mother was not a rational creature.
    My hopes that she was a statistical outlier were dashed by this and other incidents, with further confirmation being given in conversations with other fathers.

    Mothers are more concerned with acquiring ammunition for complaining than they are with getting assistance from equal partners.

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