Originally posted at The Atlantic
Several times a day, after my infant daughter, Sammy, finishes breastfeeding, my wife, Jean, will hand her over to me and say, “Can you burp her?” And I will duly pick Sammy up, put her over my shoulder, and lightly pound her back until she emits a belch. Done!
Now, Jean is not asking me to do the burping because she’s exhausted (although she is). No, she’s asking because, frankly, I’m better at coaxing bubbles from the baby’s belly, just as I’m better at certain of the other household tasks I’ve gravitated toward ever since our first daughter, Sasha, was born almost four years ago: planning and preparing our meals, getting Sasha up and dressed in the morning, arranging playdates, putting the kids to bed—all duties that, until not too long ago, were considered a mother’s natural province.
Today, of course, the End of Men has arrived, and we’re hip-deep in the swamp of the stay-at-home-dad trend. From enlightened-liberal metropolises to small-town U.S.A., fathers are voluntarily taking on the challenge of parenthood in ways that previous generations never could have imagined, and decrying media images of men as incompetent, bumbling, or, worse, absent from active parenting entirely. We exist! they seem to cry en masse. And more and more, that cry is being heard.
It’s now time for that cri de coeur to evolve, and for men to proclaim, gently and kindly, that we may be, in some cases, “better moms”—caregivers, that is—than moms. We are—if you believe the classical stereotypes—less emotional and more practical, approaching child-care problems with a perhaps scientific detachment not to be found in women who, having spent those long months pregnant, may take those problems personally. Whether it’s swaddling an infant, precision placement of a princess Band-Aid, or soothing hurt feelings (“Paige said she’s not my friend anymore!”), a little emotional distance, data analysis, and hardheaded strategizing can go a long way. And men are, supposedly, better at that stuff.
As provocative as I’m trying to make this argument, I’d like to think this is, in fact, a feminist stance. That is, if women can be as good or better—and better, as Hanna Rosin argues—as men at certain jobs, then why can’t we say the same for men, too? Equality of the sexes doesn’t mean we’re all actually equal. It means we all have equal potential to excel, independent of the shape of our genitalia. If that means that dads start outmothering moms, we have to look at that as progress. So when it comes time to bake cupcakes for pre-K (oh crap, that’s next week!), the other moms better watch out, because I make a mean buttercream frosting. Just don’t ask me to breastfeed.
Some years back, in that gauzy era of irresponsibility and moral turpitude that I enjoyed before making babies, I visited a friend whose wife was pregnant. Now, one unhappy by-product of my current status as a volume kid-maker (I have three) is that I can no longer recall with clarity events that have occurred more than, say, 15 to 20 seconds ago. So I don’t remember how I let myself be drawn into a discussion about children with my friend’s wife. At some point, though, we reached the calamitous moment (for me) when she—a third-trimester, impregnated human female and former child actress with a decidedly still-dramatic temperament—declared that she would love her future child more deeply than her husband would. Indeed, she said, all mothers love their children more than fathers, largely because the twin burdens of pregnancy and childbirth cleaved them together in ways men could not match. The feeling, she further implied, was mutual: Children love their mothers more than their fathers.
Before I proceed with the remainder of this story, I’d like to point out that I’m an idiot. This is something that my fellow DadWagon colleagues will readily confirm, and I won’t belabor the page with substantial proof of this, other than to submit my response to my friend’s wife’s assertion. I laughed—one could even say I chuckled with some condescension—at a woman seven months pregnant, which means I crossed a seething cauldron of anger, resentment, back pain, urinary urgency, and ill restraint. I also let slip these words: Now, now—I don’t remember much, but I do remember that fucking “now, now”—That’s a bad way to think about parenting. Your kids, if they know you think that way, will learn to associate love with pain, and that’s not healthy.”
Do I need mention that she ordered me out of the house? Eventually, she forgave me, or at least she said she did, and now, with time and my own reproductive experiences highlighting my foolishness, I wonder if she was right. My children love me, and yes, like Matt, there are certain things I accomplish with them more easily (putting them to bed springs to mind) than their mother, but the maternal bond is powerful, something hardwired into their psyches, like the Love version of whatever goes on in the amygdala.
Here’s the thing, and I offer this question without truly knowing the answer: So what?
I am their father, I have their love, and they are tied to me in whatever way they are tied to me. If the nine-month swim in their mother’s belly, combined with the whitewater (sort of) rush out of her body and into the world, proffers some greater kinship, what possible difference can it make to me? They remain my children, nevertheless.
Let’s say my wife and I divorced. Would we line the kids up, like dogs, and call to them, vying for their loyalty, and whomever they came to got to keep them? (Efficient, yes, but think of the lawyers! They need to eat, too, no?)
Holding the upper hand in parental competence, affection, or connection strikes me as unimportant when compared to the greater task of raising them to know not to give advice to pissed off pregnant women. There are weightier issues demanding my guidance—who else will teach them dirty jokes, long division, the categorical imperative—and it does no good to get hung up on trying to outdo their mother.
So I don’t care who is good at what, who loves whom more than me, and I never, ever attempt to out-mommy Mommy. It is a game I suspect I can lose only by trying. And idiot or no, I know that however much love I receive is more, far more, than enough.
If we’re going to debate Matt’s insufferably squishy thesis that dads can out-mom moms, at least let me start with a memory from my time in construction, where gender issues are notably simplified. I was in my early 20s, installing insulation and sheetrock for $8 an hour in Florida. I had just-longer-than-shoulder-length hair (thank you, Tim Lincecum, for still trying to make that work), and a slight build. In the eyes of my foreman, this combination was downright womanly. He thought up a catchphrase for me. If I took too long on a smoke break, or was otherwise wasting time, he always growled the same thing: “Stop waiting to grow a pussy. Get to work.”
There was plenty to dislike about the guy—beyond the chauvinism and general cloddiness, he stiffed our crew out of a week’s pay and skipped town—but I hear an echo of the foreman’s, um, gender essentialism in Matt’s concept of out-momming moms. For the foreman, long hair=woman. For Matt, good parenting=mothering.
Saying that good fathers—the ones who get on the floor to play with their babies, who pack lunch for their preschoolers and help their second-graders with their homework—are just acting like mothers is demeaning to all sides. If men and women have proven anything in the last decade of bloggy introspection, it’s this chiasmus: Not all mothers are good parents and not all good parents are mothers.
In my post-construction life here in New York, I’ve got a fairly steady routine. I wake early, I pee standing up, I get the kids ready and take them to school. That is, I’m both a man and (hopefully) a decent parent.
I’ll also take issue with Theodore’s anatomical absolutism. I can’t presume to know what special bond arises from carrying, or having been carried, in utero. But there are plenty of orphans and adoptees who form full relationships with non-biological parents. And if you start defining parenting through genitalia, before long, you’re Little Hans’s father, promising your son that you won’t cut his balls off because Freud thought the boy needed to hear that.
And I don’t know of any parent who wants to go there.