Mommie Dearest: Mom Vs. Dad — Who Takes The Lead?

New York Times’ writers KJ Dell’Antonia and Bruce Feiler recently went head to head over parenting for the latest “Room For Debate.” Their discussion focused on whether moms or dads more often take the lead when it comes to parenting, and more importantly, why?

This particular debate is an age-old parenting topic. In an era where women are constantly reminded about “having it all” despite stereotypical gender roles being enforced, it’s no wonder that we’re still discussing who takes on what when it comes to parenting. For a long time, parenting actually meant mothering by default. It was traditionally assumed that men were the wage earners while women were the caretakers, no matter how much that “ideal” didn’t match up with families that needed two incomes to stay afloat. Regardless of the advances in equality accrued by feminism, that traditional framework has been a hard one to shake off and families still have trouble when it comes to equal parenting.

Even within my own group of friends that have had children, I still see many parents struggle with which one takes the lead. For many, the mother usually starts off stepping up more at first because of nursing, and that somehow sets the tone for the rest of the parenting journey. I think I was conscious enough of that slippery slope that I worked hard for that not to be the case in our home. Even though I was the one waking up at all hours of the night to nurse my son, I definitely didn’t need my boobs to change his overnight diapers. So while I was the one to feed our baby, my husband did his part by waking up to deal with the other stuff. I’m fairly certain the equality seen in overnight infant duty helped influence the mostly egalitarian way we currently parent our now six-year-old.

While I’ve mentioned this to friends in passing, I usually hear back, “Well … he has to work the next morning and really needs his sleep.” You know what? We both had to work the next morning in some capacity. It’s just that for a while, my husband’s work was acknowledged with a paycheck, while mine wasn’t. Perhaps if the U.S. had a mandatory paid parenting leave policy in place, this would be much less of an issue. Both men and women could stay home without fear of losing pay or their job and could maybe start parenting off on more equal footing. Until that happens, we’ll continue to have this discussion about parenting parity.

The New York Times debate between Dell’Antonia and Feiler reminded me of some of the more frustrating things about this age-old topic. Feiler started out saying by mentioning that more men than ever before are staying at home parenting, that the era of the “bumbling dad” is coming to an end, and that men are also struggling with the work/family balance. I certainly don’t disagree with any of that. However, regardless of how many more fathers are choosing to stay home, society continues to assign areas of domesticity to women. We see it everywhere in mainstream media: TV shows, commercials, print advertisements, etc. Despite the rising numbers of men staying home (and I’d love to see more research into how much of that is occurring due to economic-based circumstances/necessity vs. true choice), society still dumps the burden of child rearing onto women to the detriment of both mothers and fathers. If women can’t do it all, they’re seen as failures at motherhood. When men do take on more parental responsibility, they’re praised as if they’re the second coming of Supernanny, completely devaluing them and enabling substandard parenting as default.

At one point, Feiler notes that, “When a mother criticizes her partner’s child-care efforts, it causes him to lose confidence and withdraw. When she praises his efforts, he takes a more active role”” This stuck out to me and made me wonder, are people praising the mom’s efforts? Where’s my cookie for making sure my son is awake, dressed, fed, and off to school? Is it my responsibility to hand out gold stars so my husband feels confident as a father? I definitely dole out compliments regarding his parenting, but they occur in the same way I praise him for unclogging the toilet or coming in the top three in a Go Kart race. I do it because I’m genuinely proud and pleased, not because I want to soothe his ego so he’ll keep up the good work’

One of the standout frustrations that occurs with parenting debates is that they tend to leave out LGBT families. If we trade on gender stereotypes (women are the nurturers, while men are the more playful but absent-minded ones), how does that reflect the reality of gay and lesbian-headed families? I’ve actually seem two-mom families where the one mother who takes on less of a parenting role being referred to as the “dad” of the family. If that doesn’t send the message about how we view parenting still, I’m not sure what does. Even “30 Rock” gave a cheeky wink in this direction when Liz Lemon finally realized that she was better off as “the dad,” by working outside the home and her husband, Chris Chros, was more the “mom” — dealing with the kids and staying home. Sigh.

In my household, the reality is that we trade on and off who takes the lead. I might be having a bad or busy day or week, so my husband steps up and deals with drop off/pick up, play dates, bedtimes. Other times he will find himself working overtime, so I’m the one doing most of the parenting chores. But for the most part we’re a team of two, doing our best to work with each other in order to stay on top of it all. Sure, like Dell’Antonia mentions in her piece, my husband doesn’t parent the same way that I do. But that doesn’t make him any less effective as a parent.

With years of societal conditioning pushing very strict, traditional gender roles, it will probably be a while before we’re comfortable enough to break out of the way we view who parents and how. But we can start by tossing out those preconceived notions of “what a dad does” and “what a mom does” and just allow them both to parent.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto