It’s late July, and my husband, Michael, is the only dad in a sea of mothers hanging out on the sidelines of a skate park waiting for our 11-year-old son to finish up camp. Kids are rolling to and fro in every direction, dressed head to toe in protective gear. All of a sudden there’s a crack and then a howl, coming from our son, who just wiped out while dropping into the bowl. Despite all his padding, he’s cracked his knee pretty badly, and as Michael runs to his side, the crowd of mothers starts with rapid-fire advice for how to care for a swollen kneecap.
Sure, their recommendations came from a good place, but there’s rarely a day that goes by when Michael doesn’t face a barrage of unsolicited feedback on how to be a better parent. He’s completely capable, thank you very much, without a bunch of women butting in. With all due respect, Michael was a Division 1 college athlete, an amateur boxer, and has been skateboarding since he was 12. He’s quite familiar with caring for various sports injuries and it’s a safe bet that he has done more ollies than likely all of these women. He’s got this.
Gone are the days of dads who have never changed a nappy, and yet people are still surprised that men can be as capable parents as women. Michael is the primary caregiver while I work full time at Google, a sort of role reversal of a more traditional household. It’s a setup I happily refer to as a “flip family,” and one we’ve embraced for over 10 years as we raise our 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter in Brooklyn. Michael not only bears the majority of the responsibility of caring for our children’s needs day in and day out, but he also has unwittingly become the target for an onslaught of unrequested, and most times unwelcome advice from mothers. And while it might seem like this is not a big deal, mumsplaining is almost as toxic as its annoying friend mansplaining.
Take last winter, when a woman stopped my husband and kids as they rushed to catch a bus to scold him for not putting a hat on my daughter’s head. Or this spring when a mom almost gave herself whiplash looking for the responsible adult allowing my kids to climb a tree, then resting her gaze on my husband with on an expression of “it figures.” Then there’s the barrage of “Oh! Daddy’s helping today!” comments throughout the grocery store. Not to mention the “playdate arrangement shuffle” when moms will forego finalizing details with the man literally in front of them at school pick up in lieu of texting me, the woman they rarely see, who will surely get it right.
Michael is far from the only man out there in a primary caregiver role. The U.S. is seeing a dramatic rise in families like ours, where women are taking more of the financial lead as earners for the family and men are taking on more of the caregiving. In fact, 41% of households with children under the age of 18 are financially led by women, a number that’s been steadily rising since the late 1960’s. And while stay-at-home parents are still primarily mothers, a 2014 Pew Study states that stay-at-home fathers represent 16% of U.S. households — that’s 2 million men — a number that’s doubled over the past three decades. Roughly 24% of these stay-at-home dads say they’re doing so primarily to care for their children rather than being unemployed, injured, or retired while only 5% declared the same reason in 1989.
My husband is one of those 24% full-time, primary caregiving dads who are doing it because they want to. Unfortunately, in this role, he is in the line of mumsplaining fire on the daily because when you’re a dad, how could you possibly know how to care for your children, you poor thing.
All sarcasm aside, this is not just about unsolicited parenting advice. Women need to realise that each time we mumsplain to dads, we disempower them and perpetuate and legitimise stereotypes. Treating dads like incapable fools is not just insulting to them but to the detriment of women.
If men aren’t supported in these activities, the majority of household and child-rearing logistics will continue to fall on mothers, which makes it more difficult for women to accelerate their professional achievements. There are still only 24 hours in the day, regardless of gender.
The media does its fair share of fuelling these stereotypes as well. Take, for example, the advert where mom is on a business trip and dad is video chatting with the kids; from her view, everything is under control, happy kids who are all smiles. Once they hang up, the camera zooms out and you see spaghetti sauce covering the entire kitchen. Or another recent commercial where mum heads out for the day and thank God the digital voice assistant is there with all of mom’s programmed reminders and schedule announcements!!
There’s another side of this mumsplaining coin as well, where we deify fathers as they care for their children. Why is it that women will ooh and aah over the man who can change a nappy in less than two minutes and have it stay securely on until the baby is due for its next change? He didn’t just walk on water across the English Channel. Let’s not send the message to dads that this is anything less than their responsibility; you know, to care for the people they brought into this world. It’s sort of like picking up after your dog — no one should get a round of applause.
I once had a conversation with a woman who told me that my husband was “so good with my kids.” (Um, they’re his kids, too.) She went on to say she couldn’t even trust her husband to heat up a hot dog for their kids. This woman’s husband is a software engineer, I’m pretty sure he can figure out a Samsung microwave.
Occasionally I even catch myself telling my husband the dumbest and most obvious things like “his underwear is in his drawer” or “don’t forget her snack.” I’ve said both of these things just this week. My husband now tries to ignore me after his 800th time of stating with exasperation, “It’s not my first rodeo, B.” But it’s so hard to stop it before it comes out! A former media CEO and mum with three grown children remembers her husband telling her “You may be CEO at work, but you are not CEO at home.”
Which makes this next point about mumsplaining all the more important — we need to be aware when we’re mumsplaining our own partners. Both partners need to acknowledge that while being home might not generate income, it’s a full-time job and in order to be good at it, the parent at home needs to have the autonomy to do what they want and need to do. Backseat driving on how your husband does or does not cut the lunch sandwiches is not helpful.
Michael and I started out as a dual income family, but my career ascent accelerated when he decided to retire in 2012. In knowing that I am not the first line of defence for sleepovers, homework, track uniforms, doctor appointments, dinner prep, and dog grooming, I don’t hesitate to raise my hand for that last-minute opportunity on a deal or high-profile meeting. And, frankly, I’m able to take better care of myself instead of being all consumed with the needs of the mini humans in my house. It’s a partnership in which we both support one another, while respectfully staying in our lanes.
The truth of all of these scenarios is that in order for modern-day dads to be confident and comfortable in their parenting roles, whether they are primary caregiving parents or not, women also need to learn to lean out of the need to direct every move. And in the meantime, everyone around them needs to provide advice only when asked. I know, it’s so hard when you just ... can’t … help but blurting out the proper way to secure the pacifier hook to the shirt or how to fold the stroller with one hand while holding groceries. But, I promise you, you can do it. You can do anything for 10 seconds, even hold your tongue as you walk on by and perhaps say to yourself “that kid is lucky to have such a great dad.”
Bethanie is Director of Global Partnerships at Google. She is a tireless women’s advocate, particularly on the topic of breadwinning women. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her family.