In my more than seven years as a stay-at-home father, I’ve experienced many unusual moments. I’ve pretended to pour milk back in the jug to remedy an egregious error in milk-pouring protocol more times than I can count. I’ve lied about McDonald’s being out of French fries and I may have given my children the impression that Dunkin Donuts does not make donuts on the weekend. However, perhaps my most head scratching parenting moment was the time I was walking down my short driveway to check the mail, with one of my young children in my arms, and a woman walking by said, “Look at Super Dad!”
Even more confounding, this weird encounter was not an isolated incident. I’ve also been complimented for my parenting prowess while doing routine things like grocery shopping with my children or taking them to the doctor. I haven’t done extensive research on the subject, but anecdotal information I’ve gathered suggests moms do not routinely receive such praise for doing the bare minimum. The bar for dads is often so low that we can trip and fall over it, while moms would have to commandeer a helicopter to meet our society’s expectations for them.
I recently attended the 2019 Dad 2.0 Summit in San Antonio. The Dad 2.0 Summit is a gathering of parent bloggers, marketers, and brands who are committed to modernizing the perception and voice of fatherhood.
This year’s closing keynote at Dad 2.0 was a live taping of actor Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast. Shepard is a father of two. He and actress Kristen Bell together have two daughters and their public presence on social media as everyday parents has made them popular in the online parenting community.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Shepard and I was eager to get his take on the double standard for moms and dads I have observed as a father and read about in creative and entertainment industries. I asked him how he balanced creative work and fatherhood. And what were the specific challenges having young children presented.
A recent interview with award-winning author Lauren Groff furthered my interest in this particular question. When asked by the Harvard Gazette how she managed work and family she responded that while she understood the “vital importance (of this question) to many people, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done…until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.”
Motivated by Groff’s observation, I asked Shepard how he balanced fatherhood and creative work and how he felt about moms in the entertainment business being consistently asked about their family responsibilities and not dads.
Shepard’s response was unequivocal.
“I think it’s downright shameful how they talk to actresses on red carpets. The first question always for a mother is ‘How do you make it work?’ or ‘How do you juggle a career and a kid?’ The subtext is you’re probably a bad mother. That’s really what it’s after. They’re trying to shame them (by insinuating they) probably shouldn’t work. As innocuous as the question sounds, you start noticing that I’ve never been asked on a red carpet how I’m juggling fatherhood and three jobs.”
Shepard then echoed Groff’s sentiment that asking about balancing family and work is perfectly legitimate — in fact, many working parents are likely interested in the particulars — but the assumptions and biases underlying the question is problematic.
“It’s a fine question if anyone is genuinely interested in the logistics of our lives. I can explain that to them. We have a family calendar that gets consulted by my sister and my wife and myself and it’s a daunting document. It’s shifting. One of our biggest energy expenses is managing (family logistics). But, there’s no real shame attached to it for a dad, which I don’t want them to start shaming dads. I just want them to stop shaming moms. The path is more toward how they’re treating dads on that single topic.”
Shepard concluded by observing as I have in my public interactions as a stay-at-home father that there are other situations where expectations for fathers should be raised.
“I think there are other ways that the way dads are portrayed in commercials and TV that they’re incompetent and bumbling and all that stuff. It’s comedic. I like funny stuff, but it is sending a subliminal message that the bar is really low. You show up at two soccer games? You’re golden for the year.”
There is much work to be done to overcome entrenched societal norms and expectations surrounding gender, career, and family-work balance, but conversations like the ones with Shepard facilitated by the Dad 2.0 Summit are a step in the right direction. Of course, while conversation is good, actions are better. That’s why it’s important that men and fathers in particular work to raise the collective bar for all of us. Because everyone benefits when parenting is more widely understood to be a shared endeavor.
For far too long, the burden has fallen almost exclusively on women. Women have traditionally been the ones asked to sacrifice career and outside interests for the sake of family. To make the difficult trade-offs or to carry the double burden of earning money and shouldering the bulk of the domestic labor.
Despite significant change, a marked gender gap persists in the domestic sphere. For example, a Pew Research Study found while the average number of hours men spend on childcare per week more than tripled from 2.5 in 1965 to 8 in 2016, women’s average childcare time also increased from 10 to 14 hours per week. And moms reported spending an average of 18 hours per week on housework compared to 10 hours per week for dads. Another Pew Research Study found the percentage of dads who were stay-at-home parents in 2016 was just seven percent (versus four percent in 1989), while the percentage of moms who stay at home was 27 percent (versus 28 percent in 1989).
Research data and anecdotal experiences from Hollywood red carpets to central Florida suburban playgrounds support the idea that some progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go. We need to keep raising the bar for dads. And it starts with fathers challenging outdated gender norms surrounding work and family in their daily lives. Fathers are not bumbling and helpless. We are more than capable caregivers when we commit the time and effort to make parenting a priority. Shifting outdated gender stereotypes takes work. And a lot of that work starts right at home.