There are lots of ways that parenting is breaking through divisive gender expectations, particularly for men.
I see dads walking through the mall holding onto princess tote bags and wearing tiaras.
I know full-time single fathers that are absolutely dominating this whole parenting deal with no physical or financial assistance from the other parent.
I absolutely know father figures that are at least as active in their children’s lives as the mothers.
All of which deserve to be celebrated – both for breaking gender stereotypes and even more importantly, for that child having an awesome caregiver regardless of what their gender is.
It’s great that more and more guys are taking on (if slowly in some cases) more nurturing parental roles that defy traditional gender expectations for fathers, which are focused on primarily earning money and being the disciplinarian.
Women, on the other hand, can still often feel trapped in the traditional expectation that good parenting naturally correlates with them being women.
Basically, cultural generalizations say that women are born to bear children so they should be naturals at raising them, and men are not so they are bound to suck at it.
This stereotype makes it more difficult for both men and women to be good parents, while ignoring the fact that trans women cannot bear children and trans men can.
And parenting is hard enough without having to deal with society making assumptions and judgments about you and your ability to do it well based on your assigned gender.
So let’s unpack some myths about parenting I’ve encountered through personal one-on-one conversations, group forums, and informal surveys I personally circulated for my own curiosity.
Myth #1: Most kids don’t have fathers. So a man being in the same room with his child makes him an exceptional parent.
This myth comes first and foremost because it is one of the most frequently reiterated fallacies that most kids don’t have dads. Search and search though I might, no such statistic has been published to date.
Instead according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, approximately 33% of children currently live in homes without biological fathers – including military families split by deployment, cases of deceased or unknown fathers, and orphans that actually don’t have either parent.
Gut reaction – that is 33% or 24 million kids too many. It’s heart-wrenching and awful, but it is also severely less than 51%.
Everyday there are dads that are way more interactive with their kids than the sofa. Men are capable of being awesome parents and setting their expectations low is insulting.
It also works to place the bulk of parenting responsibility on women, which can stunt their ability to reach fulfilling self-actualization that could provide personal balance and insight to make them more well-rounded parents.
Myth #2: Moms and dads get treated equally as parents by society.
In some situations, sure. Maybe married couples experience greater equality of parental expectations from society than split couples or single parents, but every single family and situation is unique.
It is that very uniqueness that means gender discussions can never be complete – they have to be conversations, fluid and ongoing and flexible.
One topic for consideration is the fact that local surveys I circulated in Wisconsin showed discrepancies in the way male and female parents are treated or at least in how they think they are treated.
First of all, women were more likely to seek out information from experienced parents and outside sources such as books and credible websites. Women also reported more specific and personal questions and comments on their lifestyle (such as marriage, custody, and living situations), their ability to parent, and the perceived effectiveness of their parenting.
Men, on the other hand, reported almost exclusively positive input on their children’s behavior and appearance and on their overall parenting ability, if they could even recall receiving input at all.
What this kind of outlook creates for many mothers is a frantic state of constant stress and self-doubt no matter how phenomenal they actually are as parents. Many women feel pressured to anticipate every potential prying judgment complete strangers might make on their kids and parenting abilities.
Women who are absolutely, hands-down amazing parents constantly researching various parenting techniques, the best educational and recreational programs in their area, doing background checks on babysitters, taking their kids to swim lessons, creating open and honest discourse from birth, and cutting out personal lives, personal expenses, personal time . . . they are saying things like, “Well, I hope I don’t screw up too badly” and “I hope I’m doing something right.”
For the moms who are putting themselves through school and wearing clothes until the threads melt off their body (or the residual food-flung residue of silverware training begins to physically revolt) or working multiple full-time jobs so their kids can get into private schools, it can be absolutely crushing to be told that . . . “You really should clip their nails shorter (or not quite so short)” or “That fabric really isn’t ideal” or “Are you sure he should play with dolls?”
Meanwhile, a father might be playing violent video games with a beer in his hands surrounded by sailor-mouthed companions, but because he is doing so with a newborn within three feet of him, the guy is heralded.
On the other hand, dads that do make a conscious effort to be active in their kids lives are sometimes ignored or passed over by others like teachers, day care centers, and other caregivers.
For instance, if both parents show up to a parent-teacher conference, the woman is far more likely to be approached regarding their children and men are often ignored.
This type of discrepancy can crush women and stunt men.
Myth #3: Women are naturally more responsible and better at child-rearing because their bodies say so.
This myth is derivative of a lot of different cultural messages being whirred around us lately. It’s based on this notion that biology made the sexes different, which is physically true.
The kink in the logic, however, occurs when those biological differences are dichotomized and assumed to directly correlate with gender and assumes there’s a gender binary and everyone is cisgender.
Or said in plain English, females are best are raising children and males suck at it primarily because of their gender.
Which is false. While women and trans folks with uteruses are able to bear children and men and trans folk without uteruses aren’t, that’s about where having a physical body part and parenting-related ability causation ends.
Gender doesn’t cause or imply innate or inherent parenting ability.
From a young age, females are indeed socialized to focus on caregiving from playing with dolls and babysitting whereas males are socialized against it as being “girly” or “for women only.”
So it often plays out that more women than men are comfortable with being a nurturing parent.
But that doesn’t mean either gender is innately better or worse at parenting simply due to their gender. It’s a lot more complex than that.
There are definitely women who are just not cut out to be moms. Many responsibly opt out of parenting while others parent poorly. In fact, 40% of child abuse and neglect comes from mothers and only 18% from fathers.
There are great mothers and terrible mothers, great fathers and terrible fathers, and an entire spectrum of intermediate possibilities.
Myth #4: Pregnancy is only a blessing in marriage and a punishment for the unmarried woman’s promiscuity.
The granddaddy of all myths – this one tormented my own personal experiences and according to my surveys, had similar detrimental effects on other single mothers.
I waitressed throughout my pregnancy, which apparently made me a walking survey on lifestyle choices. I would stand at tables earning my $2.33/hour just to hear, “Are you married?” “Engaged!?” “Where is the father?” “What are you doing with your life?” “But you are going to marry him, right?”
From college-aged co-workers, “I think when I get pregnant, I’ll get married first.”
Brilliant. At 21 years old just as I was about to enter one of the most prestigious undergraduate creative writing programs in the country, I just thought, “Gee! Now seems like just the perfect time to cook up a kid!”
Although it wasn’t the most convenient occurrence in my life, (nor was getting a phone call at the dawn of my third trimester from the girl my boyfriend was sleeping with . . . ) it has honestly and miraculously transformed me into one of the strongest, most ambitious, tenacious people I have ever met.
I know it’s cliché to say that becoming a mother magically changed me – which is fine because it didn’t.
Making difficult decisions daily that called into question my morals, values, strengths, weaknesses, my dedication to another person for the rest of my life, learning that forgiveness doesn’t have to be naïve or amnesic – that magically transformed me into someone who also happened to be quite happily raising a child.
I’ve never been a married parent. Lots of them are happy. Some of them are not. Same as unmarried parents and non-traditional households.
Giving birth to a human life is not inherently a blessing or a curse. Just like every single possible occurrence on this planet, it can be a billion different experiences for a billion different people.
Myth #5: There’s only one way to be a “good” parent
The reason there are myths about parenting is the same reason there are myths about gender and stereotypes about race – we keep ignoring the vast and phenomenal individuality of humanity.
As a parent and a person, I firmly believe that everybody that decides to parent a child should do so whole-heartedly and selflessly.
Cultural expectations should not be based around cis/heteronormative, confining gender roles because “traditional” parenting itself is a myth.
There are plenty of dysfunctional nuclear families (mom + dad + kids) with all of the presumably right parts. It is damaging to everyone involved to impose gender expectations on parents and guardians.
Single parent households and non-traditional families have proven their ability to produce some pretty amazing offspring (remember Zach Wahls schooling us on preconceived notions concerning gay marriage/families?) .
Perpetuating gendered expectations on parents drive deeper than just perpetuating unbalanced perceptions of heterosexual partnerships. They perpetuate stereotypes that inhibit a whole spectrum of strong, amazing families from operating smoothly.
What actually matters is that anyone who is going to play an active role in a child’s life needs to dedicate themselves to that cause.
Any society that cares about its future generations needs to support the families that are putting forth the time, love, and energy necessary to care for children – regardless of what they look like or which boxes they check on paperwork.
Kelsey Lueptow is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s a small town amateur yogi, poet, and feminist from Wisconsin. She’s a single mother and seasonal waitress working on a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Women’s Studies. Caffeine addict and book enthusiast, Kelsey spends her time playing with her son and hanging out at coffee shops.