Dad vs. Mom: Who’s the Real Parent?

October 8, 2009 at 10:16 am , by

truitt“Dads are parents, too,” insists my new pal Steve Truitt. Steve (that’s him at the right) is a self-help author (Stop Waiting For Permission!), life coach and TV host who became the main caregiver for his two daughters, ages 1 and 4, after he lost a major daily radio gig. I got in touch with him after reading his recent post—on Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference website—about how women can support their husband’s efforts to be hands-on dads.

I didn’t need to ask Steve why he felt the need to defend the idea of dads being “real” parents. I was pretty sure I knew why. As a new mom, I was amazed and horrified at the extent to which parenting, especially parenting small children, is all about moms. It’s like dads don’t exist—and even more than that, that they simply aren’t welcome to become part of hands-on parenting. It’s “Mommy and Me” this, “Mommy-Baby” that, new mom groups and mommy websites. At the time my son came along—three years ago—even Parenting magazine corrected their own gender-neutral name with the tagline, “what matters to moms.”

It made me angry. I became a single mom by choice, it’s true, but that choice didn’t have anything to do with my feelings about fatherhood. For the record, I’m for it. I think it’s extremely important for kids that their dads are hands-on parents too, and I hope my son will be a great dad someday.  But the pressure for men not to be too nurturing starts early. My son’s a very masculine, rough-and-tumble boy, but he also loves his little-boy doll. My mom, looking a bit horrified, asked me why I’d bought it for him. “So he can learn to be a good daddy,” I answered. Duh.

To me, there’s an obvious connection. I had a friend growing up, Ginny, who literally didn’t know how to cook or clean—didn’t have a clue—because her mom never showed her how or included her in the housework, and in fact discouraged her from becoming involved. Same kind of thing. Somehow Ginny’s estrogen levels didn’t entirely compensate for her lack of home training.

What I saw very clearly as a new mom was that men get (often justly) criticized for not being more hands-on as parents, while at the same time there are constant cultural messages that childrearing is women’s work, and that men should butt out.  It kind of seems like the guys can’t win for losing.

“It’s fascinating, the world you enter as a parent,” Steve agrees. “It’s so momcentric.” And as a life coach, he had found that many of his clients who were fathers were grappling with the feeling of being left out of the parenting process from Day One.

Then Steve lost a major part of his income due to the recession and found himself home, taking care of the kids. It was a harsh transition, and one that many men are dealing with right now, he says—he sees plenty of guys like himself in his life-coaching practice.  They are good guys, and they love their children, Steve says, but as traditional men, they—like he—had placed their identity in their jobs and in their ability to be providers. This hands-on parenting while the wife brings home most of the bacon can be incredibly hard on their self-esteem, and that’s not something they generally feel safe talking about with anyone.

These men are struggling, Steve says, but here’s his exciting theory: Steve thinks that this recession has created a de facto men’s movement that may finally change parenting roles the way the feminist movement hasn’t quite been able to do.

“It’s a reluctant movement, forced by the economy,” he concedes, “but I think something really good is going to come out of it. Men who have lost their jobs are not just trying to help raise their children—they’re learning to enjoy it.” Steve sees this as potentially having the kind of profound effect on men’s roles that World War II and Rosie the Riveter had on women’s.

To me, other than the economic loss that’s causing it, this situation is win-win. Men get to experience the joy of hands-on parenting, and kids get to have the pleasure of a really involved dad.

In any case, for Steve it’s been a growth experience. “First of all, it’s given me a tremendous amount of respect for women,” he says. “It has also taught me great patience. I’ve complained a lot less, and reached out a lot more.”

So, what do you think? Are men are parents, too? Are we women ready to share our role as M.I.P. (Most Important Parent)? Or is men’s lack of involvement something we bitch about, but don’t really want to change?

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