Societal parenting ideals are as pervasive as traditional gender stereotypes. It’s the same dynamic. The thought that a mother does certain things and a father does other things, as parents. We have yet to just call each other parents and let the roles fall where they may.
When you add in divorce, this dynamic plays out even more so. Why are the expectations so much greater for single mothers than single fathers?
When you become a single father.
I got divorced thirteen years ago when my kids were four and two. From the beginning, we agreed on shared parental responsibility — 50/50. It was all I was adamant about and my ex-wife understood. This was fair. We were both their parents and as much as we didn’t want to spend half the time without them, this was reasonable.
“When two people decide to get a divorce, it isn’t a sign that they ‘don’t understand’ one another, but a sign that they have, at last, begun to.”
– Helen Rowland
Most divorced dads I have known over the years have had weekends and one night a week with their kid(s), at best. Sometimes every other weekend. And it’s no slight on how each custody agreement comes together. There are a million factors that play an important role in this decision. No judgment.
The judgment is what comes from the societal expectations of the single father (and single mother).
When you get a compliment for doing something a single mother does every day.
I remember taking my kids out to dinner, on my own, when they were still little. Or to a movie. Or to the zoo. Almost every time we were out someone would say something very nice to me.
It’s nice to see a dad out with his kids.
They are so well behaved. You are doing such a good job as a father.
These are not things anyone would have said to a mother out with her kids. Because that is the expectation. That the mother can handle it and the father is some kind of hero for taking his kids to dinner.
Maybe it’s changing, but 13 years ago I was always patted on the back when I was out with my kids.
- For just being a father who loves his kids.
- For knowing how to change a diaper in public.
- For figuring out how to navigate a public bathroom situation, with children who are different sexes, without the use of a family restroom. (This was not easy by the way. All three of us went into the handicapped stall in the men’s room plenty of times and took turns while the others turned their backs. But mothers had to do this too — every day.)
- For carrying both kids in my arms.
- For going down the slide at the playground and being an active participant in playing.
“If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” – Jackie Kennedy
These are the reduced expectations of a single father.
I was just doing what a parent should do.
When you become the villain.
This also goes the other way — the expectations. I remember taking my kids to an aquarium when they were five and three. My son wanted two toys at the gift shop and couldn’t decide. He wanted both. Like a lot.
He went into a level ten meltdown. Uncontrollable tears and visual agony. I picked him up and held him, but it didn’t stop. I bought my daughter’s gift and one for him when he was screaming over my shoulder.
Everyone in the gift shop was staring at me. I thought they would be empathizing with me, but they weren’t. The glares were saying:
What did you do to him?
I left, carrying both of them. My son was still overrun with emotions. As we were leaving, people looked at me like I was a kidnapper. It’s not like he was trying to get away. He was just crying and I was consoling him. My daughter was smiling over my other shoulder.
I was parenting. I was experiencing a toddler meltdown in public. The thing people pass off as regular when children are with their mother. They also expect she can handle it. And if she can’t, they judge her.
These are the backward expectations of a single father (and a single mother).
When you get called Mr. Mom.
I’ve heard Mr. Mom many times in my life. I have always found it offensive. Not just to me, but to my ex-wife, and to all mothers who are expected to do the mundane daily ritual of adulting with kids, aka parenting.
This is where the gender stereotype of parenting lives. In the words “mother” and “father” and society’s definitions of these words. In same-sex couples, some try to figure out who is the mother and who is the father instead of reveling in the co-parenting.
Mr. Mom is an oxymoron of course. An impossibility based on the definition of mother.
But what if I was a nurturer? Did that make me more of a Mr. Mom?
I was just being a parent. A loving one.
The Sliding Scale of Parenting
Why are there still scales of parenting? One for mothers and one for fathers. Actually, there are probably more — add in one for divorced mothers and for divorced fathers.
But that excludes same-sex couples and trans parents. I am interested to understand the sliding scale of parenting in those relationships as well. Is there still an expectation that one act like a mom and one like a dad?
Why is the bar so low for single dads?
And why do single mothers often miss out on the accolades because of the inherent expectations?
I do think it can be a product of geographic, economic and societal stigmas, but parenting is still parenting. Shouldn’t we expect everyone to pull their weight equally?
If only it were that easy.
I am not a researcher. I am not a psychologist. I am just a single father who never wanted anything more in life than to be a father. I don’t expect any pats on the back for feeling that way.
“We never know the love of a parent till we become parents ourselves.” – Henry Ward Beecher