When my son was 3, my wife and I rushed him to the emergency room. Bouncing from couch to chair in our living room, he had slipped and crashed into a coffee table. The pediatrician and the nurse explained how to care for his five stitches. At some point, it dawned on me that neither one made eye contact with me, even after I asked a question. They gave directions to my wife only. Soon after, I was bringing my older son to school, and his teacher asked me: "Would you tell your wife to pack an extra pair of shoes for Jake tomorrow?"
Admittedly, I'm not eager to pack the shoes, and my wife and I easily slip into classic gender roles. But at the same time, my better nature cringed. Why should I so easily be let off the hook?
These days, fatherhood is trendy. Fathers are either celebrated or challenged — or both — in a flurry of dad memoirs; a new TV sitcom, Hank; and a Clive Owen film about a widowed father raising his kids solo. President Obama recently launched a series of town meetings on responsible fatherhood. His central message is that fathers need to step up and carry their share of the parenting load.
But fathers, whether they are wealthy suburban corporate executives or urban convenience store clerks struggling to get by, are not likely to shape up because of this fanfare or because they hear these messages sporadically from our political leaders. These messages need to be in the air fathers breathe every day.
Schools typically don't send report cards to fathers post-divorce or invite them to graduations or parent-teacher conferences. At times when fathers answer the phone when a teacher calls, the first question they get is: "Is your wife there?" Sociologist James May's research indicates that health care professionals ask fathers 1 question for every 15 questions that they ask mothers when both are in the room, and rarely make eye contact with fathers. Hospitals and community centers routinely organize new-mom groups, but rarely groups for new dads.
Tom Kates/Courtesy of Harvard Graduate School of Education
Richard Weissbourd is a child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and School of Education ... and a dad.
In one sense, these people are simply responding to reality. While more fathers are taking on greater parenting responsibilities, only about 10 percent of fathers in this country are the primary caretaker.
But what if we all raised the bar? What if a teacher reminded me to pack the shoes for the field trip? What if pediatricians urged mothers to make sure fathers periodically bring the kids to checkups? What if religious leaders regularly asked noncustodial fathers how often they visit their kids, and asked all fathers whether their children confide in them? And what if President Obama and other political leaders, rather than just challenging fathers, challenged the rest of us to hold fathers accountable?
If mothers suddenly became as marginal a presence in children's lives as dads are now, the public outcry would be deafening. We can get much closer to gender parity in caring for our children. But we as fathers need to step up — and others need to expect and accept no less.