I just came back from a weekend in London, where I had the same conversation repeatedly. Considering that I was at a professional conference, you’d think that the conversation would have revolved around my work in some way. And while I did have plenty of those conversations too, what really struck me was the number of times the topic evolved this way:
Stranger: So, do you have kids?
Me: Yup, five.
Stranger: WOW! Who is watching them?
Me: Their father OR my husband. (Sometimes I even answered “my husband, their father”, just to spice things up.)
Stranger: WOW! How can he manage all that?
Me: Umm…..I’d like to think he’s just as capable as I am….
Why is it that it’s so natural for people to think that men physically can’t take care of children and the house (especially their own children and house)? Why is it easier to believe that men can be successful businessmen, lawyers, doctors, financiers, but that they can’t figure out how to load the dishwasher or boil a bag of pasta for dinner (or heck, order pizza if absolutely necessary)? Why do people assume that men can dress themselves appropriately on a daily basis but laugh endlessly at the thought of a man dressing his children?
Such stereotypes not only endorse the notion that men are incompetent child-minders, but give them an opportunity to shrug off their responsibility when the need arises. Why would we want to open that can of worms? These questions are not coming from a place of feminism – I do believe in the notion of separate but equal when it comes to structuring a family (after all, it would be really inefficient if both husband and wife undertook the exact same tasks at all times). I also understand that if we want our children to be raised by their parents (and not by a babysitter), one of the parents must be home when school is over. I am comfortable with the fact that in our case that person is me four days a week and my husband one day a week. That may not be an equitable division of home labor, but it works for us and it gives our children a solid understanding that both Mom and Dad can run the ship independently – and can have a serious career.
I’d like to suggest that for the most part, raising children is just as difficult for women as it is for men – it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world (and is certainly harder for some parents and in some family circumstances than in others). But (I would hope), we don’t mock our colleagues when they struggle with work. Why should we do so for our spouses (or exes who are co-parenting)? Instead of poking fun at men who can’t make ponytails, why not teach them how? Or offer alternatives? Instead of assuming that fathers won’t be able to bathe the kids or keep the house clean, let’s assume they can, and give them an opportunity to do so by taking a women’s night out (or, gasp, a small vacation by yourself or with some girlfriends?!) Let’s empower men instead of putting them down – I am pretty sure that being positive will not only create more cohesive families but more capable fathers both in this generation and in the ones that come.