‘Dads and Diapers Don’t Mix,’ sounds like a terrible rallying cry. One can hardly imagine anyone willing to wear a T-shirt with that mantra. Nonetheless, I’m going to give a shot at explaining why I think it might be a necessary one.
Like many slogans, the sentiment expressed is meant to be attention-getting rather than being a completely erudite explanation of an issue. For the record, I think it is perfectly fine for fathers to change their babies’ diapers. What I oppose is the thinking that often goes along with publicly promoting the idea that dads should be more involved in their infants’ lives.
I can’t help noticing the difference between what we used to expect and laud in men a few decades ago and what we now venerate. Looking back, some men of the Greatest Generation were wonderful dads; some were lousy ones. The rest ran the gamut in between. As individuals, some shot baskets with their sons, taught their daughters to change a flat tire, and offered wise counsel. Conversely, others were silent backdrops to their children’s lives, unskilled in building an emotional relationship. Generalizing about them as a group, they felt a responsibility to defend civilization and provide a safe world for their wives and children. They prided themselves on being providers, giving their families food on the table and a home in which to live.
Today, we seem to focus on husbands and dads morphing into wives and mothers. The most praised dads wear baby carriers and walk the floor at 2 A.M with crying babies. They pitch in equally with household chores and, as one popular video clip I saw showed, let their five-year-old daughters paint their dads’ toenails pink. I don’t necessarily object to all the items on that list, but I do think that it makes an unhealthy presumption. That is, that both sexes should be equally interchangeable and responsible for everything, whether we are speaking of financial or household responsibility.
Most likely, my daughters will tell me that this is the new reality. Since many families cannot meet their basic financial obligations, let alone afford anything extra on one income alone, both spouses need to work. In that case, I can well understand why child-raising duties need to be equally shared as well. But, perhaps, instead of making paternity leave as ubiquitous as maternity leave and agitating to increase both those perquisites as well as mandating government-sponsored day care, maybe, just maybe, we should think of changing policies so that devoting oneself to raising a family and running a home becomes, once again, a respected and doable option for women.
Let me give one example. I know that men are capable of feeding bottles to babies. Very often, that bottle is filled with milk that their wives expressed in the car as they drove to their jobs or in the break room at work. After all, they want the best for their babies and if mother’s milk is possible, that is their first choice. But the job of feeding breast milk just became more time-consuming. Pumping takes time and feeding takes additional time. A brilliantly efficient natural system has become cumbersome. However, that isn’t the worst aspect. While the nutritional value of breast milk is undeniable, that is only one of its benefits. The skin-to-skin contact, the gaze of pure adoration from a baby at one’s breast, the hormonally inspired bonding, and the spiritual dimension of breast-feeding are sacrificed when mothers cannot stay home. As someone who believes that God created both male and female bodies, I don’t think that it is just an incidental quirk that mother’ bodies are made for breast-feeding, while fathers’ bodies are not. When, for whatever reason, the best option isn’t available, the number two choice becomes the best choice. What we shouldn’t do is make the first choice less attainable.
I probably changed five hundred diapers for each one my husband changed. I read 500 stories for each one he read, and tied 500 shoelaces for each one he tied. For which I am grateful. His shouldering of the financial responsibility for our household allowed me to be a full-time mother. My being a full-time mother allowed him to focus on building a business. We each supported the other and our children, but we each gave the majority of our attention to one area, rather than dividing each area by 50%. I think that benefitted each of us individually and our marriage and family as a whole.
It is wonderful for fathers to feel close to their children. It is less wonderful when we promote the fallacy that mothers and fathers are identical. Cultivating a healthy family is more than an economic calculation. If, as a culture, we truly thought it was important, we would be more concerned with making policies to further that aim rather than focusing specifically on foolishly egalitarian policies that encourage women to flourish in the workplace.
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