In a recent Atlantic piece, Alexis Coe writes about different expectations of and reactions to mothers and fathers. On the one hand, people expect “very involved” fathers to do less than “very involved” mothers. On the other hand, when fathers do the same thing as mothers they are praised, while mothers remain invisible. Coe argues for people to react to involved fathers in a way that “is not judgmental or evaluative, but still positive.”
While I agree that fathers should be as involved as mothers and engage in all aspects of parenting, I don’t have a problem with praising the actions of involved dads. Being evaluative means considering the value or worth of something. In this case, fathers who take care of their children are engaging in a very worthwhile activity. To be fair, mothers do much of the valuable work of caregiving. In an ideal world, we might not speak of “mothers” and “fathers” but of “parents”—and we might praise all parents for the important work they do. But we are not quite there yet.
Coe suggests that when people react in the wrong way (perhaps in the form of misguided praise), gender differences, rather than equity, will be encouraged. She gives the example of parents avoiding calling their daughters “pretty” or “dolls.” But the other side of this is that parents instead call their daughters “smart.” While we might not want to flip it completely by calling sons “dolls,” we should encourage more nurturing behaviors in boys and men.
Consider how much we praise women who succeed in business and politics. Think Madeleine Albright, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Sheryl Sandberg. Men in similar positions don’t receive as much attention. My point is that we want more women in business and politics and we react (mostly) favorably when they get there. I think it’s okay if we do the same for men.
I don’t want to overblow this issue. I’m sure Coe and I would agree on a lot. I just think there’s room for superdads.
Gayle Kaufman is Professor of Sociology at Davidson College and a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholar. She is author of Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century (NYU Press, June 2013).