Family & Friends

Fathers—Judged By a Different Standard?

Great fathers deserve special credit because they do more but also because they do it despite the fact that our expectations are so much lower for them as parents.

Just as there is for our mothers, we have a day each year when fathers are recognized with a holiday. Families gather, cards and presents are offered, and phone calls are placed. We thank them for loving us, taking care of us as children, and also for setting an example for us as parents ourselves. But like mothers, they are rarely ideal, and many fail us in various ways.

As we celebrate our fathers, it should be acknowledged that while some fathers are wonderful, they are judged by different standards than mothers. To say a woman is a “bad mother” is a grievous insult and indictment of her character. However, the term “bad father” carries a much lesser punch. As parents, the expectations for fathers have been traditionally fewer, and many men are considered adequate or even good if  they meet the minimum requirements.

In some families, the measure of a good man and good father is that he makes a living, doesn’t drink too much (most nights) and is not violent. Others are given credit for simply sticking around. So many children have absent and/or negligent fathers that families where fathers are simply present are seen as lucky. They are called “intact families.”

If a mother dies or abandons her family, it is considered a major event, a tragedy. She is seen as the heart of a family, and her connection to her children inviolate. Historically, fathers have been much more likely to leave their children, and many do so without a backward glance. Because humans (and other mammals) need so many years of direct care, much of it, like the feeding that a mother can provide, makes the bond between an infant and mother naturally stronger. But evolutionary biologists believe that one of the prime reasons males grow bigger and stronger is so they can protect their females during the long periods when she is pregnant, breastfeeding, and otherwise less able to fend for herself.

All mothers know that there is no time in their lives when they feel more vulnerable as when they are pregnant and nurturing an infant. The support of a partner is something that helps enable her to be a good and attentive enough parent to her children. And any woman who has been betrayed or abandoned during these years knows the extra measure of devastation it brings.

Social conventions have developed that have kept roles codified so that women have been caregivers and men breadwinners. Things have changed so that most women also earn money, but the sharing of financial responsibilities has not led to a corresponding sharing of domestic duties. Of course there has been progress—most fathers now change diapers, cook, and shop for their families. But all too often, when he does so he is seen as doing something extra or generous, whereas a woman is just expected to do these things.

Back in the days when Jane Pauley was co-host of The Today Show, she featured a couple who were there to talk about how they shared household responsibilities. The husband went first. He brought out a scrolled paper that listed an impressive roster of about 20 things he did each day. Then his wife unscrolled her list: it was comically long. It took up more almost two feet of paper and as she read through each item, the word endless came to mind. Pauley finally interrupted her, the point made in starkly visual terms.

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