When people ask you about what you do, do you reply “I’m a mother/father” first?
Conversations around being a parent, especially in the media, often get loaded with these extreme terms. It’s as if being a parent is a constant source of worry and stress; or else it’s a constant joy — so much so that every other part of your life pales in comparison. Either way: being a parent isn’t just the most important thing in your life, it’s the ONLY thing, it’s who you are.
On The Cut, Erica Schwiegershausen writes about the wide-spread assumption “… that kids need and deserve all of the time, money, and attention you can humanly provide, and if you’re not willing to make tremendous sacrifices to ensure that, maybe you should think twice about becoming a parent.”
These assumptions, Schwiegershausen writes, are most often equated with women, as motherhood remains more highly-valued than fatherhood. Michele Obama, for example, described herself as a mother first and foremost, and yet we wouldn’t expect to hear the President say he’s a “father first,” nor do we criticize him for not saying it. Compare that to when Chirlane McCray, wife of New York City’s mayor Bill DeBlasio, said that she didn’t want to stay at home with her daughter because her career was an important part of her identity. The New York Post responded by labeling her a “bad mom.”
Over on Salon I recently discussed this issue with novelist Stephanie Feldman. It’s not hard for me to get through a social event without anyone, even people who know I’m an at-home dad, asking me about my son. Stephanie wrote about how it was the opposite for her, how even friends sometimes want to boil her down to simply being a mother. She resists that, both in public and at home, where she makes clear to her daughter that she isn’t just a mom, she’s a writer too.
Feldman said this isn’t just good for her, personally, it’s important for her daughter too. “If I am ‘only’ a parent — not just in my labor, but in my interests and relationships and all the rest — how will I let [my daughter] go when it’s time? It can be a great burden on a child to be the sole target of energy, a sole source of satisfaction in a parent’s life.”
The current culture of fear in which we live also contributes to this over-valuing of parenthood. So-called experts, their claims supported by the latest studies and reports, tell us how high the stakes are for our kids these days. It’s like parenting has become another job, and our childrens’ success a marker of our worth and value. We hear about the growing divide between the rich and the poor, the ever-rising college tuition costs, even the climate change crisis, and we worry about our kids not making it in what seems to be a dystopian future. It’s no wonder then that today’s working moms spend about as much time with their children as stay-at-home moms did in the early 70s!
So, as I’ve said before, we need to relax a bit about our worries. And we need to broaden the discussion around parenting too. You are not just a mother, or a father. Nor am I. We are human beings with aspirations that go beyond our domestic life, complex individuals who play many roles. Our kids may one day be in this position too, and it’s important to show them how to do it. This means taking some time off sometimes, to pursue a passion project or take a run or just hang out with grown-up friends. And it means making clear that, just as school is important for kids, work is important for adults.
Just a minute ago I snapped at my son because he was whining about getting dressed, and was distracting me from writing this essay. “Either cut that out or go downstairs, I’m working,” I told him.
“Sorry, dad,” he said, with no trace of hurt or upset in his voice. I’m glad he knows that I’m not only a dad — I have needs as a professional, and as a person, too.