Father’s Day is around the corner and I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways my partner contributes to our family and how we can best appreciate him on Sunday. He is present, playful, and patient! From being our resident wrestler to our resident bread baker there are so many admirable traits, but what stands out to me this year is his dedication to femisist values.
It’s not that Matt and I are living the dream of gender equality. We are a fairly typical hetero couple and our traditional gender roles influence our household in all sorts of traditional ways. Despite his intellectual commitment to standing against sexism, he still struggles to put the kids clothes away in their correct drawers and could easily fall into a routine of eating cereal for dinner multiple times a week. Things like home organization and meal planning in addition to keeping up with playdates and birthday parties, often fall into the “mental load” of mothering. If you’re unfamiliar with the mental load, read this.
I take for granted that most fathers these days want to be hands-on. So for me, what sets Matt apart, is that when shit hits the fan and the burden of family life falls on me, we have a shared language for how our patterns are not ok, and why, personally and politically, things have to change. And then, he gets it. Because he agrees, in principle. We talk gender equity all the time. So much so that I have started bringing the concept to expectant fathers in my birthing classes. Through my personal experience at home and working as a doula and birth educator I get to witness so many interpersonal relationships and see these patterns play out. I have developed a short but meaningful list of activities to keep men active and thinking during the birthing process and it feels important to do something similar with parenting responsibilities. I asked Matt to brainstorm with me and we whittled our thoughts down into three important ways men can step up in the age of #TimesUp, #AllMenCan, and #EverydaySexism.
1. DO TIME
The most important thing a father can do is develop a deep bond with his child. Building a strong relationship is beneficial for both father and child, but building that relationship requires time and effort. While, the ideal role of the father, in the early days is primarily as an ally to the mother-baby dyad, imprinting can start immediately with skin-to-skin, attending early pediatrician appointments, researching and supporting best feeding habits, changing diapers, wearing baby in a carrier, soothing, and getting baby to sleep. Paternity leave is essential for creating the conditions on which men can build a strong foundation with their child. This relationship can evolve into sharing a toddler mattress to keep monsters away in the middle of the night, attending many birthday parties, and more pediatrician appointments. All working parents find it a struggle to put in quality time with their kids, but can you swing a more varied schedule: say work late two days a week in order to do an extended morning one day or an afternoon another? It might seem hard to manage, or frowned upon, but if it’s possible, it can not only make a difference in your relationship with your little one, it sets a great example for men around you. If not, there are always weekends! You’ll never see more dads solo-parenting than on a Sunday morning in the playground. Solo-parenting regularly, for at least 3 hours at a time (long enough that you have to assess and meet a little one’s varying needs – not just play!), makes you not only a better parent, it makes you a much better co-parent. (And it will still be much less solo parenting than moms do). Just like women on maternity leave will flounder as they come into their new roles, dads need to learn through trial and error. Dads will participate more when they feel confident and involved. Daddy Doin’ Work is a great hashtag to follow (or read the book of the same name) for more on this.
2. THINK MORE
You probably have an understanding that there will be more physical work to do once a baby comes. Who isn’t thinking ahead to diaper changes? And before kids, some couples have a pretty good split of chores. The thing about life after kids is that it is so much more than completing a series of tasks (diaper change, grab a ball, head to park). With a baby comes the completely exhausting and overwhelming cycle of deciding which diapers and wipes to buy and from where, finding a place to store them in your home, and scheduling when to get more. For the park, besides a ball, did you grab a sunhat and sunblock and a water bottle and snacks. Do you have snacks in the house? When was the water bottle last cleaned? The mental load of parenting is enormous, and again, falls predominantly on women. Even full time working mothers. Mothers track everything from how you introduce solid foods to, eventually, full meal planning, organizing classes, playdates, birthday parties, and holiday festivities, scheduling doctors appointments and constantly reorganizing closets to pack up what is to small and purchase new clothes and shoes. Let’s not forget the not-so-small-task of listening to and talking through all of the feelings that come a kids way. Burn-out is real.
While many fathers I know are happy to complete any parenting tasks they’re asked to - from changing a diaper to filling goodie bags - most men in our circle don’t carry the mental burden of what needs to get done on their own. Enter The Family Planning Meeting. A dear friend of mine recently introduced me to this idea. She and her husband meet in a bar with their laptops and calendars for an hour, once a week, before returning home to be with their kids. Matt and I have not figured out anything so fun, but we’ll either check in with each other on Sunday nights or Monday mornings and go over all the moving parts of the week and the needs of all four family members. From there, we are able to divy up tasks. This past week for example, we planned my daughters 5th birthday party and when I struggled to find the time to make her rocket ship pinata, we added it to his list. Balancing the mental load is not about Matt making the pinata, it is about sharing in the burden of planning it.
Parents sharing the mental load will definitely allow them both to be less stressed. For us though, fathers thinking more is important because it models good behavior for our children. It sets a new example of what male role models can be. Even if you had the ability to outsource much of the work, the point is being intentional with taking it on so we can restructure what we think of as male responsibilities and female responsibilities.
3. PLAY DIFFERENT
When our daughter was born in 2014 we had a strict no-pink gift rule and to this day do not own a Barbie. We’ve towed a hard line at home, because despite our rules and our modest attempt at modeling gender neutral behavior, the outside messages from peers are strong. Some people, including my parents will insist that boys and girls have natural preferences, regardless of nurture. To them, I say: watch this video. The level of invisible bias that goes into how we talk, soothe, play with, and educate little ones is enormously influential to their growth and development.
We all know there’s a difference between toys marketed to boys and girls. Somehow pink became a girl color and blue, a boy color. More interesting to us, is how gendered toys follow a pattern of asking girls to care for things that are alive and boys to manipulate mechanical objects or animals that are extinct. To balance the equation, the world seems to be leaning into introducing girls to STEM activities and embracing physical power. I went to my daughter’s pre-k classroom a few weeks ago to teach them about infant-care. We practiced diaper changes, swaddling, soothing, and baby wearing and it was just about the most adorable day of my life. Upon leaving, I asked if each child wanted to take home a diaper to play with on a baby doll but only 1 out of 8 boys in her class had a doll in his house. Knowing that boys turn into men, who turn into fathers, now is the time to help little ones develop care taking skills and empathy through play. Teaching our boys to nurture and care-take allows them to grow into men who take initiative and “see” the whole picture. It allows them to organically become fathers who can do time and think more. The work, that for many men right now, comes unnaturally.
New and expectant fathers who are in NYC are welcome to join us (Matt and I) to continue the conversation at Year One: A Fatherhood Masterclass. Our next session is on Father’ Day, Sunday June 16th from 10am-12pm at The Wild (272 Driggs Ave, Brooklyn NY). We’ll have @peterpandonuts!
Ashley Brichter founded Birth Smarter to provide education for new and expectant parents that is relevant and engaging. She is a Certified Cooperative Childbirth Educator through CEA/MNY, a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC), and a birth and postpartum doula. Ashley is a pelvic health and body-alignment enthusiast. She is trained in Comforting Touch for Labor, Infant / Child CPR, Rebozo Techniques for Childbirth, Dream Birth Imagery, Spinning Babies, and Prenatal Yoga.
Matt Regier is completing a Neuroscience PhD program at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. He has a special interest in learning and memory - influenced by a previous career as high school science teacher and two NYC public school teacher parents.
They are born and raised New Yorkers, started dating in high school, and because of very hard work, have two of the best children on the planet.