It's not often that a work-at-home father finds himself in the crossfire of opinion writers. Yet, in between Taylor Swift dance parties with my daughters, that's where I've spent part of this month, the subject of two essays published in these very (virtual) pages.
The stories referred to a piece I wrote for the New York Times Motherlode blog in November. The first, by Anne-Marie Slaughter, provided a measured and philosophical look at the value in giving men more control of household tasks. The second, by Noah Berlatsky, was more anecdotal and self-reflective; he pontificated about the benefits of overpraising good parents.
Both of these essays provided interesting insight into the age-old-but-recently-in-the-news argument about the intersection of gender and parenthood. Still, with two strong perspectives from the grown-up point-of-view, the pieces almost completely ignored a key component to the gender/parenthood equation: Our kids.
The more I reread these essays, the more I found myself asking open-ended questions. What do kids think about domesticated dads? To what extent are our little ones cognizant of the degree to which we parents have different roles? Do they notice when we praise each other?
Most important, do they even care?
I started my investigation on a hike with my girls. My almost four-year-old was on foot; my 1.5-year-old was in a stroller. Both were marveling at ferns when I dropped the first query.
"Hey, so do you girls think there are any differences between Mommy and Daddy?" I asked.
Since my younger daughter can't really talk yet, the older one acted as their official spokesperson. "Yes, Daddy," she said after contemplating my question for a while. "Mommy wears pretty clothes, and you wear picture clothes."
"What do you mean, 'Picture clothes?'"
"I mean, Mommy wears dresses and blouses and skirts with pretty patterns on them," my Big Girl continued. "You wear T-shirts with pictures on them."
(By the way, this explains why I'm always so boring next to my wife in my daughter's drawings.)
The conversation continued from there. I pressed for more explanation, digging deeper and deeper to see if, in fact, there was something else upon which these children pinned their own sense of gender roles. My daughter's story went mostly unchanged.
No, they don't think it's weird that Mommy leaves the house to go to work and Daddy stays home. No, they don't think it's silly that Daddy has a sparkly Cinderella sticker on the back of his Smartphone case. No, they never tire of our Monday morning Target trips, our Sunday afternoon Safeway runs or my dervish-like dish-washing after big meals.
"Dad, you and Mommy do the same kind of things," she said. I felt vindicated.
But it wasn't enough. Assuming that my kids likely are biased, I tracked down some experts who could provide a differing view.
First on my list: Mary-Carter Creech, a family therapist in Seattle. Creech specializes in families that come together through adoption or foster care—families in which the children experienced a breakdown of traditional gender roles (and just about every other role) in their original homes.
As a result of these experiences, Creech said her kids focus more on "parent" than mom or dad.
"Generally speaking, there is this dynamic that plays out among parents: one becomes the nurturer and the other becomes the structurer," she explained. "What I've found is that it doesn't matter which parent takes on which role; so long as the parents serve in these capacities, kids will be happy."
Next, I tracked down Dr. Peggy Drexler, assistant professor of psychology at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
Drexler admitted gender roles are converging, citing a March report from the Pew Research Center that indicates dads are doing more housework and child care, while moms are engaging in more paid work outside the home.
She also noted that these trends are being driven by necessity. Exhibit A: The 2011 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that indicated that one in four U.S. kids are raised by single parents, almost double the average of other nations in the world. Exhibit B: The growing numbers of children being raised in families with same-sex parents.
While differences between genders always will exist, Drexler said the key is to deny limitations.
"Roles become troublesome when they become inflexible," she commented. "[Parenting] is a lot like coaching a team; some [kids] will respond better to toughness; others do better with a softer approach."
The bottom line: We, as parents, need to get over ourselves.
Sure, there's value in giving men more control of household tasks. And yes, overpraising has its benefits. But the practical perspectives that matter most are those of our kids.
Our kids crave structure. They want nurturing. They seek someone to take them to see wildflowers, braid their hair and make silly jokes about characters from Sofia the First.
On any given day, that someone can be Mommy or Daddy. It can also be both.