"You are a great cook!" my mother-in-law told me with something like wonder. She was staying with us over spring break, and had watched me put together a bare-bones stir fry. She seemed particularly impressed that I could cut chicken sausage fairly quickly without severing a thumb.
My mother-in-law knows her way around a kitchen. You might, therefore, think she was joking, or expressing at least mild sarcasm, when she overpraised my marginally competent food prep. But no; my mother-in-law doesn't do irony. She was truly and sincerely wowed. Her own marriage was very traditional. She stayed home and did the cooking and cleaning. Her husband worked, first in a factory and then directing workers for the municipal government. He maybe cooked scrambled eggs if there was an emergency, but that was about it. He had set her expectations for male domestic contributions low—and as a result she thinks her daughter won the lottery because her son-in-law can boil pasta and schedule playdates. Who am I to disabuse her?
One person who might think I should disabuse her is Matt Villano, who wrote an article a bit back in the New York Times explaining that he hates being overpraised as a dad for doing things that moms do all the time. According to him:
The act of labeling someone a "good dad" suggests that most dads are, by our very nature as fathers, somehow less than "good." That we don't care. That we're mostly cruel.
What's more, the phrase evinces a heinous double standard: It's not like strangers compliment women as being "good moms" for doting, loving and doing normal mom stuff.
Anne-Marie Slaughter nodded approvingly in her essay on The Atlantic last week. Men, she said can be great at domestic tasks; there's no need to overpraise them, or grade on a curve.
But while Slaughter pays lip-service to Villano's thesis, the bulk of her article is devoted to the very overpraising she claims to eschew. She enthuses about her husbands' cooking ability and his patience with the children, for example—two traits that, in a wife and mother, would in most cases simply be assumed.
Let me be clear—I'm not knocking Slaughter for praising her husband.
I do understand and appreciate the appeal of Villano's gender-bending macho domestic self-sufficiency—the ideal of tough, rugged competent parenting dad who doesn't need or want your social approval, damn it. Sometimes I wish I felt that way—and maybe sometimes I do even feel that way, for a little bit. But for the most part, and on most days, I'm uncertain enough about how well I'm doing as a parent or a partner that I'm happy to hear some kind words, whether from my nearest and dearest or, in a pinch, from passersby on the street. I know I'm not really an especially good cook, but it's still nice to hear that, in my mother-in-law's opinion, I'm good enough. I know that I don't really ferry my son about any more than any number of mothers ferry their children about—but it's still nice when, now and then, other parents at our school give me props for it. Humans are social creatures; we get a lot of our sense of ourselves and our status and our worth from what other folks say about us and how they react to us. Self-sufficiency has a place too...but if you give it the only place, it starts to be difficult to justify putting marriage and children at the center of your life.
The point then, I would argue, is not that men are condescendingly overpraised for domestic achievements. Rather, the point is that women are systematically underpraised for these same skills. Taking care of kids and running a home take a lot of effort and a lot of physical and emotional energy. I'm wowed by women I know who make hot lunches for their kids—something I certainly don't have the expertise or inclination to do. I'm wowed by women I know whose husbands are frequently out of town—or who, for that matter, are raising children on their own. I'm wowed by my wife, who manages to dress our son in flattering clothes, and to punctually buy new ones when he grows out of them. (I also greatly appreciate that she has taken over the purchasing of my wardrobe, so that I no longer look like I've been mugged by a J. Crew catalog.)
Slaughter suggests that by recognizing male domestic contributions, we could get to a place where the home is not seen as a gendered space. I think that's a great insight, and a worthwhile goal. Alongside it, though, or as a corollary, I'd argue that appreciating the work men do in the home is valuable because it can help to raise the status of that work. What men do has, after all, traditionally been seen as more important and more valuable than what women do. As men's investment in home rises, therefore, we can perhaps hope that the value society places on home might rise as well. This would be to the benefit not just of mothers, and not just of fathers, but of everyone in our work-and-autonomy crazed culture. Rather than hoping that dads' contributions can someday be as unnoticed as moms', we can maybe hope for a day when the domestic skills of parents of whatever gender are seen as worthy of praise—or even, occasionally (why not?) of overpraise.