Pewara Nicropithak / ProStockStudio / Mitrija / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In the lead-up to Mother’s and Father’s Day, the greeting-card aisle presents doors to two alternate universes. One is a wonderland of blooming flora and boats bobbing on tranquil lakes, where grateful baby animals snuggle their protective parents and everyone speaks in heartfelt but generic verse. The other is a cartoon dystopia where crudely drawn characters live out a stereotypical parenting farce. Here, every child is an unmanageable hellion or a perfect angel, mothers are chore-obsessed disciplinarians who must physically hide from the endless demands of their mob of loin-fruit, and fathers are … off golfing. Or grilling. Or on the toilet. It’s basically Family Circus, but with more fart jokes and everybody’s constantly drinking because they hate their kids so much. But in a funny way.

In the week before each parental holiday this year, I visited my local Target and CVS to sample the cards on offer. While there were a few that had expansive notions of mothers’ and fathers’ responsibilities, for the most part, the themes and symbols of both sentimental and funny cards reflected a stark division of gender roles in parenting: In card-world, mothers do everything, and fathers are an afterthought.

The messaging isn’t subtle, either. Some cards are very clear about which parent is considered more important. “Happy Mother’s Day to a woman who does it all!,” read one card. “You work. You cook. You clean. You nurture … You crazy?!” But the woman on the inside of the card has a happy enough expression, even though each of her limbs is engaged in a different task. A month later I found a Father’s Day card that said: “Father’s Day is in June … Because about a month after Mother’s Day, somebody went ‘Hey, wait a minute!’” (In reality, it took much longer. President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day a national U.S. holiday in 1914; it wasn’t until 1972 that President Nixon made Father’s Day official.)

The inside of a card that reads, on the outside: “Happy Mother’s Day to a woman who does it all! You work. You cook. You clean. You nurture …” (Julie Beck / The Atlantic)

A more scientific study of the themes of Mother’s and Father’s Day cards  looked at a batch in 2010. The researchers, Carol Auster and Lisa Auster-Gussman (who, fittingly, are mother and daughter) came to this conclusion: “Ritualized holidays tend to support the status quo, and traditional ideologies of motherhood and fatherhood,” of mothers as nurturers, and fathers as providing more utilitarian support. “The portrayal of motherhood and fatherhood on the greeting cards is important because these cards may act as agents of socialization, shaping individuals’ perceptions, regardless of whether the cards reflect the reality of parenting,” the study goes on to say.

Mother’s Day cards, they found, were much more likely to have cursive lettering and pastel color palettes, especially featuring purple and pink, while Father’s Day cards used more “bold” colors, like blue, tan, black, and red, and often had “whimsical” fonts. Mother’s Day cards tended to feature flowers, leaves, butterflies, bees and dragonflies, and Father’s Day cards were decorated with tools, stars, cars, and men’s clothing (like ties).

In terms of content, Father’s Day cards emphasized supporting the family economically, imparting practical lessons, and being the best—far more “Number One Dad” or “Best Dad Ever” sort of cards than mothers had. “It was like they needed an award, but there wasn’t a lot of depth in what they were achieving,” says Auster-Gussman, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Minnesota.

In contrast, Mother’s Day cards focused a lot more on what the mothers were doing for their children. The cards in the study that mentioned “the little things you do” were, without exception, Mother’s Day cards, and cards that talked about making a child feel loved were much more likely to be for moms, too.

Eight years later, my batch of cards indicated that the messages haven’t gotten much subtler. Many Mother’s Day cards featured chores, or referenced how much mothers are expected to do for their kids. Father’s Day cards evoked leadership or strength, or portrayed the dad as a superhero (though there were a couple superhero mom cards, too.)

Cards for both genders jokingly suggested that parents turn to drink to cope with the stresses of raising kids—though in card-world, dads are always drinking beer, while moms love wine and cocktails, seemingly without exception. (A public health study from 1980  expressed concern that greeting cards regularly suggest that “getting drunk is a natural and desirable concomitant of celebrations and that drunkenness is humorous, enjoyable, and harmless.”)

The fancier, more expensive cards for moms tended to feature rhinestones (a bejeweled dragonfly, in one notable example of Mother’s Day trope synergy), while high-end cards for dads were often given natural textures like leather or twine, or, once, the whole front flap was just a piece of wood. (“A strong father makes a strong family,” it read.)

There were many, many calls for moms to take the holiday to relax for once—by any means necessary. “This Mother’s Day, put out the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, lock the door, kick your feet up, and enjoy the peace and quiet,” one card read. And on the inside: “ … until they find a way in through the air ducts.”

(Julie Beck / The Atlantic)

“It seems to me they’re saying you’ve got this one day where you have the right to have a glass of wine, lock yourself in the bathroom, and not let anybody else in, but it’s only going to be a day,” Alexandra Jaffe says of the cards I showed her. Jaffe is a linguistic anthropologist at California State University, Long Beach, who has studied greeting cards. “Because the other 364 days, no one else in the family is going to do those things for you.”

One card suggested that even on Mother’s Day, harried mothers would find no respite. It ran through a “Mother’s Day Timeline” that started with “Awake at 6:00 a.m. to a kid stampede,” continued through errands and cleaning up kids’ toys, ending with “Fall fast asleep in the small corner of the bed the dog and husband haven’t taken.”

In Auster and Auster-Gussman’s study, they found that relaxing was a more prominent theme in Father’s Day cards. In my sample it seemed prevalent in both. “The difference I saw is when Mom was supposed to relax, it’s because she does so many things for the child,” says Auster, a professor of sociology at Franklin & Marshall College. “It’s never quite clear to me what Dad is supposed to relax from.”

That’s because a lot of Father’s Day cards don’t show dads doing much actual parenting. Dads in cards are also busy, but they’re busy with their hobbies. They’re golfing, they’re grilling, they’re fixing things, they’re camping and fishing and hunting, they’re watching sports, they’re telling corny jokes. They’re also, even if it’s never made explicit, busy with work. At least, they’re often wearing ties.

A lot of these themes fit into the stereotypes of fathers as providers, or as absent and disengaged from their kids, or as people who show love through action but not in words. But there is one persistent theme that remains mysterious: How did farting come to be emblematic of fatherhood? This association makes intuitive sense to me—Father’s Day cards have been referencing farts as long as I can remember—but when I really question why, it seems utterly inscrutable. I asked everyone I spoke to for this story for their theories. Perhaps mothers are expected to be more polite, some said. “Who gets to flout society’s rules of decorum? People with power,” Jaffe said. “That’s an indirect kind of power.” “That” being farting.

“Another explanation,” she went on, “could be that it evokes the intimacy of the nuclear family. Where you can do those things, and that’s part of life within the family unit.” Personally, the best I could come up with was that there’s a stereotype of men being gross and animalistic, but that’s men generally. What does farting have to do with being a father?

Maybe nothing. These cards are “almost more about being a man than they are about being a father,” says Emily West, a professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has studied gender and greeting cards.“You like pizza and relaxing. Is that about being a father, or is that about reasserting your hegemonic masculinity even though you’re a father and you perform care work?”

On the whole, there seemed to just be more symbols and tropes associated with fathers than with mothers. All those hobbiesboats and cars and beers and meat, and a surprising number of antlered mammals. Several cards featured an elk or a moose, meant, I assume, to evoke a majestic, rugged sort of masculinity, since, among antlered mammals, big antlers are signs of dominance, maturity, and sexual desirability.

Mother’s Day cards, in contrast, mostly featured people or text—the only recurring symbols, really, were wine, cocktails, chores, and flowers. “If what is most strongly associated with ideologies of motherhood is nurturing and caring, those in some senses are abstract,” Auster says, which could explain the discrepancy.

But there were also fewer funny Mother’s Day cards. Looking at all these cards in aggregate, one of the things that struck me most was how robust and extensive the shared vocabulary of dad humor is, and how comparatively meager the cultural lexicon of mom humor is.

(Julie Beck / The Atlantic)

Auster and Auster-Gussman suggested that perhaps, in American culture, motherhood is too serious of a thing to joke about. Most of the funny Mother’s Day cards that there were oriented their humor around the high standards for or hard work of being a mother. One card showed two cartoon owls eating bag lunches. “My mom gets up early every morning to dig up fresh, grass-fed worms from organic soil,” one owl says. “My mom goes to the bait shop,” the other says. The inside reads: “Whatever works, right? #Keepinemalive. Happy Mama’s Day!”  

“The scripts we have for motherhood traditionally, or normatively, fall so easily into sentimental expressions of love,” says John McMahon, a professor of political science at SUNY Plattsburgh. “And if that’s less acceptable, or less standard for dads, then we have to have something to fill that place, and we have to be creative about other cultural forms that fatherhood can take.” The cuddling animals and gratitude platitudes of the sappy cards seem to resonate more with stereotypical conceptions of motherhood, while funny cards might allow kids to express love to their fathers without getting too sentimental.

“Fathers are fair game to be made fun of in a way that moms are not,” West says. “For example, there’s a long history of the bumbling dad in sitcoms. I think fatherhood has been conceptualized as not as central to men’s identity, so it’s more open to making fun of … I think we just have more of a vocabulary around feeling [for] motherhood.”

(Julie Beck / The Atlantic)

There were several Father’s Day cards where the entire joke was that Dad doesn’t contribute to the family, and Mom does everything. “Dadequate:,” one said, in the style of a dictionary entry defining the word. “Meets Dad’s standards but is guaranteed not to live up to Mom’s.” Another listed a litany of questions under the heading “Stuff You Ask Mom,” and under “Stuff You Ask Dad” it just said, “Where’s Mom?” There’s a whole genre of cards designed for a celebration of fathers that essentially just tells them they’re useless.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards promote traditional and stereotypical ideas that still have power in American culture. But “they absolutely would not sell if they didn’t correspond to at least some dimension of lived reality, or an ideal that people hang on to,” Jaffe says. Perhaps the reason so many cards lean on stereotypes is that, when trying to come up with messages that will have the broadest appeal among American families, card companies find that these oversimplifications are reliable shared ground.

Still, greeting cards often fail to recognize less traditional family structures, or the ways that parents can transcend these gender norms. Dads are more involved with their kids than in previous eras, for one thing.

But a surprising subset of cards I saw did address underrepresented swaths of the parenting experience. There was a card recognizing nonbiological mothers that said “Motherhood requires love. Not DNA.” I saw one Father’s Day card for two dads. And I did find more emotional language in the Father’s Day cards than I expected—more mentions of love, and kindness. “When it comes to being a dad, you give all the love your heart can hold,” one reads. Another proclaims: “The best gift a man can give the world is to be a good father,” centering fatherhood in a man’s identity in the way motherhood is so often centered for women’s. And it’s no small thing that cards recognize all the labor that goes into motherhood, even though it often reads as a manic sort of laughing through tears and gritted teeth.  

“I don’t think you’re ever going to see greeting-card representations on the cutting edge of where relationships and communication are,” West says. “Greeting cards will always be following, for the most part.” As culture moves toward a more expansive view of parenthood, there will be greeting cards, toddling awkwardly behind.

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