I listened the other day as my husband told a friend he had to rearrange a work call because he’d be watching our son. “Daddy daycare, eh?” his colleague replied.
My husband laughed. It’s not the first time he’s heard that expression, or even the fifth, I imagine. But every time I hear it, I’m struck by how wrong it sounds. He does an equal share of the caring for our child, and then some. My job has fairly set hours; his offers more flexibility, so he is the parent who picks up our son at preschool every afternoon. And he is often the one getting dinner ready while I’m commuting home.
This does not make him any kind of superhero, Mr. Mom, or any of the taunts that the angry men of the internet have for those they deem insufficiently manly. It means he is a dad. But even if we didn’t split caregiving responsibilities, he wouldn’t be the backup parent simply because of his sex. So why is the time he spends keeping our toddler alive labeled “daddy duty,” “daddy daycare,” or my least favorite — “babysitting” — whereas what I do is just called parenting?
Do any of these descriptions rank among the great insults in history? No, but they do seep into — and ultimately limit — how we understand modern fatherhood in ways that do not benefit anybody. Here’s why it’s finally time for those kinds of phrases to go:
1. They’re simply not based in reality.
Gone are the days when dads worked and moms stayed home with the kids — as are the days when a “family” meant a two-parent, heterosexual household with one or more biological children. Nowadays, just a quarter of couples with kids live in a family in which the dad is the only one who works, compared to 1970 when that was true for almost half of families. And fewer than half of kids in this country live in a “traditional” household with two heterosexual, married parents. Fathers also spend triple the number of hours parenting as they did in 1965 according to the Pew Research Center (though generally still not quite as much as mothers). The number of dads who stay home with their children has doubled since the 1980s.
On an emotional level, dads take parenting every bit as seriously as moms do. Fifty-seven percent of dads say parenthood is central to their identity, much like 58 percent of moms — and millennial fathers are more likely to say parenting is a core part of who they are than Baby Boomers. So the notion that moms are the primary parents and dads are just the stand-ins falls short at a practical level as well as on a gut, personal one.
2. Phrases like “daddy daycare” perpetuate the stereotype of the bumbling, hands-off dad.
A 2016 study looking at how expectant mothers and fathers are influenced by TV portrayals of fatherhood led to some intriguing findings: 1) TV dads are often portrayed as clueless and incompetent; 2) they’re never really asked to get better at parenting; and 3) real first-time dads who watched a fair amount of TV had a negative view about fathers’ importance to childhood development.
Though there hasn’t been research looking specifically at how phrases like “daddy daycare” influence stereotypes, there’s reason to believe they also shape perceptions of gender roles at home.
“That related body of work would lead me to believe that yes, the way we talk about men as parents versus women as parents has an effect on how men and women actually enact those roles in families,” Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of Human Sciences and Psychology at Ohio State University and a faculty associate of the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy, told HuffPost. Particularly because fathers’ roles are less socially scripted than women’s roles, she argued, and because they are, to a certain extent, in flux.
That’s not all. Schoppe-Sullivan worked on a study that found on non-workdays, dads tend to relax while women do chores, whereas when men are watching the children or doing chores, women help out. Talking about fatherhood as though it’s a finite, limited thing can absolutely contribute to the sense that moms are always on the clock whereas dads are just on call.
“All you have to do is say, ‘Do we say ‘mommy duty’ or ‘mommy daycare?’ No, it doesn’t make any sense,” Schoppe-Sullivan said. “That, right there, that’s the face validity of it. At the very minimum, those phrases reflect that gender roles haven’t become egalitarian in terms of parenting. But do they also then continue to contribute to that state of affairs? I think they do.”
3. Words shape policy.
For every person annoyed by phrases like “daddy daycare” there’s another ready to rail against an “overly politically correct” culture that takes offense at just about anything (hello, Facebook commenters!). But language shapes public perception, and public perception drives public policy.
“If those perceptions are pervasive, that you know, basically, parenting work is assumed for mothers regardless of whatever else they’re doing — you know, they could be CEOs working 60, 70, 80 hours a week — but it’s assumed it’s optional for fathers, that perception also shapes policy,” said Schoppe-Sullivan.
“When we, and I hope we do, decide to give paid parental leave, are we going to give that to mothers? Are we going to give it to fathers? Are we going to do something equal or something different for mothers and fathers?” she asked. “Those types of things will then feed back into interactions in real families and how mothers and fathers are able to negotiate with each other regarding gender roles and parenting.”
Case in point: When President Donald Trump spoke about paid leave on the campaign trail, he promised maternity leave, but not family leave. That changed when he unveiled his proposed budget, but it’s still easy to see how talking about dads as though their role isn’t as important can influence the structures and systems that shape how they parent.
All of which is why, hopefully, phrases like “daddy daycare” will stay behind in 2017.