Apa and his daughter Kōwhai. (Photo by Gem Wilder)

I’m not babysitting and mums are getting a raw deal: A dad on gender roles in parenting

After being told I’m so incredibly, breathtakingly lucky that my husband watches our children when I have to travel for work, this post by Brannavan Gnanalingam was like the first pinot gris after a very long day. I too long for a day when we are all allowed to be incompetent as parents. Bring it on! – Emily Writes, Spinoff Parents editor.

This post is illustrated with photos from real New Zealand dads! They submitted photos for us on Twitter #DadPhotos to use to show dads being dads. Where possible we would love to use families in New Zealand for our stories so if you have a family photo you’d like to share send it through to emily@thespinoff.co.nz.

Joe and his kids

You know, things would be pretty sweet if our own incompetence was celebrated. Imagine every mistake at your day-job being comedy gold – “haha, Brannavan, he’s so shit, what a joker, good one Brannavan.” Yet there is one job where incompetence is still turned into everyday comedic gold. And that’s being a parent. Or rather, a male parent.

Obviously this doesn’t apply to mothers. Mums are expected to lean in and be the perfect Type A while pretending to be a Type B geniuses in everything they do, including parenting. For dads, our starting level is set at “incompetent”. Many people are surprised if we do much more than 10 percent of parenting duties.

Now, I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky fellow. There’s a reason why I’ve had a stomach bug in every inhabited continent in the world, except for North America (for some reason), and that’s because I’m for the most part, a “it’ll be all right” kind of person. When it came to most baby-related things, I had no idea what I was doing in the early days. I still don’t really. I had never seen a nappy since I was toilet trained, excluding that one time we did that prank in high school involving Marmite. I would have watched a Youtube video about how to put one on, but I was worried about what the authorities might think of my search history.

Apa and his daughter Kōwhai. (Photo by Gem Wilder)

I hadn’t realised the first time I did the baby bath by myself that I should have had the towels and change of clothes ready before the bath. As the only vegetarian in the house, my sneaky attempts to propagandise vegetarianism via lentils backfired 12 hours (give or take) later. I probably should have learned how the car seat worked before I tried to put a baby in it for the first time, coming home from the hospital. And did you know babies needed to nap?

But how many mothers know their shit before a baby is born? Unless you’re the oldest child and your parents were strict Catholics, most of my new mother friends had little to no idea what they were doing either.

Aaron and his daughters Annalise and Kaia

But boy was I given a lot of rope. I couldn’t imagine a mother getting that sort of leniency. A baby crying in a restaurant? You, Mother, you’re as annoying as that time I ate pizza too quickly and burned the roof of my mouth. How dare your baby cry on the plane when I’m trying to get drunk by myself because it’s one time drinking alone isn’t judged but actually encouraged. God, why are you taking 20 minutes to strap your kid into the car seat while I’m waiting here blocking one entire lane of rush hour traffic because I’d really like your car park?

When I’m looking after the child by myself, I’m “babysitting”. Now if I was a teenager earning sub-minimum wage and drinking a bottle of vodka on the sly, then maybe I’d be a babysitter. Otherwise, it’s called being a parent. “Daddy Daycare” is apparently what my home turns into the moment my wife steps out of the house. I’d love to run a daycare. It’d play D.A.F’s Der Mussolini on repeat while the kids were forced to practise their slip catching, and parents would pay me in solid gold and overseas holidays. My home though: nah it’s child-proofed, kinda, and features three square meals a day.

“Ooh your wife is having a “night out?” How will you cope?” Dunno, the same way that I’ve managed to take care of myself the majority of my adult life except those times that I got those stomach bugs. When I’ve had to leave early from something to do my parenting duties, I’m frequently treated as if I’m not really rushing home to anything particularly important. My criticism of the patronising concept of “dad duties” isn’t however an open invitation. Dads, keep your own babies in your own house.

If there’s one thing this world needs more of, it’s a guy talking about how to be a mother. But bear with me. There strikes me as two ways in which the pressure on mothers to be perfect can be eased. One, we all get to be incompetent, regardless of assigned gender roles. Or at the very least, the fact none of us know what the hell we’re doing isn’t seen as that bad a thing. Two, dads everywhere could up their game: for starters, learn to cook, clean, bathe, change, and hang out. Jokes about incompetent dads need to become as unfunny as your mate when he’s drunk too much and is provoking a fight with a random stranger for no real reason and you’re all looking at your shoes.

Dan and his son Ārama

I suppose the answer’s a combination of both: lowering the expectations for mothers and raising the expectations for fathers. If society has an expectation that children will be raised perfectly but that half the parents get a free pass to be half-arsed, it’s not particularly realistic to put all of that burden of perfection on the other half. And, if your dice as a dad is that you want to pretend to be some ten year old boy who just needs to be mothered when confronted with a baby? Dude, I hope you’re not taking care of my aeroplane or providing for safer communities together or defending me on my criminal charges or whatever it is you think manly men should be doing instead.

Brannavan Gnanalingam was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1983 and is a writer and reviewer based in Wellington. His fourth novel, A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse, was published by Lawrence & Gibson in June this year.

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