While recently browsing the greetings card aisle of my local drugstore, I discovered a genre of less than flattering Father’s Day cards. “Happy Father’s Day to a husband who has it all – but just doesn’t know where it is,” trumpeted one. “To the boss of our family,” read another. “Whoops, sorry. Mother’s Day was last month. Happy Father’s Day, anyway.”
The Bumbling Dad to whom these cards refer is the flipside of the iconic Supermum. While Supermum juggles a briefcase, four dinner plates and a crying child, Bumbling Dad tends to be a single-tasking kind of guy. She tells him where to be and when, and even what to wear while he’s at it. He’s great with a “honey-do” list, but when left to his own devices, dinner tends to be microwaved and children dropped off at daycare wearing seasonally inappropriate attire.
I’ll admit that I chuckled as I read these cards, tickled by the insinuation that women are more capable on the domestic front than their male counterparts. But if we as a society are serious about gender equality, it’s time to retire this caricature. Amusing as it may be, its persistence in cultural narratives and individual family lore only entrenches the longstanding household inequalities brought into painful relief over the past year.
As an academic, I’ve interviewed more than 70 different-sex couples to learn about how they divide the “mental work” involved in running a household and raising children. This includes tasks like planning meals, coordinating family members’ schedules and remembering to organise extracurricular activities for the kids.
I found that the responsibility for this mental work falls more heavily on women’s shoulders, even among couples who share the “physical work” of cooking, cleaning and shopping. Women are especially likely to anticipate household needs and notice potential problems before they become actual problems. This may be as mundane as realising the family is low on toilet paper before the last roll is gone, or as consequential as recognising that the time to look for daycare is several months before you actually need it. Women also tend to be the ones following up later: did my spouse pick up toilet paper on the way home, as he promised? Did the daycare centre officially confirm our child’s spot?
When I ask couples why they’ve divided mental responsibilities in this way, I very rarely hear that it’s because this is “women’s work”. Instead, I hear about personality, nature and temperament. She is type A, and he’s laid back, they tell me. Or, she’s organised and he prefers to fly by the seat of his pants. It would be a disaster if he were responsible for scheduling, they say, and don’t even get me started about what might happen if he were put in charge of the kids’ extracurriculars.
For individual couples, these explanations often make a lot of sense. Economics 101 says specialisation is efficient, and common sense teaches us that we should play to our strengths. So if the mother is a naturally gifted planner, why fight it?
There are at least two problems with this logic. The “personality traits” my interviewees cite are more often learned skills than innate qualities. People with experience planning parties or managing calendars are generally better at it than those with little practice, for instance. Over time, those who do this work come to see themselves as detail-oriented, creative problem solvers, while those who avoid it come to understand themselves as disorganised and forgetful. For a variety of reasons, gender shapes the way we invest our time, energy and attention – and in turn, the people we understand ourselves to be.
Then there’s the glaring issue that the personality traits that fathers are often described as lacking tend to be core components of their paid work. Take the interviewee who told me his wife was the project manager for their household because he was better with big ideas than nitty-gritty details. His day job? Project manager. Or consider the couple who adamantly agreed that he had to be explicitly alerted to a household problem because he was unlikely to notice it himself. His day job? Surgeon.
Personality traits presented as innate thus turn out to be context dependent, particularly for men. While women are expected to be equally “on” at work and at home, the executive functioning skills that help the project manager and the surgeon excel in their careers are somehow deactivated once they leave the office. The idea that he “just isn’t wired” to plan ahead, as one woman told me about her husband, is certainly more appealing than the idea that he just doesn’t want to, even if the latter seems more likely.
To be fair, there are plenty of exceptions to this dominant pattern. I’ve interviewed men who manage calendars and women who hate logistics. Even among the majority of different-sex couples, I sincerely doubt men are consciously turning off their brains once they cross the domestic threshold.
Instead, the patterns I observe reflect the incompleteness of our ongoing “gender revolution”. Men are increasingly expected to change nappies and wash dishes – and many of them do – but as a society we still expect women to be ultimately responsible for children’s growth, development and happiness. To move forward towards true gender equality, both men and women will need to examine their assumptions about who they are.
For women, the question is who they could be, if they trusted the mental workload would be shared equitably. For men, the question is who they would become if they knew responsibility for family outcomes fell equally on their shoulders.
Bumbling Dad has had a good run, but it’s time for him to step aside. This Father’s Day, give the men in your life the gift of your confidence in them. With time and practice, they just might reveal latent juggling skills to rival Supermum’s.