I was raised by a single father in a household with a shoestring budget — and sometimes the shoestring was perilously close to snapping altogether. He was a bartender and later an English professor, picking up an adjunct position at the junior college that paid not much better than his job at the bar, though at least it had better hours. He dealt with a culture that’s often hostile to single parents, male and female alike, for different reasons, but when we talk about single parents and stereotypes, we rarely have the ‘what about the menz?’ conversation that needs to happen, because men raising children alone encounter hostility too. More importantly, it plays into the way we talk about women and parenting.
I’m not just talking about the people who were convinced that my father was kidnapping me, who would lean in to ask me if I was okay and if I needed any ‘help’ when they saw me alone with my father. Or the people who thought that my father and I were involved in some kind of creepy May/December romance when they saw the two of us out together when I was a teenager (yes, this actually happened). Or the people who argued that I would fundamentally miss out on important moments in the life of a young girl — for I still identified with my assigned gender at the time — by not having a female influence (similar, though not identical to, claims that children can’t be raised by single mothers because they need a strong father figure, whatever that means).
Today, I’m thinking about the stereotype of single dads as benevolent, bumbling buffoons who don’t know the first thing about parenting and can’t keep it together. This stereotype is especially popular in film and television (hello, Judd Apatow), where we see ‘hilarious’ depictions of bro culture at its worst as perplexed men attempt to cope with babies, young children, and teenagers. There’s an implication that men can’t take care of children alone.
Single dads absolutely do struggle with raising kids — though they can access gender-associated privileges to make this easier through tools like earning more and getting more respect than single moms — but it’s not because they’re inept and helpless in the lives of their children. It’s because raising kids is hard, no matter how many parents are involved in a household, and dealing with children of any age presents challenges that parental gender cannot overcome.
But I’m particularly tired of hearing that single dads can’t provide basic care to their kids, because it’s a ridiculous stereotype that reinforces some negative attitudes about fathers in general, single and otherwise. You know the myth: The bro who can’t change a diaper, doesn’t know how to soothe a crying infant, can’t cook to save his life, doesn’t know how to deal with the hormonal shifts young women experience, can’t help his kids buy clothes, can’t decide how to walk the balancing line between parent and pal.
All of this is utter tripe. Women are put in the position of being expected to be caregivers — they’ll be shamed if they don’t know how to do these things, even if they’ve never had a model for doing so, but for men it’s expected and almost comic. A sort of ‘well, boys will be boys’ thing pervades these kinds of attitudes and in turn flips the load back on women and the expectations we have of them. Since dads can’t handle the basics of parenting, obviously someone needs to, and that person is a woman, a mother.
I have two older half sisters, so believe me, my father knows how to deal with a diaper, and he can do it efficiently and in record time. He also knows how to deal with a crying child, how to spot colic and upset and differentiate it from fussiness — all skills that people insist that women should have and men can live without. He can cook, and cooked meals for us every night using fresh but affordable ingredients because we didn’t have money for luxuries. And he was prepared to deal with the dramas and crises that accompany growing up as a woman in this culture, right down to picking up pads at the grocery store without comment.
He trusted me to make my own decisions, and backed me if I got in trouble but let me have my own learning experiences. As I aged, our relationship to each other shifted: Now, he’s a friend but also a relative, when I was young, he was a relative but also a friend. He didn’t live the draconian dad stereotype complete with strict curfew and ominous warnings to prospective partners, but he’d defend me in a heartbeat if I was actually in danger or trouble.
To hear single dads treated like doofuses who can’t raise their kids is insulting to single dads who raise their kids every day — and in every way. And it’s also a strange insult to women as well, feminising the work of raising children and simultaneously denigrating it by delegating it to women. It must not be very important, after all, if it’s only a skill that women need and men can coast by without it. It’s a classic and infuriating case of the double bind of sexism and how it harms all genders: By fighting the stereotypes surrounding single dads, we can also chip away at one angle of the hostility directed at single moms, too.
Image: dad and son, Gil, Flickr