Why Can’t a Dad Be More Like a Mom? . . . Do We Really Want Them To Be?

Baby-boy-Peter-Newhall-with-dads-hands-holding-him. Photo by BF Newhall

My husband -- and our son. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, July 12, 1987

Carol calls them “the little inequities.” She is talking about the small, countless ways that men fail to notice what needs to be done for their children.

At breakfast, 2-year-old Max drops a spoon to the floor. John is reading the newspaper – he has to read it for his job.

Carol has to read the paper for her job, too. But it is she who notices that the spoon has fallen. She picks it up.

John and Carol have visitors. Max is about to walk into the living room eating a bagel slathered with cream cheese and jam.

Carol is talking to a guest. She would like to keep on talking – but jam is dripping off Max’s bagel.

John, engrossed in conversation with another guest, is unaware that a jammy bagel is headed for the living room.

Carol interrupts her conversation to steer Max back to the kitchen. John keeps talking.

“It’s their coping strategy,” says Carol of today’s fathers. “They fail to notice.”

Make no mistake. “John is a saint among fathers,” she is quick to add. He does the laundry. He dresses his children. He keeps them entertained while Carol sleeps in.

Indeed, John does a good 40 percent of the child care at their house, says Carol. For that 40 percent, however he gets tremendous sympathy and help.

“When I went out of town to a union conference,” says Carol, “John got dinner invitations for a

Little girl stroking her dad's chin. Photo by BF Newhall

My husband -- and our daughter. Photo by BF Newhall

week. When he is out of town, no one thinks to invite me for dinner.”

That’s because child-rearing is our job. We are in charge.

John washes his children’s clothes, but – and this is a big but – he does not buy them.

He does not haunt the flea markets for 25-cent sweatpants. He does not sort through the hand-me-downs. He does not rearrange the drawers to make room for the new clothes.

John dresses the baby, but often lets Carol choose the outfit.

He gets the overalls on, but can’t figure out how the hooks work.

He puts on the baby’s bathing suit. The straps criss-cross her chest.

He slips her into her nightshirt. The hood covers her face.

He gets it right the second time.

Is he playing dumb?

I can play dumb. In our house, Jon is in charge of the cooking. He asks me to help by breaking up the lettuce for a salad. I tear it into unmanageably large pieces.

Next time, Jon breaks up the lettuce.

The same way with kids.

We mothers read the parenting books, take the child development courses and spend long evenings on the telephone discussing separation anxiety, cradle cap and pre-reading skills with the other moms.

Baby is only days old but already we have her on the waiting list for that great nursery school over at Cal.

Summer is three months away, but it is not too soon to apply for gymnastics camp in Alameda or horse camp in Lafayette.

We relish our responsibilities.

Dads help – and they are getting more helpful all the time.

When we have an evening meeting, they agree to “babysit.” But when, at the last minute, their employers want them to work late, it is we who must come up with the child-care arrangement – spending 30 minutes of our employer’s time making phone calls.

Mothers are in charge. Fathers help. Perhaps that is why John was so annoyed when Carol complained to him about the bagel incident.

Who wants to help and then be criticized for not helping enough, or for not helping correctly? It’s much more fun to be in charge.

They would be good at it. They would enjoy – and resent – it as much as we.

Trouble is, I’m not willing to let go of motherhood as I have known and enjoyed it. I have ceded enough of my turf as it is.

I’m willing to let Jon have the cooking all to himself.

I’m even willing – though just barely – to let Jon decide whether granola bars are appropriate school lunch box fare.

But that’s it.

Maybe Christina will be different. Maybe – in 2017 – she will let her husband decide between cloth diapers and paper, between the Montessori and the traditional nursery school, between bangs and no bangs for her daughter.

As for me, I’m about as liberated as I can get – for the time being.

Reprinted by permission of  The Oakland Tribune

Dear Readers: Have things changed since I wrote this piece for the Oakland Tribune? Are men taking on real child-rearing responsibilities? Or are they still just helping? Are women willing to cede some of their mom turf — are they letting the guys choose the pediatrician? The car seats? The hair bows?

For the dirt on how Jon and I ever managed to get married in the first place, check out “The Day She Popped the Question.”




  1. So that’s when you started breaking lettuce up into unreasonably big pieces, ;).

    • With you kids out of the house and our two commuteless jobs, both Dad and I have a lot more time these days, so I rarely get asked to help in the kitchen…Or is it because my lettuce breaking strategy worked?


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