Labeling Involved Dads "Mr. Mom" is as Inaccurate as Calling Strong Moms "Mrs. Dad"
By Allan Shedlin
Grampsy and DADvocacy Consulting Group Founder
Happily, the term "Mr. Mom" continues to slowly fade from use as more men have seized the opportunities to embrace a more progressive notion of fatherhood and masculinity. This positive development has, in turn, helped them gain an expanded appreciation of what it means to be an involved, lifelong dad vs. being a father, which is simply the result of a one-time biological act.
As we observe the horrors of fathers/grandfathers/father figures left behind in Ukraine, mothers and grandmothers have been forced to assume some of the roles more traditionally associated with fathers. Of course, empowered by the Women's Movement of the 1970s, more women have handled their family's "traditional" male/father roles for a variety of reasons (many of which are beyond their control, as they have been in Ukraine). Much as I've discouraged using the term "Mr. Mom," I also resist the urge to think of these strong, independent, capable women as "Mrs./Ms. Dad."
Most parenting responsibilities (beyond actually giving birth) are not gender-specific and can be shared by both parents. Today, this is increasingly the case and that's a very good thing for parents and kids alike. Today’s dads, therefore, are not likely to be asked the question I was asked more than 50 years ago when I brought my year-old daughter to the local playground in my New York City neighborhood: “Are you babysitting today?”
Today’s dads are dramatically more present in playgrounds, in prenatal and parenting classes, at school conferences and events, at library story hours, as well as pushing strollers, changing diapers in restrooms, and carrying their infants in baby carriers. Unlike Michael Keaton’s character in 1983's Mr. Mom, who was forced into the role of “substitute mother” after losing his salaried job, men these days are more likely to embrace their shared responsibilities as active dads. To reapply an advertising slogan made popular during the height of the Women’s Movement, we can now look at the increased involvement of dads in all stages of their children’s lives and exclaim, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
But despite this greater involvement and shift in the paternal parenting landscape, we still tend to refer to dads who are involved and nurturing parents as “Mr. Mom.” Thinking of and labeling a dad’s nurturing parenting as maternal or feminine betrays a lingering habit and underlying sense that when men are nurturing, they are somehow not being “manly.”
In 1994, I coined the term “daddying” to describe the active, involved exuberance of my parenting, and the parenting of other men I knew. “Daddying” conveyed the sense of the lifelong process that I relished as I embraced my responsibilities for my children’s well-being: physical, emotional, social, intellectual, creative, moral, and spiritual. Becoming a parent changes one’s identity instantly and forever. This new word, daddying, not only captures that fundamental change, but also embodies the realization that fathers matter – in their presence as well as their absence.
For the past 25+ years, I've conducted hundreds of hours of daddying interviews with men ages 16 to 104, from 20 countries, across all age, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. During my earliest interviews, the word daddying often stuck in my throat because it seemed awkward, and I was concerned that it would seem uncomfortable and trite to the fathers I was interviewing. But to my surprise, the use of the word itself seemed to give men “permission” to be in touch with a tender side of their personality. Although my interview question protocol required only 40 minutes of a dad’s time, the average interview lasted more than two hours!
Defying gender stereotypes, men were not only willing to talk and share their feelings, they were actually eager to do so.
What better gift to mothers – and fathers – on Mother's Day, than to use the occasion to stop defining a man’s nurturing parenting as “playing Mr. Mom?” Describing a father’s
paternal instincts as feminine or “motherly,” not only does not accurately reflect the display of nurturing behaviors that are more prevalently being demonstrated by dads, but it also discourages the positive rethinking of parenting roles and responsibilities that most parents say they desire. Expanding the roles of fathers from “breadwinner” and “disciplinarian” to include “nurturer” and “at-home dad,” holds great promise for a more balanced family dynamic and expands possibilities and outcomes for moms, dads, and children alike. This expansion of roles:
Acknowledges human and social interdependence
Is more tolerant of a wider array of possibilities and relationships
Removes significant traditional barriers to human development
Broadens our potential for self-fulfillment and self-actualization; and
Minimizes arbitrary and constricting gender role expectations that pigeonhole and handicap both women and men.
Why do we still refer to “maternal instinct” yet question the existence of “paternal instinct?” While not minimizing the validity, importance, and unique gender-related qualities of each of these instincts, we might instead consider using the four weeks between Mother's Day and Father's Day to drop the gender qualifier and refer to this behavior broadly as parents’ “nurturing instincts.”
The more opportunities we have to acknowledge the roles that both parents can play, the better. Moreover, the different ways that mothers and fathers nurture their children contribute to improving children’s overall well-being, as well as the well-being of the moms and dads who nurture them. These differences should be celebrated, not homogenized.
Twenty years ago, on the eve of Mother's Day, I overheard a young teenager say to her dad, “I feel like I should be sending you a Mothers’ Day card, because, with all mom’s business travels, you’ve been here for me much more than she has.” Although "Mr. Mom" may have served an important transitional purpose in our thinking about parenting, the idea of dads merely being “substitute moms” has thankfully given way to a fuller and more egalitarian understanding of the unique roles and contributions that both moms and dads can and should play in their children’s lives.
While it seems we're not quite ready to expand the adage to “It’s as American as motherhood, fatherhood, and apple pie,” by saying goodbye to the inaccurate label of “Mr. Mom,” we are getting ever closer.
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LAST CALL! There are just TWO DAYS LEFT for kids (1st grade through undergrads) to submit their short film/video "letter to my dad/dad figure" for FREE to the KIDS FIRST! Daddying Film Festival (KFDFF). For more info and to submit by 5/7/22, click here:
To get your FREE all-access viewing pass and a sneak peek at some of the indie daddying films you'll be able to screen during the online Fesival June 13-20, 2022, visit the KFDFF Eventive page today! Student films are still to come once our judges select finalists.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, and five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.