Family Matters

Daddy Day Care: Why Does the Government Consider Dads “Babysitters”?

Are mothers perpetuating the attitude that fathers can't parent as well as they can?

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Pilar Barrionuevo / age fotostock / Getty Images

Earlier this month, I kissed my family goodbye and flew 3,000 miles away for a week-long work trip. My husband was left in charge, his first time being alone with the kids for that long. If he was nervous, he didn’t let on. It was, in my view, a great and generous example of co-parenting.

Yet had the U.S. Census Bureau assessed what was going on, they would not have considered this an example of a guy simply carrying out his dadly duties; instead, his paternal ministerings — the dinners cooked, laundry folded (well, some of it) and quarrels arbitrated — would have been classified as child care. Mothers are still the “designated parents” while fathers are…unpaid help?


“Regardless of how much families have changed over the last 50 years women are still primarily responsible for work in the home,” Lynda Laughlin of the Census Bureau’s Fertility and Family Statistics Branch told The New York Times’ Motherlode blog. “We try to look at child care as more of a form of work support.”

So I travel for work and my husband takes over, and that’s “work support.” But it’s “parenting” when I help with homework and bandage scraped knees and dispense kisses while my husband returns emails from his boss? That’s so 1950s.

No doubt, we’ve moved toward a more egalitarian society over the years: men work, women work. There’s no news there. Surveys bear out the shift toward co-parenting: according to the Families and Work Institute (FWI), which studies the changing workforce and its impact on families, men are spending more time caring for kids.

In 1977, the U.S. Department of Labor asked people to react to the following statement: it’s better for all involved if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children. Then, 74% of men and 52% of women agreed; in 2008, when FWI repeated the survey, just 40% of men and 37% of women concurred. “Women still do the lion’s share of childcare,” says Ellen Galinsky, the institute’s president. “But fathers want to be and they are more involved with their children.” Moreover, as KJ Dell’Antonia notes on Motherlode, “It’s not baby-sitting when Daddy does it.”

Still, even the most equality-minded among us may unwittingly perpetuate the stereotype that fathers can’t care for kids as well as mothers. Moms, I’m talking to you. While preparing for my trip, for example, I made sure to meticulously update our Google calendar with names, phone numbers and addresses of places the kids needed to be. The family still flubbed gymnastics. But they took an intrepid day trip that involved a ferry ride. It all balances out.

At The Huffington Post, author Kristin Maschka made the case that fathers find the attitude that they don’t — and can’t — parent as well as moms insulting. “Can you imagine someone telling a mother how great she is to babysit her own children while her husband is out of town?” she wrote. Well, no:

My friend Tod told me about a time he took care of his two young girls while his wife was out of town. He said many people sought him out to ask how things were going. “It was nice to get some extra attention and know that there was help available to me, but it also made me wonder how many people made the same effort to seek out my wife when I was out of town. Further, many people asked how the ‘baby-sitting’ was going. It left me feeling sidelined in my own children’s lives. Was I really no more involved than the girl down the street that earns $10 an hour to keep an eye on the kids?”

Once I was back home, my husband admitted that the week had been tough. What I think he was really saying was that it was hard being a single parent. Nothing new there; parenting on your own is hard. But it’s not necessarily any more taxing for a man than for a woman. Being away for a week made me realize that although my husband does things differently than I do, he’s every bit as capable of ruling the roost. Yes, I came home to a (very) disheveled house. But I also came home to some (very) happy kids who’d had a great week with their dad. Can’t wait for my next trip away.