I have recently noticed an alarming trend. It seems like women are being publicly applauded for complaining about parenthood. And dads, well, aren't. At all.
A decade or so ago, complaining mums were revolutionary, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Ayelet Waldman's 2005 essay in which she admitted loving her husband more than her kids. The hugely popular website www.scarymommy.com, started in 2008, is the paradigmatic confessional mummy site, and there are thousands more blogs and articles confessing and, increasingly, celebrating being imperfect mothers, including the sites "People I Want to Punch in the Throat," "Honest Toddler," and even my own article "I'm Just Not That Into Toddlers, Including My Own."
In other words: Mummy guilt seems to be on its way out, shepherded by the honesty in the blogosphere and, more recently, by books like All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior. The mum confessional zeitgeist has grown so dramatically that it is barely a trend anymore. Rather, it's ushering in of a new era of honesty and self-disclosure for mums. This is all wonderful news, and I hope that mommy guilt is vestigial by the time my daughters may decide to become mums.
But what about my son? One thing I have noticed as a clinical psychologist in private practice is that men are increasingly less able to voice negative feelings about parenting, even ones that are entirely understandable. Imagine being at a play date and hearing someone say, "God, I needed a drink all day today. The kids were behaving terribly, I couldn't deal." You're picturing a mum, right?
However, what if the speaker is a dad? The question is moot because I have yet to hear a dad complain this openly and honestly about his kids, and this is not for lack of trying. Dads don't even take the conversational bait. If asked to commiserate about parenting, the average mom breathes a sigh of relief and sits forward in her seat, but the average dad looks around like he's on Candid Camera and gives a vague answer about having lots of fun sitting around watching dance class through a two way mirror for the 15th week in a row.
Now, I'm not talking about very traditional families in which dads do much less childcare than moms. I'm talking about the new regime, in which dads are extremely involved and do quite a bit of hands-on parenting. Research from 2013 that shows that the amount of time spent by men and women engaged in childcare is in fact converging, popular articles like The Default Parent notwithstanding.
My male clients in therapy, one of the few places where people are free to speak openly, often tell me how stressed they feel. They feel pressure to support their families (with or without the financial contribution of their wives), they have limited time for social or leisure activities outside work and family play dates, and they are expected to be verbally and emotionally open and engaged with their wives in a way that was never required of men in previous generations. They also often have less-than-fulfilling sex lives. (Sadly, research contemporaneous with the confessional mommy movement indicates that women in long term relationships lose interest in sex more easily than their male partners; this is another topic upon which many women today expound with abandon.)
As the icing on the cake for the fathers in today's families, they are expected to do half the childcare, while being criticized for how they do it. Further, society appears to dictate that men should never complain about the same tedium and exhaustion that women experience for fear of being considered a throwback, Don Draper-like, uninvolved dad. Yet, he must support his wife in her public admissions of her yelling too much, not paying attention to the kids, playing on her phone while parenting, and even being a pothead.
Note: I am not judging any of these behaviors. I'm saying this: Tell me what the reaction would be if a dad talked about yelling too much and smoking pot in front of his kids.
Is it possible dads are the new Supermums, with all the attendant guilt, self-imposed high standards, and societal disapproval for admitting anything less than rapture and delight with parenting?
I understand that men have historically been less involved caretakers than women, but the tide is changing. There needs to be a concurrent societal shift where men are encouraged not only to take on equal parenting responsibilities, but also to be able to openly discuss their flaws and weaknesses, their boredom, fatigue, and other complaints, without fearing castigation and categorical dismissal as bad, bumbling, or uninvolved dads.
If Daddy is going to be an equal parent, then Scary Daddy needs to be recognised and supported too.
Samantha Rodman is a clinical psychologist in private practice. She blogs at Dr. Psych Mom.