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Challenge: What Do Fathers Do Best?

I Don't Thank My Partner For "Helping Me" Parent (And Neither Should You)

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It’s two thirty in the morning and my son is awake. He’s crying, not in the “something is very wrong way” but in the almost annoying, whimpering way that lets me know he is aggravated and hungry. I nudge my partner, who is snoring loudly because, rather impressively, the man could sleep through a nuclear blast of biblical proportion. He has to wake up for work in four hours but I keep shoving, a little harder each time, until one heavy eye-lid opens.

“It’s your turn.”

He closes his eyes and lets out the exact same low grumble I did an hour earlier. He rolls out of bed and grabs the empty bottle on the corner of our night stand and drags his feet towards the kitchen. A few minutes later he returns, shaking the bottle and holding out his arms for our son. He takes him out of the bedroom, feeding him with his eyes closed on our rocking chair in the living room, as I lay my head back down on an oh-so inviting pillow.

And I don’t say thank you. Ever.

The same can be said for the times when he watches him when I have an editorial meeting or a happy hour date with friends or am under a deadline and require complete silence. I didn’t say thank you when we were exclusively breastfeeding and, on the weekends, he took our son early in the morning for as long as he could so I could sleep. I don’t say thank you when he cooks dinner or starts a load of laundry or cleans the bathroom that, admittedly, has been ignored for far too long.

And I’m starting to think I’m alone.

I see posted public professions of extreme gratitude when a dad helps a mom with feedings or cleaning or laundry or a wide awake baby at three in the morning. This dad is hailed as “the best father” or a “wonderful husband” or an “incredible partner” because he took baby duty on a Wednesday night or changed three diapers instead of two. I've had multiple people ask me, "Is your partner helping?" and I've sat silently as fellow moms tell me how lucky I am that the answer to that question is "yes".

Why?

Why do we - as mothers - feel the need to pat our partners on the back for doing what can only be described as their job?

Why is it that, although we are far from the 1950s in so many wonderful ways, we still feel this silent yet palpable pressure to be the primary providers of care and security for our children? So much so that equal care from their fathers isn’t expected, but praised as “extraordinary”?

Am I missing something?

We’ve all heard the overplayed adage, “it takes two to tango” and, make no mistake, the dance doesn’t end when you put your pants back on.

Yes, there are some aspects of parenthood that fathers cannot experience thanks to biology, but that doesn’t mean that they play second fiddle to it entirely. Just because they cannot carry a child or birth a child or breastfeed a child, doesn’t mean all aspects of child rearing follow this seemingly pre-determined “mom first, dad second” pecking order of obligation.

Science is extraordinary and so are women's bodies but neither should be used as reasons to rid men of their commitments.

We aren’t thanked for fulfilling the rest of our responsibilities. The cashier at my local grocery store doesn’t thank me for buying over-priced organic items to fill my refrigerator. I don’t get a “thank you” when I pay my credit card bill.

Well, okay, there is that letter they keep sending me, thanking me for continuing to pay on time and asking me if I’d like another credit card, but I have a feeling they aren’t all that sincere.

Our son - while a joy in countless, immeasurable ways - is another obligation we’ve signed up for, thanks to hot sex and a few (many) missed birth control pills. We chose him.

We. I did. My partner did. Together.

We.

And it will take a continuation of that consenting “we” to make sure he is raised healthy, happy, and as close to thriving as possible. Why should I thank my partner for doing what we both know is necessary? Why should I continually pat him on the back for being the father he not only can be, but should be?

When I see women say their husband or partner “helps them”, I can’t help but focus on the underlying message; tiny and coded but astounding. “Help” infers a choice on their partner’s part. “Help” suggests that the primary responsibility rests on only one parent, with the option for additional support being just that: an option. If someone provides “help”, they are essentially going above and beyond what is expected. They’re going out of their way to assist you with what can only be described as your duty, thanks to either the kindness of their heart or relentless - and therefore successful - nagging.

And that, to me, is not parenthood.

Now, that isn’t to say I don’t thank my partner occasionally. When I see him struggling or I ask more than is expected of him, due to work or exhaustion or what have you, I acknowledge his efforts. Partnerships are never fifty-fifty so when I know I'm getting a full eighty percent, I show my gratitude and promise that when the percentages shift, I'll deliver.

I’ve even done so publicly, because new parenthood tests you mentally as well as physically so when I can tell he is doubting his capabilities, I want him to know I see his strength. A good father, just like a good mother, deserves praise from time-to-time and who am I to take that from him in an attempt to prove that outdated misogyny of the social and political variety is still very much alive?

However, my thank you’s are as rare as his because, honestly, if we sat around patting ourselves on the back for being equal partners in parenthood, nothing would get done. We’d be knee-deep in an emotional circle jerk while our kid crawled around unfed, unchanged and unprepared for the life I can’t wait for him to live.

Even now, while I type these very words, my partner is in the other room with our son. I can hear them playing and my son giggling and, if I’m being honest, I feel a twinge of guilt I cannot escape or entirely understand. I almost hate myself for feeling it, because while I can reasonably and coherently acknowledge its ridiculousness, it never goes away. In fact, sometimes, it grows. I begin to doubt myself; wondering if I am being a good mother when I don’t take on 100% of the responsibility all the time regardless of situation or circumstance until my son is grown and graduated and ready for the world and I’m left crushed by the palpable emptiness of a child-less nest forever and ever until the end of time.

Sheesh.

But then I remember that I’m not my son’s only parent. I remember that social constructs, while powerful, are not an accurate representation of reality, or at least the reality we have decided to build for ourselves. I remember that this responsibility called parenthood is not any more or any less mine than it is my partner's. I remember that I am not a bad mother for expecting duties to be shared, just like my partner isn’t an extraordinary father for sharing them.

And I remember that, pretty soon, I will be on baby duty, so I better finish typing this article and addressing otherwise ignored emails and finishing last-minute projects.

Our tango is about to take another step, and I don’t want to miss a beat.

And, thankfully or not, neither does my partner.

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