I admit it; I signed Manuel up to serve as parent of the week in Sunday School, and when he, with proper warning to the teachers and school director, had to withdraw, I, the mother, did NOT step in and do it. Note that we asked other parents until we found a substitute. Liz, who also has a kid in the class, substituted for us while her husband John got up at 3:30am to take their older daughter to a horse show. I hear the class did a killer performance of Samson and Delilah. Rebecca played Samson, and Jonathan played a fairy (middle school may be tough for them), and Liz says she enjoyed observing the children in their natural habitat. I’m struck, however, by the multiple emails from teachers, administrators, and other parents that went around about this near parenting-atrocity, almost all of which were addressed to me and insinuated my inadequacies as a parent. This is the usual pattern—when they say parent volunteers they assume mother and blame the mother even if the father did whatever it is they are blaming about.
So here’s a question that betrays my socioeconomic status—I’m talking about families where at least one parent has a well paying job and where you don’t get fired from that job for taking a couple of hours out of the day to attend a school function or take a kid to the doctor (and, furthermore, you have health insurance so you can take your kid to the doctor). It’s 2012; can we not all realize that men do some these things and that they can be expected and asked to it? Even my own Dad made the occasional appearance in the classroom in the 70’s. Ok, he taught us how to fill out income tax forms, and I think Richard Taylor tried to figure out at the age of 10 how not to pay taxes. (Sorry to out you here Richard, but it’s a story my Dad loves to tell…..) In other words Dads in the classroom are not new.
As a side note, UVa is crawling with men who can’t attend meetings during the day because of ‘child-care’, and we even have paternity leaves. But Dads seem rarely to be asked explicitly to do anything and, in fact, are given giant medals for showing up at all All moms know that the consequences of pleading childcare or school function work out differently for him than for a her, but often even the most sensitive of new-age dads aren’t aware of this fact.
Now I’m the first to call all men idiots, and much of what I say along these lines is not fit even for a blog but has gotten my running group through hundreds of miles. When I want to set up playdates or organize logistics I don’t even bother dealing with most Dads because I know they can’t keep it straight and do not possess the brain cells to read even their family calendars. And, it’s true that, like most of my friends, I do the bulk of the “volunteer” things that come with being a parent. I go to the PTO, show up in the classroom, organize their extracurricular activates, deal with doctors, etc. And when I go out of town I leave elaborate handouts for everyone in the family hoping that everyone gets where they need to go. But my husband does his bit. I figure that if he can manage a really big science grant he ought to be capable of chaperoning a field trip or volunteering in a class. And if my cell phone is off he even talks the school about a problem with the kids. Most of the time he rises to the occasion.
. The problem is not ONLY that Dads don’t do
things; the problem is that no one expects them to do anything. And the irony is that if Mom’s take time out
of their work to do something at their kids school, it’s often frowned upon,
whereas a Dad’s getting involved gives that Dad extra credit. (And as a mortifying personal aside my
boy/girl twins model this pattern to a T.
Who do you think walks the little one to his class and checks on him at
lunch more often?)
The problem here is that in so many spheres things that might be called volunteer, extracurricular, or emergency-cover activities relegated to women. When it became possible for women to join the army or be a supreme court justice, they should also have given men the right to show up at their kids school without it seeming radical, and they should have given women who work inside and outside of the home the right to say no to various activities without any bad-mom-stigma. Yesterday I woke up with a vague memory of Justice Ginsburg talking about her son’s school never calling her husband when there was a problem. I remembered it because my friend Dahlia Lithwick, whose husband is a mighty fine parent of the week, wrote about it in a way that stuck with me.
I have to admit I’d forgotten most of the characteristically brilliant points about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s delivering a speech meant to be given by her husband. I remember the last paragraph and I’ll just quote it here. It’s Dahlia quoting Ginsburg. "One day, I was particularly weary," she explained, and so when the school called, she said, "This child has two parents. I suggest you alternate calls, and it's his father's turn." She said calls from the school came much less frequently after that, because the school was" much less inclined to take a man away from his job." Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn't growl and doesn't issue threats, and she rarely eats small forest dwellers. But she is still the mother of all grizzlies to me.”