My daughter loves to role play. She wants to be the mom or the daughter or the ballerina. She loves dolls, princesses, and the color pink. While not unusual for a little girl, it’s the opposite of her mother, who prefers sports bras and sneakers to dresses and high heels. She’s also daring like her father. Before she turned three, she abandoned her pool floats; She’ll jump off anything. If there’s an household candidate to break a bone, she’s the odds-on favorite.
My son loves anything with an engine. Cars, trucks, construction vehicles, and planes fascinate him endlessly. This despite his father being confused by how helicopters fly. He’s much more cautious than his older sister. Like his mother, he’s content to watch her leap from afar, all the while wincing in fear.
In short, there are behavioral traits that cannot be taught. They’re innate. We tend to assign stereotypical gender markers to interests, and in some cases they align (her playing with dolls, him trucks), but in others (her fearlessness, his caution) they do not. And while these traits manifested themselves naturally in my kids, there’s so much that parents can imbue upon their children, often indirectly.
My wife makes more money than I do, and many of the household chores that have traditionally been performed by women – cooking, cleaning, shopping – are the tasks that I now perform. Our kids are familiar with mom leaving for work, amd they’re equally familiar with dinner time consisting of dad at the grill or over the stove.
And while we both work, like most things, it’s about optics. My daughter goes to school with my wife, who drops her off on the way to work. She joins my wife, who is wearing work clothes, to her job. It’s a part of her day-to-day reality. But my kids have never seen me work outside of the house. Their experience with dad has always been at home. Before they began school, mom went to work and dad stayed home, playing with them and taking them places amongst the other (mostly) moms. Even now, when everyone is home and I’m working, that work takes place in an upstairs office. I’m not dressed any different than I would be if I were reading a book or walking the dog. (Basically, I’m a slob). In their eyes, there’s no distinction between home and work for me, the way there is for my wife, so I can see how that can be confusing.
Being candid, before jumping into these roles, there wasn’t much discussion. Attempting life as a freelance writer was what I was doing for work before kids, so when they arrived, our plan now just included figuring this whole parenting thing out. And while I do believe that moms are superhuman and preternaturally so much better at this parenting thing, I didn’t view having a primary role as a caregiver when they were little as a nuisance because they were my children. Don’t all dads do this?
(Side note: I have to give a shout out to the moms who have told me repeatedly what a “good dad” I am. Though, I must admit, it’s a misguided compliment because the bar for good parenting from dads is incredibly low. I just show up with my kid in mismatched clothes and with peanut butter on his face and get complimented; My wife – and most moms, I assume – don’t get nearly enough credit for all the parenting they do.)
We’re careful to point out the small non-traditional stuff (“No, pink isn’t a ‘girls color,’ he can like pink too” or “See? Dad’s can fold laundry”) to our children so that it doesn’t seem unnatural. Daddy cooking and mom being so much more athletic than dad is just a normal part of their lives. We’re also quick to correct them when our daughter scolds our son about reaching for a pink toy. And because our situation – while more normal now than in times past – is still less traditional than most, so too should we think that our children should be aware of other “non-traditional” (whatever that means) families: single-parent households, same-sex households, kids with foster parents.
These are good lessons for our children to learn. For our daughter, it shows her that – contrary to what society has communicated to women over the years – her brain is valuable and women are the most important cog in our society. It also teaches her than men can perform tasks beyond being the detached breadwinner. For our son, it shows him that a woman’s perspective and insight are vital in the workplace. It also teaches him that dads can be nurturing, sensitive, and whip up a killer eggplant parmesan, but also be able to birdie the par 3 11th hole at the local country club (okay, let’s be honest, more like bogey).
And aside from subverting gender norms, there’s also another lesson in the non-traditional nature of our lifestyle. Their father has eschewed the normative path for what he sees to be a more fulfilling one. Pursuit of a writing career isn’t an easy one. It’s filled with failures and rejections. As someone who is gregarious and extroverted, the loneliness of writing can be crippling. With that difficulty, though, comes a greater reward when there’s a job well done, whether it’s monetary or intrinsic. This is also a good lesson for our kids to learn, as is the idea that following their own dreams is as important as anything they’ll ever decide to do.
Break eggs, break bones, whatever. Just make sure you’re leading with your heart.
About the author
Matt Osgood is a freelance journalist based out of Haverhill, MA, where he lives with his wife, their two kids, and dog. While life as a dad certainly provides him with the best material, he writes mostly about sports and booze, both of which provide much needed therapy.