It’s the time of year when we celebrate mothers and — about a month later — fathers. But the way we view each holiday reveals a lot about the growing gap between cultural gender stereotypes and the reality of most families’ day-to-day lives.
How do we celebrate Mother’s Day? Well, it’s Mom’s day off. This is the day she does no cooking, no cleaning and, of course, no childcare. She is brought breakfast in bed and taken out to a restaurant. Cards abound that show women soaking in bubble baths, sipping wine, reading books with their feet up. Mother’s Day is the one day she doesn’t have to be a mother, a job for which she is on duty the other 364 days.
The other half of this image is the hapless father, trying to take her place for that one day. You know — breakfast in bed is served, but the mother is already imagining the disaster in the kitchen, with pancake batter all over the floor and dishes mounted in the sink. Dad is clueless, and dresses the kids in striped shirts and plaid shorts. (To take just one example: “For my Wife, on Mother’s Day. You just relax. I’ll take care of everything,” one card reads. The cover shows a guy in sports jersey holding out a flower. Open it up and it says, “By the way, where is everything? Happy Mother’s Day!”)
Father’s Day, by contrast, is thought of as the day that Dad does spend with his children. It’s a day for a family barbecue, or to take Dad fishing or on some other activity he enjoys. Dad doesn’t need a break from all the caretaking he does all year — rather this is a day to engage him in family life.
Other messages in Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards also reinforce sex stereotypes. Moms are thanked for the hugs, for drying the tears, for “always being there.” Dads, though, tend to be thanked as role models and individuals to look up to. A typical Hallmark Father’s Day card reads, “Integrity. Respect. Honor. I learned these things from you.”
Of course, there is not a thing wrong with children saying thank you for all those cuddles and comfort, or for expressing gratitude for models of strength and responsibility. These are all lovely sentiments. The question is: why in 2013, are we still dividing all these traits by gender? It’s insulting to both women and men and it has less and less to do with contemporary American families. Dads can be nurturers. Moms can be role models. Many, of course, already are.
A recent Pew study noted that the family roles of mothers and fathers are increasingly converging. Dads are doing more housework and childcare; moms more paid work outside the home. In fact, today nearly equal shares of working mothers and fathers report feeling stressed about balancing work and family life.
And that’s just heterosexual married couples. Single parents assume multiple roles that blur “traditional” realms. Studies that look at gay parents question the presumption that mothers and fathers bring separate gender-based skills to parenting (like mothers excel in nurturing and caretaking, while fathers bring discipline and rough housing into the mix).
I am not against Mother’s Day. My kids are now grown, but I still cherish those sweet, homemade, crayon-scrawled “You are the BEST Mommy in the WORLD!” cards. But it would be nice to celebrate mothers and fathers in a way that truly honors everything they each can — and do — bring to the family.