They are outdated parenting stereotypes that just won’t seem to die: jokes about dads being clueless, sub-par parents who dress their kids in mismatched clothes and serve cereal for dinner; or dads so immature they’re pretty much kids themselves. Then of course, there’s the common reference to fathers “babysitting” their kids, as though the kind of childcare they provide is just a stand-in for the real stuff that Mom does.
Those tropes are often said with a chuckle, as though they’re harmless comments just meant to poke a bit of a fun with a wink and a smile, but after Charlie Capen, writer and co-founder of HowToBeADad, was jokingly referred to as his wife’s “third child” by a stranger at the grocery store, he realized just how hurtful and damaging those kinds of remarks really are — not just for him as a person, but for all the dads out there who work really hard to be the absolute best parents they can be to their children. So in a post on his Facebook page August 15, Capen eloquently explained all the things he wished he could have said to that woman about why her comment was unfair, and why, more importantly, it’s time that we all just quit it already with these sexist dad myths.
In his Facebook post, Capen wrote that he was at the grocery store with his wife and two kids when a woman came over to his wife, smiling, and said, “Did you know you have three kids?” It was a reference, Capen explained, to the fact that he’d been playing around and laughing with his kids, and probably seemed like a harmless thing to say. But it stung, and he realized that, even if it was meant to be a joke, it was the kind of joke that was based on a number of outdated ideas about fatherhood that undermines the hard work that loving, involved dads do every day.
As Capen tells Babble:
“My kids and I were lightly horsing around, joking and laughing to ourselves. It’s been nearly 100 degrees where we live, so as we walked by a container of crushed ice there was some discussion of grabbing it and cooling each other down. My older son [Finn, 6.5], had grabbed a handful of it and was preparing to walk over to us. I cautioned him not to get out of hand, but I may have, allegedly, slipped some down his back.”
In other words, Capen was just trying to have a little fun with his kids while also trying to survive the family grocery trip — something pretty much all parents understand is always a big challenge. But the stranger’s comment made him realize that some people would still see something like that and assume he was just an immature dad, acting childish with his kids while his wife did the “real work” of trying to get the groceries.
And that, he tells Babble, isn’t just unfair to dads, but to their wives and kids, too:
“When men are considered babysitters or children instead of parents, it simultaneously disinvites us from the parenting conversation and keeps sexist views of their partners in place. It narrows our place and our contribution.”
That’s especially hard for a lot of dads, because — perhaps more than ever before — today’s fathers really do want to be involved and valued for their parenting contribution the same way their partners often are by default.
“I see meme after meme about how dads don’t step in and help. Most of us want to jump in. We like adventures and will treat our lives with kids as such. We aren’t afraid to get dirty, to console, to play the fool, to dance, to caretake — the more we invest, the more emotional dividends it pays out later.”
Unfortunately, Capen didn’t have the chance — or really, the ability — to voice these things in the moment it happened. But his platform as a writer and popular dad blogger means that he can use that experience to start an important discussion, and to help debunk the misconception that a dad’s contributions aren’t as serious or valuable as his partner’s.
“Ultimately, I guess my point is: playfulness and immaturity can be separate things,” Capen says. “But when you lump in a bit of sexism or, to put it more mildly, antiquated gender bias, it becomes really counterproductive. Men have traditionally had very separate roles in the household, so there probably was a time when they related to kids in the only way they knew how: through the lens their own childhood. But they needed education and instruction, to learn about the role they could play in partnering. My humor is an important component to surviving fatherhood and keeping my sanity. Laughter dissolves stress. And parenting provides more than enough of that for all of us.”
Despite his public post, Capen says he’s not angry or offended by the comment, but that he felt compelled to say something about it, for himself and all the dads out there who are so much more than babysitters or immature play partners for their children. That grocery store lady may never see the post — and really, the post wasn’t about her anyway — but through his words, other dads out there can be reminded that what they say and do and all the hard work they put into raising their children the best way they possibly can matters. And, more importantly, that anyone who tries to suggest otherwise is just, well, wrong.
As a wife and mother, I found Capen’s honest explanation to be an important reminder, too. It’s true that not all fathers are as involved or on-the-ball as their partners would like them to be, and it can be easy to see those demeaning memes and chuckle, or to make what might seem to be innocent comments to wives in the grocery store about their husbands. But doing so not only insults whoever is on the receiving end of that comment or meme, it also makes it that much harder to do away with the dated ideas we have about the expectations of fathers.
So the next time you see a dad acting silly with his kids in the grocery store while Mom is choosing some snacks for the school lunches? Remember that the truth is, what you’re likely really seeing is two parents tag-teaming another family errand with their young kids in tow — and trying to avoid any public meltdowns. And anyone who’s ever felt like they needed a stiff drink after taking their children shopping (especially through the dreaded “treats” aisle), knows that is no small feat at all.