Mom rage is a dad problem
"Isn't that kind of sexist?"
I did a podcast interview several months ago that was catered to dads. I can’t remember the name of the podcast, but I do remember (in technicolor, slow-motion detail) one singular moment from the interview. After I pointed out that dadfluencer culture isn’t a billion dollar industry the way momfluencer culture is, the host (a dad) replied that all parents, regardless of whether they were moms or dads, felt pressure due to social media. Parenting is hard for all parents, regardless of gender, the podcast dad emphasized.
While I can’t quote myself exactly, I said something to this effect: All parents might feel pressure at times due to social media, and all parents experience difficulties as parents, but a panoply of systemic, cultural factors make motherhood patently more difficult than fatherhood. The construction of motherhood is far more central to the mythology of America than the construction of fatherhood. The expectations and ideals of motherhood are baked into almost every part of our heteronormative, nuclear-family-obsessed, rugged individualist society in a way that the expectations and ideals of fatherhood simply are not.
Wanna hear the podcast dad’s response?
Isn’t that kind of sexist?
I think I offered some spluttering laugh of a retort to the podcast dad, but my response here is yes, sir, the fact that mothers are held to different (and wildly unreasonable) standards than fathers is “kind of sexist!” So is this! And so is this!
After the Zoom, I reflected on the podcast dad’s assertion that I was being sexist (because yes friends, that was his assertion) by pointing out the objective truth of how gender functions in the U.S. and daring to argue that the experience of mothers might be different from the experience of fathers in several quantifiable ways and this reflection made me feel ragey. The podcast dad wasn’t an asshole. He had shaggy, Golden Retriever vibes and seemed earnestly invested in speaking to the experience of fatherhood in a way that might bring dads together. He seemed like a nice guy.
And I think the fact of his status as a nice guy is what pushed me from surface-level annoyance to simmering rage. SO MANY DADS still do the bare minimum in terms of domestic labor, feminist allyship, and parenting, and SO MANY OF THESE DADS sleep like babies secure in their knowledge that their nice guy status is perfectly safe in a culture which offers them bottomless thanks for their ability to “babysit” their own children.
In Minna Dubin’s new book, Mom Rage, Minna explores her own experience of rage and shows how (and why) so many mothers are primed for anger before they even pee on their first pregnancy test. “In order to really understand mom rage,” Minna told me, “We have to go down to the mom rage ‘basement.’ The basement holds everything invisible that impacts our experience of motherhood, like our past trauma, and also the identities we hold that give or take away power in society (race, class, gender, etc.). These power dynamics play into everything including how we’re treated as mothers in the outside world, and how we’re treated as mothers inside our own homes.”
As report after report indicates, one of the most pervasive power dynamics pissing mothers off is the gender binary. Despite the fact that many of us in hetero marriages would like to describe our marriages as true partnerships, and despite the fact that dads in 2023 are more likely to know how to change a diaper than dads from 1953, they’re still not doing enough. Even if their female spouses earn more than they do, men are not doing their fair share of domestic labor. Women are mad about this. Men? Decidedly less so.
In a Pew study from 2020, 55% of men said they were “very satisfied” with the division of labor in the home. Just 38% of women felt similarly, indicating that the majority of women and mothers have good reason to be angry. Even if they’re married to a “nice guy.” Even if they’re married to a “good dad.”
I asked Minna about this tendency for women to soften their extremely valid rage as a result of domestic, gendered inequity by proclaiming that at least Derek gives the kids cereal in the mornings or at least Todd picks Susie up from soccer on Tuesday and Thursdays and at least Greg does bedtime when mommy’s at her monthly book club. How can we move past at least and approach something like genuine support and fairness?
We live in this era where educated lefty dads are doing so much more domestic labor and childcare than their fathers did. And there’s this pressure on moms to be grateful for our “good men,” even our “feminist men.” But when you compare the number of hours that today’s dads spend on childcare and domestic labor with today’s mothers, they are still doing only half of what moms are doing. The reality is mothers feel like, “Thanks, man, but do more.” But everyone around us is like, “Oh my god, your man makes dinner!?” This sentiment adds to the pressure that we’re not allowed to speak up about our negative experiences of being mothers, because we should be ignoring the man behind the curtain (the mental load, the abysmal maternal mortality rate in the U.S., the lack of affordable childcare, etc.) because we have the golden goose – a man who cooks. So our experience of injustice goes unseen and unacknowledged, and when we complain, we’re not believed (How could it be true? He cooks!). And so we think, Maybe I’m crazy for being upset. Maybe what I’m seeing isn’t true. We begin to question our version of reality. That is one way the culture gaslights mothers.
Mothers are mad about doing the lion’s share of domestic labor AND we’re mad about the heavy weight of motherhood as an identity, something that fathers need scarcely consider (let alone continuously grapple with). If a father is seen accompanying his Croc-wearing kid to the park on a snowy day in February, he is more likely to be given an indulgent smile than an unsolicited PSA about Crocs not being appropriate for a snowy day in February. He’s a good dad because he’s with his kid at all, you see, and since he’s a dad, he’s also not expected to know that Crocs are a bad choice for a snowy day in February. Mothers, on the other hand, should be with their children as a given, and they should always know better. Because they are mothers.
Fathers are also allowed to be individuals, which insulates them from much of the infuriating commentary to which mothers are regularly subjected. Dave the dentist is Dave the dentist pre-fatherhood and Dave the dentist (who happens to have kids) post-fatherhood. His fatherhood does not define him as it defines his wife Molly. After having kids, Molly the engineer becomes Molly the mom (who also happens to be an engineer).
The Busy Mom™ struggles to shoulder both her childcare and domestic responsibilities alongside her outside work in a way that is never particularly troubling to her male counterpart, the American Man™, who might be a dad or he might not. It doesn’t really matter, because his status as parent is ancillary to his assumed identity. The American Man™ is presumed to be an individual with individual desires, tastes, and needs. He is not pictured scowling in a messy kitchen surrounded by children and unwashed dishes in order to sell other American Men™ shit they may or may not need.
A friend of mine called me last week when we were both driving home from preschool dropoff. “I’m losing my shit,” she told me. I fucking cannot with Brandon [not his real name]. I legit think he’s clueless about how much I do every fucking day. I think he thinks he’s doing enough. But I am drowning. I am cracking up.” I listened to her vent, validated her anger, and then we brainstormed about how to get him to see not only her rage but her labor. As is so often the case, women are not only tasked with doing their unfair share of domestic labor, but they also find themselves in the completely shitty position of having to do the emotional labor to fix the domestic labor problem.
One of my favorite parts of Mom Rage is the generosity of space Minna allows for mothers to simply feel their rage rather than channel it towards something productive. “I get frustrated by the ‘harnessing our rage for change’ conversation,” she told me. “Because it puts the onus on mothers. In the same way that I think white people need to use our white privilege to fight against racism, I think fathers need to use their male privilege to fight for policy reform that better takes care of mothers and families. Men should be at the front lines of agitating for federal paid family leave, universal childcare, ending the gender wage gap, etc.”
The Men Are Not Ok: A Reading List.
I can’t wrap this up with some sort of hopeful suggestion for how to deal with the dude in your life who isn’t showing up. We don’t need a a radical reconsideration of how to manage our anger. And we definitely don’t need this.
Here’s what I need. And maybe what you need too.
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