Last year, when my husband was looking for a job, I asked him if we ought to pull our toddler Sam out of daycare for a while.
“No,” Nat said. “Maybe for a day or two, but not full-time.”
“Why not?” I asked.
Nat shrugged. “I’m not really sure what I’d do with him all day.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “That makes sense.”
It was just an everyday conversation, one of the many check-ins we have daily about our family. But I found myself unable to forget that particular exchange. Why didn’t Nat feel guilty about putting Sam in daycare while he wasn’t working? Why weren’t other people questioning his efforts to find a full-time job when we had a small child at home? Why didn’t he feel like a failure for not knowing what to do with a toddler, 24/7? From what I could tell, he’d answered my question without an ounce of internal strife.
Then the answer hit me: It was all because he’s the dad.
And dads, in my experience, don’t really have to concern themselves with such optics. They have the luxury of being considered a good parent if all they do is parent. They can put their kid in daycare while they don’t work and no one bats an eye. A woman, however? Not so lucky.
I started imagining what it would be like to raise children like that—blissfully free of self-doubt and the churning sensation in my gut that I’m always doing everything wrong. I thought it would feel amazing. And so I made up my mind to Think Like a Dad.
Most fathers want the same thing that mothers want: to raise children who are safe, happy, and well-cared-for. But in my experience, dads don’t take that desire to the extreme.
I have spent hours of my life chatting with other mothers about a listeria recall from Trader Joe’s, even after I’ve thrown out all the green beans from the freezer. I’ve lost days to researching the best high chairs online. Somehow, I’ve bought into the idea that the more I obsess over my children and what I buy for them, the more I’ll earn good-mom gold stars.
Of course, there’s a reason mothers succumb to such neuroses—we’re operating under weighty cultural expectations. Moms are the ones who society holds responsible for their children’s manners, scholastic achievements, eating habits, and grooming. When things go wrong, we’re the ones who get blamed. And so in an attempt to ward off the inevitable criticisms, we wind up hiring professional photographers for a one-year-old’s birthday party.
It’s not worth it. And it’s time to get our sanity back.
Thinking Like a Dad turns out to be pretty easy. Basically, whenever I start falling down a trap of self-doubt and paranoia about a parenting decision, I stop myself and consider the situation from the viewpoint of my husband.
One seasonal case in point: It’s that time of year where parents debate for hours upon hours on social media about sunblock. A mom (always a mom) will post a listicle from some unknown news source about which sunblocks are the worst, which are the best, and which will burn off your child’s skin upon application. This last category is probably what you have in your diaper bag.
Then everyone else in the comments section has a panic attack, contemplating how the copious amounts of Banana Boat they just smeared on their babies’ cheeks is actively full of cancer-causing chemicals. At this point, some random mom in the comments will invariably try to sell someone some sunscreen that costs $32 for 4 ounces from the weird multi-level marketing scheme she belongs to, and everyone else goes for it because, well, we’ve lost our minds.
So instead of falling down the rabbit hole, now I just ask myself: Would a dad freak out and worry about all the various kinds of sunscreens? No. He would commend himself for just remembering to apply some.
But wait! Your mom-brain may be protesting. Won’t other moms see me using non-natural sunscreen and think I’m a terrible parent?
If this were a dad, he’d shrug it off: Someone is judging me for putting sunblock on my kid? That’s weird. And then he’d go on with his nice, guilt-free life.
However, just because you start to Think Like a Dad doesn’t mean you should stop Acting Like a Mom. Without moms, birthday party invitations would never be responded to. Teacher Appreciation weeks would go unnoticed. Fresh fruit would be abandoned. Thank-you notes would go unwritten. Mom diligence is necessary so that the household and children don’t dissolve into chaos.
Of course, not all families have these traditional gender roles. In some families, the dad is the one sweating the details. Other families may have two laid-back moms or two neurotic dads. But I do think it’s generally true that women are subject to much more rigid standards of parenthood than men. Women overall spend an average of two hours and 13 minutes on chores daily, compared with one hour and 21 minutes for men, according to 2013 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center shows that in dual-income households, mothers still take on a far larger share of child care and housework than fathers.
When I’m Acting Like a Mom but Thinking Like a Dad, I make sure the dishes get washed, but I don’t obsess about keeping every corner of the house in perfect condition just in case company drops by. I’ll pack my kid a quick sandwich for lunch and stop myself from worrying about whether it’s healthy enough. Rather than changing the crib sheets in the middle of the night because of a little spit-up, I’ll just wipe it off and go back to bed. The idea is to get stuff done without indulging neuroses. You stop striving for gold-star parenting and start accepting “good enough.”
The final, most important step to Thinking Like a Dad is this: You can’t feel guilty about any of your choices. You just make a decision, and then pick up a book. Or see a friend. Or go for a run. Or work on your résumé to find that job that will pay better.
The goal is to take all those hours once spent silently freaking out over sunscreen and put them to more productive use. These days, I just put it on my kids, take them out to play, and hope for the best.