Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Dads don't 'baby-sit' their kids

        Years ago, I got my knuckles thoroughly rapped when I casually asked a new acquaintance — a young mother — if she worked. “I work very hard,” she told me, “but not outside the home.”


        I never posed that question again, at least not in that way. Actually, it was not necessary to ask. You could guess and be right half the time by 1981. And today about 70 percent of American mothers work “outside the home.”

        So, if I wanted to give accidental offense, I had to be content with failing to note that people are “differently abled” and variously “challenged” and living in all sorts of configurations that we didn't used to discuss at all.

Verbal gymnastics
               This is more than verbal gymnastics. It's language trying to keep up with reality. And in that spirit, I would like to apologize to dads. No, make that an apology to parents. Or co-parents. Or whatever they are calling themselves.

        In a recent column, I said offhandedly and approvingly that a young father “baby-sat” his daughter.

        “Whether for an evening or full-time, no actual parent should ever be considered a baby sitter for his/her own child,” responds Miriam Ricci. “That would imply that moms raise the kids and dads are there to pitch in and help out when necessary.”

        Ken Weidinger says, “I checked my Webster's and found baby-sit defined as "to care for children usu. during a short absence of the parents.' Perhaps he parented, cared for, taught, loved or raised his children, but fathers do not baby-sit their own children.”

        My knuckles are smarting again. And I deserve it.

        Words matter. It's a new day, and there are “new dads” out there.

Women's work
               “My husband and I have been partners in the raising of our children from birth,” writes Amy Leonard. “I went back to teaching mornings part-time, and my husband worked nights so we could raise our children without baby sitters or day care.

        A study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research suggests that partners like Amy and her husband are managing to spend more time with their kids than working parents did 20 years ago.

        Children between the ages of 3 and 12 in two-parent families spent about 31 hours each week with their working mothers in 1997, compared with about 25 hours in 1981. Time spent with working fathers increased from 19 hours to 23.

        Progress. “The language we use is powerful and often defines our expectations,” according to Ken Weidinger.

        Every time any of us automatically assumes that kids are “women's work,” it diminishes the crucial role of fathers. It perpetuates the myth that men don't care about their children, don't have a stake in their well-being. It gives an automatic thumbs-up to men who believe their responsibility ends after they have contributed the DNA.

        And that's not politically incorrect. It's just, plain incorrect. Wrong. Ignorant.

        So, I get it — I really do. “Baby-sit” is more than a word. And I'm grateful that so many readers took the time to react. Dads are 50 percent of the team. Kids are the mutual project of the men and women who make them. There's no reason to congratulate a father simply because he takes responsibility for children who belong to him.

        But I hope I'm still allowed to notice the good guys who have decided to be good parents.
        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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