This T-Shirt Is Going Viral for Its Blunt Message About Fatherhood

There’s a T-shirt that’s making the viral rounds right now, after recently being posted on Reddit and Facebook by AJ Ferguson of The Dad Network. It reads, simply: “Dads Don’t Babysit. (It’s Called ‘Parenting’).” And over the last few days, those six little (but all-too-powerful) words have sparked a lively debate across social media about a father’s role in bringing up his children.

I’ve seen the shirt pop up on my own social media feeds countless times over the past few days, and all I keep thinking about is the summer of 2013 — when my wife took an internship, and I took the summer off to be a stay-at-home dad. I’d just finished graduate school, and my new job at the university was a 9-month contract, leaving me with the summers off. I learned a lot about parenting that summer, honestly. I learned a lot about my children, we had two under the age of 6, we have three now. I learned that being the full time caregiver is actually a million jobs mixed into one: chauffeur, time manager, cook, maid, hostage negotiator … But I also learned that being a father, alone with children during the day, is socially weird.

I think that was probably the most unexpected part of it all. When I took my kids to the park, I received suspicious looks and snide comments — all for being a grown man at the park at 2 PM. With his kids. Once, I ran into friends at the grocery store, and they asked me if I’d lost my job. And when I explained to them that Mel and I had switched roles for the summer so that she could pursue an internship, their response was something along the lines of, “That’s very sweet of you to take on that burden for your wife.” While the comments I got in those days were always genuine and kind and with the best of intentions, what they were really saying was, “You are doing your wife’s job” — as if caring for children is solely a mother’s job, and that my “job” as a father is to do little more than bring in a check.

And yes, I also got sly smiles from strangers at the pool, followed by the comment, “Babysitting the kids, ah?” I always smiled back, and waved. But honestly, I wasn’t babysitting. I was parenting. I was raising my children. I was having a hand in their development and upbringing. I was being a father.

While reading through comments left on the Reddit post about this T-shirt, I quickly found something out: The way I was treated during my summer as a stay-at-home dad wasn’t some comical, rare experience. It’s actually an all-too-common one, shared by fathers everywhere. To date, the Reddit thread has earned thousands of comments, many of which are from fellow dads, sharing that they too have been told while watching their kids that what they were doing was cute, or kind, or sweet. As if they were doing some amazing favor for their wife by watching their kids — when they simply saw it as fulfilling one half of a partnership.

As one father commented:

“My wife’s job had 70% travel and she’s going back to school for her masters, and we were in a new city with no family and only a couple friends, so I was “on” 24/7. I was the main parent. Even my grandma would ask about me, ‘babysitting.’ It really made me almost cry sometimes because it was like they couldn’t see me as a caretaker.”

Another wrote:

“When my kids were little I’d take them to the playground and chase them around a little bit then settle in on a bench and look at my phone while they played. I can’t count the number of times people walked up to me while I was essentially just airing out my kids, and told me that I was a wonderful father. Meanwhile when my wife took them to the playground, when she sat on a bench and talked with her friends, people would tsk tsk her for not attending to our kids 100% of the time.”

I think the reason so many fathers are bothered by all of this is because in 2016, and many men are trying to step up, more than ever. At least I know I am. And yet it still seems as though we’re not looked at as equal players when it comes to raising our kids.

I was grocery shopping with my mother awhile back while Mel was at home. In the cart were my kids. As we walked through the aisles, my mother asked me why I was shopping. The soon conversation led into how I often get up in the middle of the night and do the laundry, too. She just didn’t understand where I came from, considering my father didn’t do anything like that when I was young. He went to work, brought in the check, and came home. And sadly, I think this is the standard that still lingers for fathers like me. It becomes particularly troubling when we consider that in 2013 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.

While writing this essay I reached out to Chris Routly, president of the Nation At-Home Dad Network, and proud makers of the “Dad’s Don’t Babysit” T-shirt.

Here’s what he had to say about the viral fame of the now-infamous T-shirt:

“I couldn’t be happier to see that this message has resonated with so many people, because it’s such a small but important thing. The words we use actually matter. One doesn’t have to be personally offended at the term to see how our society’s tendency to call a father caring for his own kid a ‘babysitter’ sends a very clear message that he’s the secondary parent. This not only devalues dads as capable and competent as caregivers, but it also contributes to the idea that caring for children is primarily the job of moms and that dads are merely there to help.”

I’m with Chris. Marriage, and parenthood for that matter, needs to be viewed as an egalitarian partnership. Mel and I pitch in where it is needed, and if we as a society want to change the perception of parenthood, if we want fathers to continue to be seen as equal parents, and be more involved than the fathers of previous generations, we need to move past seeing them as second-class parents once and for all.

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