Text messages for dads show how low the bar for fatherhood is set
OPINION: If there were ever a case of treating gangrene with a Band-Aid, it's a new app called SMS4dads. It's crashing through gender stereotypes by enabling men to be more involved fathers and more supportive partners with – wait for it – text messages!
According to the accompanying website: "The text messages with tips, information and links to other services help fathers understand and connect with their baby and support their partner."
It's a nice idea, and I'm sure many of the people behind it have good intentions, but jeez, could you set the bar any lower?
Take this example of a tip taken from the app that's currently being tested: "Babies often cry more at 4 to 6 weeks after birth than at any other time. Can you think of extra ways to support your partner at this time?"
Nice and factual, but, first of all, don't you think that if the bloke was paying attention in the birthing class or took five minutes to scan the information booklets provided in the hospital and at postnatal check-ups, he'd already know about crying?
And secondly, your baby is crying so you should SUPPORT YOUR PARTNER? Like how? Make her a cup of tea before replacing your earplugs and going back to bed, leaving your partner holding the baby (literally)?
A far more useful tip would be: "Your baby is crying. PICK IT UP AND COMFORT IT, DUDE."
Do we think men are so inept that they need a text message to work this out? Or is our definition of an "involved dad" so pathetic that text message prompts are considered progress?
Let's contrast SMS4dads with the advice parenting expert Michael Grose offered up last week for mothers. Grose thought Mother's Day would be an opportune moment to urge mothers to do more mothering, writing in his newsletter that mothers' "parenting success springs from their willingness to fully give themselves over to motherhood".
A woman has to give over her entire being in order to be a good mum, whereas dads just have to sign up for text messages a couple of times a week. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.
Even stay-at-home dads tend to see fathering as a part-time job, according to research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies that reveals they do less childcare than their female partner in paid work.
That's right, even women who are the primary breadwinners in families do more childcare than their stay-at-home male partners; 21 hours compared with 19 hours per week.
To be fair, parenting is a skill just like any other, which takes time and practice to develop competence and confidence. With New Zealand workplaces offering two weeks of unpaid paternity leave (in Australia, dads get two weeks paid leave) and, often, a culture that considers nurturing to be a weakness, it can be more challenging for men to develop these skills.
SMS4dads is well intentioned and it may help with this upskilling process. And it also contains some advice on mental health, such as contacting community groups that provide assistance for men experiencing postnatal depression.
But let's not forget that there's no shortage of quality parenting information in the world. Parenting books have been around for decades. Don't like books? No worries. There are services you can sign up to that send weekly emails on what to expect at each stage of development.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if a man lacks parenting knowledge, it has nothing to do with the availability of information.
Neither is it because men are only capable of understanding a parenting app that's made specifically for men. If a new dad or soon-to-be father hasn't bothered to access parenting information yet, it's probably because he doesn't really consider parenting to be his job.
And that's what's wrong with the whole premise of SMS4dads. A good father and partner needs to provide more than text message-prompted support and compliments.
He needs to take responsibility for being a parent.
Mothers are crying out for their partners to share in the responsibility of raising their kids. We don't want to be the only adult in the house, no matter how "helpful" our partner is.
Taking responsibility for parenting means that you have to factor your children into almost every decision you make; from the big stuff like balancing work and family life to the mundane of "do I have time to wash my hair?" and "what will we eat for dinner?"
A responsible parent takes the needs and care of their children into consideration all the time, not just when an app prompts them to do so.
Take travelling for work. I know women who, before they spend a few nights away, have to adjust the weekly shopping list, prepare meals, take stock of clothes and uniforms, spend hours arranging alternate pick-ups, drop-offs, childcare logistics, playdates, sleepovers and emergency back-ups – all with military precision – and then put in overtime when they return to make up the slack.
Many fathers, by contrast, simply pack their case and walk out the door.
Responsibility requires emotional labour and headspace. It means the buck stops with you EVERY SINGLE TIME, even when you're exhausted and emotionally and physically drained.
Being responsible for children is hard and sometimes the burden of it is crushing. The last thing families need is apps like SMS4dads giving men the misguided notion that "helping" is the same as fathering.
Kasey Edwards is the author of Guilt Trip: My Quest To Leave The Baggage Behind.
- Sydney Morning Herald