I got a call this morning from a journalist asking about the "bad parent" trend, wherein folks like Bad Mother author Ayelet Waldman are proudly revealing their most secret parental failures. That got me to thinking about this topic, and I thought I'd share some random observations:
1) Fathers are pretty much defined as "bad parents," as the term is being popularly used. When we talk about proud "bad parents," most of the time we're really talking about "bad mothers" who are rebelling against the idea that they must be perfect to be good. Ayelet isn't actually a "bad mother," at least as revealed by her book and in her husband's new book, Manhood for Amateurs; Bad Mother is a reaction against the unrealistic, cognitively dissonant standards to which mothers are held. Meanwhile, fathers are not held, and do not hold themselves, to the same standards. When fathers reveal their foibles and failures as parents, they do it, by and large, with a laugh. They are allowed to be human, which, I think, adds more to the pile of evidence that guys remain a privileged class in America and the world.
2) That said, I think the "bad mother" thing is also evidence of the degree to which the genders are measurably converging in attitudes and behaviors. Wide disparities remain; it's just that differences are smaller than they were ten, twenty, fifty years ago. More women expect to have careers, and many do have them; more men expect to do more housework and childcare, and they are doing more at home. Fathers and mothers are both expected to play breadwinning and caregiving roles. That's a big change. When moms like Ayelet shake their fist at "good mother" standards, in many respects they're asking to be judged by a standard that's closer to the twenty-first-century "good father"--someone who is perhaps a slob and is perhaps not always the most empathic person in the world, who perhaps carves out space for a life apart from his family, but who is still a day-to-day presence in the lives of his children and fulfilling whatever role falls to him as parent.
3) That flexibility is key; in a time of profound gender role fragmentation, that's what both mothers and fathers have asked for--the ability to be themselves and to be judged by the circumstances of their lives--as opposed by the standards of fifty years ago or by the standards of people who imagine that their own private circumstances are universal. In a dense, connected, diverse world, tolerance and openness are necessities as well as virtues. And as I think Ayelet's work reveals, acceptance of one's own failures is a pathway to accepting other people's "failures," as we perceive them. Self-compassion leads to compassion for the people in our lives as well as a more generalized social compassion.
4) I won't personally be jumping on the "bad parent" bandwagon. I've rarely felt oppressed by the judgements of others about my fatherhood--but I have been confused about what, exactly, I'm supposed to be doing as a father. For that reason, my book The Daddy Shift is not a bad parent book--it's about good fathers, and what ideals help them to be good. There are individually bad fathers, of course, just as there really are genuinely bad mothers, but fathers as a group are often judged as "bad parents" for not behaving like mothers. That's why we need a good father movement. Moms might indeed need a bad parent movement. But fathers need positive, aspirational images, and tools for negotiating roles that their fathers were never expected to adopt. And I think we need other people, particularly the women in our lives, to understand the kind of fathers we are trying to be.