Maybe he's not actually a good dad
If you have to append "but he's actually a really good dad" onto anything, he's probably a shitty father.
This is a reprint of a Substack blog from the summer. This week, I’m working on starting a podcast (yes, really; it’s finally happening!) and a TikTok channel where I will experiment with answering some Feminist Advice Friday questions. In the meantime, enjoy this republished blog, and check back next week for new content.
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If you have to reassure people that your male partner is “actually a really good dad,” odds are good he’s not.
I’ve noticed this weird new trend in feminist and pseudo-feminist spaces. It goes like this:
The speaker/writer correctly identifies the numerous problems of the standard heterosexual marriage. They talk about how household chore inequity reduces women’s life prospects, destroys their health, traps them, and erodes their potential. They get it, or they seem to.
And then they make a weird pivot: “But my husband means well! He’s actually a really good dad! Most of our husbands are really loving partners doing their best!”
No the fuck they are not.
Words mean things.
What would we call a mother who didn’t know how to care for her children? Who didn’t know their teachers or friends? Who regularly ignored their needs, or put them in danger, or embraced stupid and ill-informed parenting practices? What would we say about a mother who was never home to put them to bed (or who was home, but too busy playing video games to participate)? If a mother spent her weekends playing while her partner tended to the children who desperately missed her, would that be ok? If she couldn’t ever manage to feed her kids on time, or at all, or in healthy ways, would we accept that?
I’m quite certain we would have no difficulty calling her a bad mother, because we never have any reservations about calling women bad mothers—even when they’re doing everything they’re supposed to. To be a mother is to be wrong. Breastfeed? You’re making people uncomfortable, you crazy lactivist. Formula feed? You prioritize your own convenience over your child. No matter how you give birth, it’s wrong. Parent gently and you’re too permissive. Parent with strong boundaries and you’re ignoring your kids needs.
Why is it that we are loath to call any man anywhere who has ever managed to get his sperm into someone else’s egg a bad father? But every mother will eventually hear that she is a bad mother?
It’s because judgments about who is an acceptable parent are about social control. Mom-guilt is a tool for shaming and oppressing women, for preventing them from coming together to demand better circumstances, to push back on abusive mothering norms.
Part of pushing back against mom-shaming requires us also to demand that men heed the call of parenting and live up to their duties. It requires us to fairly assess their parenting.
Perhaps the most important step in feminist consciousness-raising is taking action.
It’s not enough to understand that patriarchal norms harm women. That won’t break the generational cycle of patriarchal abuse.
It’s not enough to identify the ways your marriage reinforces patriarchal norms, because that won’t protect your kids from internalizing those norms.
And it’s sure as hell not enough to know that your husband is exploiting you, but conclude that it is ok for him to do so.
Men can do better. They are not incompetent. They choose not to do better, and one of the reasons they are able to make that choice is that an entire society lets them off the hook.
When we say that chore inequity and marital abuse is real, and acknowledge that a man is participating in these things, but then assert that he’s actually a really good husband or father, the message is clear: women’s suffering doesn’t matter. Children’s well-being isn’t important. The most important thing is never, ever holding men accountable.
That’s a nope.
You can’t be a good father and mistreat your child’s mother. And yes, mistreatment includes making her work longer and harder at home so you don’t have to.
You can’t be a good father and not know how to care for your children, alone, without supervision, to the highest possible standard.
Let’s not delude ourselves into calling bad fathers anything but what they are. And let’s stop encouraging our friends to do it.