Dad Guilt—Why Isn’t it a Thing?
Updated: Sep 20
Mom guilt—we all know what that is. The feeling that you are failing at being a caretaker, that you are not living up to parental expectations set by others and yourself. Sometimes I lay in bed unable to sleep because I can’t remember if I got the yogurt my son likes to eat in the mornings. My thoughts turn to the parade of horribles that will happen from my mom failure. Without breakfast, my son will flunk out of school, become a fuck up and roam the Earth contributing nothing useful. And even though I had him reading at two, they will relate his failure back to the moment I forgot to get him that yogurt. It will all be blamed on me. Because no matter the one million things you do right, it’s always the one thing you do wrong that they (your children and society) remember. Successes are shared, but failures are inherently linked to something we mothers did, or didn’t do.
It’s somehow always the mother’s fault. Thanks, Freud. As if adulting wasn’t hard enough, he had to add mom guilt and mom shaming to the mix. But of course, he’s a man, so why not blame women for all the failures? And as I sit up in bed unable to sleep—there’s my husband snoring away. How does he sleep so calmly? I take my feet and try to push him off the bed in frustration, but he doesn’t budge. He’s immune to pressure. How’s he not awake riddled with guilt that he’s failing at parenting because he spent an hour today on his phone instead of reading to Luke? Doesn’t he feel a sense of shame because Cali forgot her snack and had to sit in the corner and watch as everyone ate theirs?
Where is his dad guilt?—why doesn’t it exist?
Maybe it’s because being the vessel that grows our children provides an added sense of responsibility, an extra layer of blame coating our skin. I lost my first baby after working sixty-hour weeks as a corporate lawyer. My husband never questioned if it was something he did that caused that to happen in the same way that I blamed myself for choosing work over my child. After losing our baby, I didn’t think I could be both a good lawyer and a good mother so I chose the latter. Jury’s still out if that was the right decision. It’s been two years since Cali forgot her snack, but she still throws it in my face monthly as a reminder of the one time I failed as a parent. I also don’t think my husband has ever wondered if something he did led to my son’s type 1 diabetes diagnosis in the same way that I have questioned myself. Was it the filling I had replaced in my second semester or the Doritos I ate in my first trimester? And let’s be honest, my husband barely eats a vegetable, chances are it was his glucose laden sperm that did it all. Yet, he still sleeps peacefully.
Maybe dad guilt doesn’t exist because societal norms still equate females with family and men with providers, even though most females I know are both. My husband was on a plane ten days after my son was born, and was pretty much gone for the first three weeks of his life. Dad guilt or shame did not keep him home, in the same way mom guilt would have kept me there. But society also didn’t judge him for leaving since he was providing, an excuse that still doesn’t seem adequate for women. I remember reading an article where a famous female singer (her name escapes me, see my last blog on Perimenopause causing brain fog) was asked about how she felt about leaving her baby to go on tour, she replied, “Would you ask a man that question?” People always speak so highly of former Senator Rick Santorum being a parent to a child with Trisomy 18—but had he been a woman, would they still praise him? Or would they judge him for choosing his political ambitions over providing daily care to his daughter.
Maybe dad guilt isn’t a thing because, like Rick Santorum, my husband relies on the fact that I’m at home taking care of the details. He can hitch his cart to my wagon, and do half the work but get the same outcome. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, women shop, cook and pretty much lose our sanity to create meaningful memories for our children. In contrast, men watch football, itch their asses, and slap their names on the gifts we buy for family and friends. This year, I insisted on getting the kids Nintendo Switches even though my husband thought they were too expensive. And when they opened them with literal tears in their eyes, he sat there smiling and taking pictures like he had a role in creating that magic. I wanted to scream it was all my idea. But, like our mothers before us, I let Santa have all the glory.
And yes, I understand my husband is nice and kind. I’m not trying to undermine him as a human. The point is he operates in a zone of blind ignorance when it comes to the children, and I too want to be in that zone. I want to wake up on Christmas morning and be just as surprised as he is as to what’s under the tree! Or to sit in peace for five minutes and enjoy the only present I got, the ring and gem my daughter got from her school's Christmas Store, rather than make Christmas breakfast. Or on Thanksgiving, I want to spend the day sprawled out on the couch binge watching romantic comedies and eating a turkey that I didn’t wake at 5:00 a.m. to cook.
But I would never put my desires over the happiness of my children. #momguilt And that is why the cycle doesn’t change. Though I do make my boys cook with me on holidays and let Cali watch football so I have hope that change is coming.
But I also wonder if dad guilt isn’t a thing because dads don’t judge and gang up on each other. I can’t remember the last time I caught my husband in a salacious conversation about whether Friend X caused his kids ADHD by letting them eat yellow and red food dyes, or bitching that Friend Y was a shitty dad because he didn’t sign up to volunteer at the book fair. But admittedly, he can’t say the same about me. Just like there’s no dad guilt. There’s also no dad shaming. We mothers are our own worst enemy in so many ways. Maybe if we all admitted we aren’t perfect, we’d feel less pressure to pretend otherwise. Yes, my kids tell me they hate me. Yes, my kids scream and yell. Yes, sometimes they eat frozen chicken nuggets for dinner.
So perhaps the answer isn’t that dads should feel guilty or shame for not prioritizing their children’s happiness 24-7. Maybe we as women should feel less guilty and stop stressing over small details. Esther Wojcicki, author of How to Raise Successful People, argues that the best thing you can do for your children is to stop doing everything for your children. We women need to take a page out of the man playbook, and worry less. Let those kids eat cake! (If they end up overweight later, they can take Ozempic.) Let those kids play video games instead of read! (AI will be able to think for them anyway, making independent thought unnecessary.) Let those kids use social media all day! (Influencing is now a college course. It’s really like training for their future.) What did Freud know anyway? Just because his mother didn’t hug him enough as a kid doesn’t mean the rest of us women have to carry that guilt into eternity. I bet if his dad had done a load of dishes and helped his mother with childrearing, maybe she'd have more time to hug.
Also, I know some man will read this and say "But I do constantly fixate on making my children’s lives special." To which I’ll respond, this blog was written based on my interactions with hundreds and hundreds of women and their experiences raising children with their partners. So let me know where you live because I’ve always wanted to see a unicorn.
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