Diaper Diary: Why Parenting Division Of Labor Still Stinks For Moms
Why are men still avoiding tasks that women don't want to do either?
A few months ago, at the beginning of spring in Greece, I was taking a stroll with my three-year-old son at a playground in Voula, in the southern outskirts of Athens, facing the sea. Suddenly, Lorenzo ran a few meters to the beach.
As I was following him, a man saw me carrying a thermos under my arm and mate in my hand. Now, mate is a type of tea that is mostly drunk in parts of South America, which comes with an interesting ritual. The tea leaves are traditionally put in a gourd (called mate — even if I now have a yellow plastic recipient instead of a gourd, it is still called mate) which also has a straw, and hot water is regularly poured into the gourd and then drunk.
“Argentinean or Uruguayan?” asked the man. So, once again I proved that the combo son + mate is usually an infallible generator of conversations (and anecdotes).
This time, the man in question was Italian, married to a Greek woman, with whom he had two children. At one point, she went with the older child a few meters away, to the playground where we were with Lorenzo before.
The man, I’ll call him El Tano, as we refer to Italians in Argentina, stayed behind with his youngest child, a year and a half old, who was crawling in the sand.
During the time we chatted, El Tano told me that he had a lot of family in Buenos Aires and that, because of his job, 20 years ago he had tried to sell coffee machines in Argentina without much success: “I discovered that everyone drank mate instead!”
We had an entertaining conversation. I thought he was a nice guy. We talked about getting together for a barbeque. These unexpected encounters that lead to friendships happen very often when I am abroad — even more so since I’ve become a father.
Emergency? Change her!
Well, we were in the thick of our conversation when an unmistakable aroma emerged: his little girl had pooped. “Oops,” he said. Immediately, he grabbed his phone and called his wife, who was a few meters away in the playground. “The baby has pooped,” announced El Tano. At the time I was surprised (I almost said “Come on, bro!”, but I bit my tongue) and made an effort not to judge him — “who the hell am I to interfere?!” I thought.
I didn’t hear his partner’s response, but I imagined it — you didn’t have to be very perceptive honestly. When El Tano put down the phone, I smiled at him and said: “So now what? She needs to be changed, right?” I said so with a certain complicity, as if trying to encourage him, maybe because the situation seemed embarrassing to me — I mean, I didn’t know if he was allergic to excrements, right? El Tano, somewhat annoyed, said: “Change her!” imitating his partner’s voice. “Sure, as if it were easy…”
Why can’t this guy change a diaper in the middle of 2022? What’s behind his inability?
Resigned, El Tano got started. He seemed to be facing an impossible task, as if he had to solve the enigma of the origin of the universe. The girl was standing up, still dirty, and wobbling: there was a risk of adding sand to the poop. El Tano didn't know where to put the used diaper or where to put the clean one. It was a mess. I thought about collaborating in some way but I concluded that it would be invasive: I had just met him and, after all, this was an intimate moment even though we were in public.
I felt I was facing a somewhat implausible and rather stereotypical script of those movies where the father is a cliché caricature of a man incapable of domestic tasks or any care work at all. The same guy who a while before had told me that he traveled around the world selling coffee machines — quite successfully, except for Argentina — could that same guy, at the age of 45, surrender himself to a diaper?
As his frustration grew, El Tano huffed and puffed. Two minutes later, he gave up: he called back the woman who, like a firefighter, appeared immediately and, in a jiffy — and without uttering a word — put out the fire.
I had to bite my tongue again so as not to make any inappropriate jokes or comments — sometimes, in an attempt to ease the tension, I have bad timing. I could have said: “We were about to call the emergency services, but you were quicker!” We didn’t really know each other, and luckily I kept my mouth shut.
It's time to make room for another, more balanced scenario between mothers and fathers
What’s behind his inability?
The situation stuck with me. I’ve been thinking about it with a certain tenderness and confusion, because beyond El Tano's incapacity (and his lukewarm effort), I also saw his state of difficulty and discomfort in the face of an everyday situation that overwhelmed him and exposed him in public. After all, it is not pleasant to feel useless and even less so in front of a stranger.
Although I have no intention of turning El Tano into a victim, it wouldn’t do any good to persecute him either. Maybe it is worth, even if it seems rhetorical, to ask the obvious question: why can’t this guy change a diaper in the middle of 2022? What’s behind his inability?
It is not enough to say that he simply doesn’t know how to do it, because he doesn’t know how to do it. Nor to argue that he is “useless”; it is not a matter of focusing on the individual anecdote when the problem is something more general. Because, despite the fact that more and more men are changing diapers — and others continue to get away without doing it — El Tano is not the only one who has difficulty changing diapers, as this video clearly shows.
After a few laughs at the expenses of these scared fathers, let's get back to the subject: if it is clear that there is no special female talent that has been denied to us men, why do they know how to do it — and many have no choice but to become experts — and we still find it so challenging to develop this skill?
What is behind this disinterest in learning how to clean poop (or clean the bathroom or organize a child’s birthday)? Why is it that men find it so much harder than women to change a diaper?
We have to take co-responsibility
In the end, the diaper anecdote brings me back to the issue of care and the invisible burden that women assume in greater proportion than men and that they should let go of. Yes, leave the vacuum — and the space for possible conflict — to make room for another, more balanced scenario.
“If the mother stops thinking about what needs to be done and the father does not anticipate these needs, it may initially cause stress or judgement – but that could allow learning for next time”, wrote Melissa Hogenboom in this BBC article about the mental load.
So, I think there are at least two things that we men already know but we should remember more often. First, it is about a misconception that studies have debunked: women aren’t naturally better at planning, multitasking or organizing, they are just expected to do it more and so eventually become better at it.
Second, we have to take co-responsibility. Changing a diaper — among thousands of other things — is part of that. If we don’t know how to do it, that’s okay. We can have a little bit of a hard time until we learn — spoiler: it's easier than discovering the origin of the universe! — so that next time we won’t have the need to call the firefighters.
*Ignacio Pereyra is an Argentine journalist and author of Recalculating, a newsletter on masculinity and fatherhood.
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