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Counting Fathers as Babysitters: Why It Matters

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Today's mothers and fathers have an uphill battle. Here we are struggling to share parenting and employment in a world that still expects us to be in traditional family roles, and a government institution comes along to tell us that when dad takes care of the kids it's "babysitting", but when mothers do it, well, it's just what mothers do.

A recent post to the Motherlode blog at the New York Times, The Census Bureau Counts Fathers as 'Childcare' highlights the practice of the Census Bureau to assume that the mother is always the "designated parent" so if the father is caring for the kids while mom works, that's officially a "childcare arrangement." But as the author notes, "if Mom is caring for a child while Dad's at work, that's not a 'child care arrangement,' but something else. Parenting, presumably."

Wow. Just, wow.

Just goes to show how much we still confuse mother (the role and the relationship) with family work (the activities necessary to care for children and family). Over time, the two have become one and the same.

Mother = Caring for family

Caring for family = Mother

And the corollary,

Father = Helper

The first problem is that it's downright grating to today's parents. This is the same deep assumption at work when our daughter's school always calls me if there's a problem, assuming I am the "designated parent," when I am just as likely to be unavailable as my husband. Mothers seethe at the suggestion that our spouses don't share the same responsibility for the kids; that it's all on us.

And fathers, well frankly today's fathers are insulted. My friend Tod told me about a time he took care of his two young girls while his wife was out of town. He said many people sought him out to ask how things were going. "It was nice to get some extra attention and know that there was help available to me, but it also made me wonder how many people made the same effort to seek out my wife when I was out of town. Further, many people asked how the 'baby-sitting' was going. It left me feeling sidelined in my own children's lives. Was I really no more involved than the girl down the street that earns $10 an hour to keep an eye on the kids?" Poor Tod, can you imagine someone telling a mother how great she is to babysit her own children while her husband is out of town? Of course not, it's absurd and deeply insulting.

Okay, we're angry and insulted, so what. Get over it. Right?

Wrong. What the Census Bureau and other government departments measure actually matters. The government spends millions of dollars collecting and reporting economic data so that businesses can make decisions about where to build a factory or how many people to hire and what to pay them. Likewise the Census Bureau collects data on how people are spending their time and who is doing what in different segments of our population. All this data is used by local, state, and national governments to determine how a piece of legislation will impact people and the economy and what types of services are needed by their communities. People use the data every day to make good, informed decisions that affect a lot of people. When communities and governments don't have good data, we can get misguided solutions on a grand scale.

If the data the Census Bureau uses for their report, "Who's Minding the Kids?", treats mothers caring for children as totally invisible, and fathers caring for children as equivalent to "babysitting," we end up with an inaccurate and nearly useless picture of what's really going on with today's families.

If time that mothers spend caring for their children is not counted at all simply because it's assumed they do it anyway, then it becomes invisible and the real number of hours of unpaid childcare a family needs to provide in order to support their employment also becomes invisible.

If we count mothers' parenting hours and fathers' parenting hours as apples and oranges, we don't have the data we need to see how mothers and fathers are sharing family work and employment, how traditional roles may be changing over time, and what that means for families and employers.

If we don't know -- in a gender-neutral way -- who is providing unpaid care to children, grandchildren, or elderly relatives and how that impacts them, communities cannot plan to provide enough paid childcare and eldercare.

Measuring caregiving work, in a gender-neutral way, and using that information is critical to making good decisions that support the unpaid caregiving work that creates healthy communities and a healthy economy for all of us.

What we measure and how we measure it matter.

~ Kristin

P.S. Want to do something about it? Send this link to the U.S. Census Bureau via:

Twitter @uscensusbureau
Facebook
Email Lynda LaughlinLynda.L.Laughlin@census.gov at the Census Bureau's Fertility and Family Statistics Branch.

KRISTIN MASCHKA is the best-selling author of This is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today and a heads her own consulting firm in organization development and change leadership. Kristin brings a fresh perspective and authentic voice to the issues at the heart of family and community life today: modern motherhood and fatherhood, public education, community organizations, worklife issues, personal finance and economics, technology and business. This is cross-posted from her blog.