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For Daughters, Is Babysitting the First Step on the Mommy Track?

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Do you remember the first time you babysat? If you are a woman, chances are a vivid memory just popped into your head, replete with an anxious yet exhilarating feeling that accompanied your first venture into both childcare and entrepreneurship. If you are a man, chances are a blank slate just popped into your head.

These were the reactions of my wife and me when our oldest daughter announced that she wanted to start babysitting for a neighbor. At age 13, she has babysat a few times now, enjoys the two boys she cares for and is earning money for the first time. As a stay-at-home father with a breadwinning wife, I feel good about my daughter's budding sense of competence in both caregiving and breadwinning.

But then I read Liz O'Donnell's new book, Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman.

Unfortunately, the future seems troubled. Through interviews with 100 working women, O'Donnell explores many of their predicaments and contradictions: "Is it the end of men? Are women the richer sex? Can we have it all or not? Should we be leaning in or opting out? And is motherhood really the most important job?" Regarding the growing number of female breadwinners, O'Donnell states: "They are caught in a perfect storm of male-dominated culture at work, traditional social norms at home, and outdated schedules in the school system." As a result, "their feelings about working and family are incredibly layered" and "conflicted."

One layer that especially caught my attention was a section titled "Is Babysitting a Trap?," in which a mother of four daughters proclaims: "Very few [of my daughters] babysat. I think it's the first step in the trap... It's that sort of mommy's little helper thing." (Note: not to be confused with that pill from the 1970s). She feels the modeling of motherhood via babysitting is a generational legacy that ensures women will continue to perform all those "invisible" domestic tasks that have been so oppressive.

I stopped reading for a moment.

By endorsing my daughter's entry into the babysitting business so unconsciously, was I contributing to the cycle of gender discrimination when it comes to childcare and housekeeping? Was I thereby reinforcing "traditional social norms at home"? As a model of gender role reversal at home, why had I so naturally accepted babysitting as my daughter's first "job"? After all, my first jobs involved seasonal yard work for my neighbors -- mowing, raking, shoveling and weeding. It hadn't occurred to me to babysit, and no one suggested it. But why had I not suggested lawn care instead of childcare to my daughter?

Quick, ask breadwinning wife for input, I thought. Turns out she had much to say, and with great animation. For brevity, I paraphrase:

Are you crazy?! If our daughter wants to babysit, let her! She doesn't want to mow lawns! Besides, at the rate they pay babysitters today, she's already an entrepreneur! It doesn't mean she's going to end up on the 'mommy track' someday, unless she wants to be on the 'mommy track.' In fact, chances are she'll realize how challenging kids can be. For me, it was excellent contraception!

In fairness, I should note that one of my wife's earliest experiences babysitting involved watching six boys under age 6 for 25 cents an hour. She's never really recovered. (In hindsight, she could have used O'Donnell's chapter on negotiating tips for women.)

With that outburst, my wife set me straight (I think), though I still plan to teach my daughter about lawn care. In fact, we chuckled at the irony that my lack of babysitting experience may have set me on the "daddy track" by fostering a how-hard-can-it-really-be mindset. As a veteran at-home dad, trust me: It's damn hard.

Later in the book, O'Donnell makes a key observation: "Part of the solution lies in our ability to shift our thinking about housework and childcare as they relate to work from women's issues to parenting issues." Yes, changing language often leads to solving problems.

Take the phrase "mommy's little helper." During my early at-home years, occasionally, we hired a babysitter so I could work on a short writing assignment or book review. We did not, however, call the position "daddy's little helper." (Beyond its awkwardness, that phrase may have been too creepy for some, another issue that needs to change.) Obviously, "parent's helper" would work best.

O'Donnell adds that it is not "mothering" but "parenting" that should be called the hardest job -- for both at-home and working parents. In a similar vein, I am thankful a growing number of "Mommy & Me" classes are self-revising to be more gender-neutral. In a dissimilar vein, I was perturbed by one of the mothers in the book who feels her stay-at-home partner is not pulling his domestic weight. As a result, she declares: "The best deal in town would be a real wife." Ouch!

Granted, an at-home dad does not aspire to be a "real wife." And certainly, some at-home dads slack in certain areas (as do some at-home moms). But most at-home dads work hard and take pride in their caregiving, even if Old Spice probably won't make a "look-at-me-now-look-at-your-man" commercial about this topic anytime soon. More importantly, equating "real wifehood" with perfect caregiving reinforces that childcare is naturally "women's work." In the same way we now reject "he throws like a girl," we ought to reject "he parents like a man." Then again, perhaps that's what I was doing before noticing my blind spot when it came to gender and babysitting.