Last week I awoke to a phone call from my daughter’s day school administrator.
“Did you know that your daughter has a rash?” she said in the same curt, accusatory tone she uses at all times (or at least every time I have spoken with her).
It’s 8 am and I had elected to sleep in a bit after a late night working. My husband — my daughter’s father, might I add — had probably only minutes before dropped her off. As I was wiping my eyes, looking at the clock and processing this question, my brain slowly clunked into gear.
“I did not see her this morning.”
“Well, she has a rash on her face and all over her back,” the administrator said.
I sat up and thought a moment. The night before, my two-and-a-half-year-old toddler had thrown an epic tantrum (two, in fact). One because I had to wash her beloved stuffed pig, which had gotten dirty (see video). And the other at bedtime, because she didn’t want to go to bed. And in her protest, she kicked me and my husband. The penalty for this is usually a time-out, but at bedtime, the penalty changes to taking away story-time privileges. Honestly, it is the punishment I hate the most. But giving her a time-out in her bedroom when she is supposed to be going to bed anyway seems like a mixed-message and very ineffective. Taking away something she enjoys then becomes the other option. And, in the long run, as parents all over the world have had to reassure themselves (and sometimes their children), it is for their own good. I can’t raise a child that goes around kicking people when she doesn’t get her way.
But dear lord — deliver us from the tantruming! The wailing and gnashing of teeth! Mixed in with her screaming comes kicking and rolling around on the floor. Sometimes she mashes her little face into the carpet and gets rug-burn. And it was at this thought, that I remembered I was on the phone.
“She had a bad night last night. She through a pretty big tantrum at bedtime. You know how they are at this age,” I said.
The school administrator was not amused, or even sympathetic. “Well, sometimes these rashes are a sign of strep throat. We are concerned.”
I had taken my daughter to the doctor the day before to get a cough checked out. The doctor assured me that it was going around and would clear up on its own. She did not have a fever and, besides coughing, was in good spirits and pretty much her normal self.
“We were just at the doctor yesterday. I even have a note saying she’s okay for school,” I said.
“This rash seems pretty bad.”
And by now, my mind is fully awake and it dawns on me that my husband is probably only blocks away from the school (since he just dropped our daughter off).
“Did you call my husband? I’m sure he’s just around the corner.”
“We thought you should know.”
This seemed like a strange answer to me. On the one hand, I do want to know if my daughter is sick. But on the other, this conversation is steering toward: Take your child home. I’m at home. My husband is mere blocks away. If you really want a child out of there quickly, why not call the parent is most likely to be closest?
And then it dawned on me: I’m getting this call because I’M THE MOM. This is not the first time this has happened at this school and maybe if I had not been asleep when the phone rang, it would have occurred to me sooner. I told the administrator that my husband was still so close, I’d call him to turn around and check out the situation. The administrator was not amused, but I didn’t give her a choice.
A short while later, my husband called me from the school parking lot. He had our daughter and was bringing her home. Did she have a fever? No. Was she out of sorts? No. And what about this rash situation?
“There’s a rad patch on her cheek. I think it’s rug-burn,” my husband said, understandably annoyed by the whole situation.
When he got back to the school, the administrator had left on an errand. My husband talked with our daughter’s teacher, who agreed that the rash — on one cheek and seemingly nowhere else — looked like rug-burn. But the teacher had no power to over-ride the administrator’s ruling. My husband was understandably frustrated by the administrator, who did not speak to him at all and then left, and now spending a large chunk of his morning driving our toddler to and from home for no reason.
Once I got her home, I put my daughter in the shower, thinking if this was something topical irritating her skin, we should wash it off from anywhere on her body. When I got her out, the rash had gone down significantly. Ten minutes later, it had nearly vanished. At intervals throughout the day I checked her temp and she never had a fever. Then, I took her back to the doctor to get a note for school. I think the doctor was as annoyed by this situation as I was! (He even offered to give me that day’s copay back because it was a ridiculous situation.) Think about it. If my daughter had strep throat — or anything else that would be contagious or bad at school — he would have already found it the day before!
I spent the day furious at the school administrator for her obvious sexism and disrespect! She clings to a cultural stereotype and sexist mythology that a woman is the only true parent of a child, especially when it comes to anything messy. The administrator passed up talking to my husband in person in favor of calling me at home (for something that was nothing). Because somehow ONLY THE MOM knows what to do! Apparently, moms have special powers. If that’s true, I didn’t get mine. Such a blatant, archaic, and sexist world-view! Meanwhile, this is very disrespectful to my husband, who is treated as a lesser, second-rate parent, in these situations. And finally, this is disrespectful to a board-certified doctor.
Give me a break!
The whole thing got me thinking about how our culture continues with this myth of the mother, while simultaneously devaluing men as competent, willing, loving, and smart parents. My husband and I are equal parents to our child. We are both educated, professional people and we do the best we can, just like most parents out there. But our genders, or even our genitals, do not make either one of us a better or worse parent. When we elevate women as the only true parents and simultaneously turn fatherhood into a second class of parenthood, we not only condone the institutionalized sexism in our society, but we enable it. When our culture disrespects the value of a male parent, we send a clear message. When it comes to parenting: Men need not apply.
For ages we have been talking about inequality in the domestic sphere. This is usually framed around the second-shift, the unequal divide in household duties. Taking care of the domestic sphere is considered beneath a man because it is “woman’s work.” This lays some of the groundwork for the mythology of motherhood. Raising children is women’s work, after all. And the only way to regain any power in this structure is for women to then become the supreme parent. Women become elevated by their achievement of supreme parenting and virtue by being a domestic goddess.
This is not to say that there is no reward or virtue to being a parent or even a domestic god/goddess. I strive to be a good parent to my daughter. But that effort, that desire, is the same for my husband. There is no scenario in which my husband would lose interest in being an active parent or in caring for our child as much as I do. And I would take this a step further and say that single fathers and gay fathers are not impaired in parenting because of their gender. Men are equally capable of parenting as women. Period. It is clear, however, that our society does not agree. Just look at how quick we are to dismiss dead-beat dads as, let’s face it, almost expected. But if a mother walks out? Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth!
This episode at the school also got me thinking in another way. What message do we send our children if we constantly put motherhood on a pedestal and similarly push the lion’s share of parenting burdens on women? If I am seen as the parent-in-charge, so to speak, isn’t this one of the ways my daughter internalizes gender inequalities as status-quo? If the world treats my husband like he’s a saint because he takes her to the park, she will start to see how men are treated differently as parents than women. (Believe me, when I take her to the park, it is a much different experience.) Likewise, if people expect so much more from me because I am the female parent, we send a clear message that parenting is “women’s work.” (And also, might I add, a woman’s fault if things go badly.)
I am not sure how things will go at school on Monday. (I have two doctor’s notes now, so that should help.) But I am troubled by this pattern. (The school calls me if my husband is running late to pick up our daughter. Because I am my husband’s keeper, too?) Should I find another school and, perhaps, find the same problem? My daughter loves her teacher, so it would break my heart to disrupt her life like that. Should I confront the administrator, who, if I’m being honest, shows no signs of a willingness to change her world view?
This problem is not unique. It’s systemic. It’s woven into the fabric of our culture. And at the end of the day, I suppose the best we can do is live by example and try to push the dial forward when we can. There is a big world outside our home and my daughter is being exposed to it more each day. I cannot right every wrong. And I cannot shield her from the inequality and injustices that happen outside our front door.
So I will leave you with this question: How do you handle/confront sexism and inequality as a parent?