This week an exhausted mother-of-two wrote an open letter asking her husband for more help but is this 'crap dad' narrative making the problem worse wonders Sophie White
"Dear Husband. I. Need. More. Help." begins the open letter penned by Utah blogger, Celeste Erlach and posted to a breastfeeding Facebook page earlier this week. It is a letter that has struck a major chord with other mothers and has been shared 4000 times in just a few days.
In her letter, Erlach outlines the myriad ways she needs more help from her husband from getting an hour to herself in the evening when he will watch the baby, to getting out of the house at the weekends "to feel like an individual". It's a letter that pained me to read because Erlach who has a toddler and a young baby, is so clearly in distress. I remember the isolation of those long baby days, everything drenched in a dreary gloom because sleep deprivation can do that to a person. Her letter also pained me because much of what she was outlining for her husband to do was so damn basic.
"I need you to offer to lend me a hand," she writes. "Or suggest I go lay down during the kids' naptime. Or start putting away the dishes without me suggesting it. I need you."
I mean, my god, man put your dishes away. Erlach's letter shines a light on that war of attrition that often evolves between couples on the battleground of domestic tasks. In asking her husband for help, Erlach is absolutely doing the right thing for herself. However, in asking him she is also still allowing herself to be in charge and for him to remain hapless and unburdened.
Much focus has been given to the mental and emotional load since a comic strip You Should've Asked by French cartoonist, Emma, went viral a couple of years ago. In it she explains the cycle of conditioning that has allowed dynamics in heterosexual relationships to apparently freeze in time somewhere around 1952. "When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he's viewing her as the manager of the household chores," writes Emma. She goes on to highlight how as, project managers, women are then also expected to execute at least half the work which means that overall they're putting in much more than their fair share in the running of the household.
Erlach's letter is a plea for help, but it is also contributing to a problem that is self-perpetuating. She is still asking him to carry out tasks that really, considering the fact that he is a grown man, should be a given. The 'men are useless' line is getting us nowhere as it is infantilising men and making nags of us women.
Both Erlach's letter and You Should've Asked cite the gender modelling we do growing up as children. In the past, we gave little girls baby dolls and mini cleaning appliances and little boys got lego, literally handing them the tools of their future roles in the family unit. Erlach grapples with asking her husband for help because it's deviating from the roles his parents played in their household growing up. "I know it's not how our parents did it, and I hate even asking," she states.
Apart from this making me want to shake Erlach and say stop apologising to this man-boy you're married to, it really makes me grateful that my own parents gave me a good model of relative equality in our home. Bad dynamics evolve all too easily with one partner taking sole responsibility for crucial things like bedtime or dinner time; one commenter on Erlach's post even wrote that her husband wouldn't know how to make the kids' dinner.
What the 'crap dads' thing is really doing is basically letting men off the hook. There's a kind of resignation in the crap dad gag. A sort of "Oh men, what'll ya do? They can't grill a fish finger." How many times have we heard women say they just do something themselves rather than let the other half do it poorly?
Some men have worked out quite a handy little number for themselves. They do something half-assed and we all shrug and sigh, "that's dads for ya". But then when they do anything that seems to overextend themselves in any way they are lauded, richly praised for their talents in the field of parenting. Remember that time Chris Hemsworth baked his daughter a birthday cake and the internet lost its mind over it? The headlines were borderline hysterical. "Chris Hemsworth saves the day by baking his daughter a birthday cake" pants one breathlessly. Saves the day! My god, it is fairly basic, he made a cake – admittedly looking great while doing it – but still, would we give this top-shelf praise to Reese Witherspoon for baking a cake? Absolutely not. We're essentially just praising him for reaching a baseline of parenting.
The thing is these days, aside from hapless dads in 'witty' ads and baiting 'open letters', I don't see this bumbling dad thing bearing out in reality that much at all. The men I know in real life are as engaged in their children as the mothers. But maybe I'm just in a smug woke bubble of bullsh*t. Given the response to this letter there is clearly a silent scream of irritation from mothers all over who are shouldering the domestic and emotional burdens of parenthood. The thing is nothing will change until we change. Women need to push back, up until now we've essentially been handing them the 'bumbling dad' script to read from. It's time to bin it and start a new narrative.