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Image / Self / Parenthood

Newsflash to men who say “babysitting” to talk about parenting: there is no start or end to parenting


By Rosemary MacCabe
08th Dec 2022
Newsflash to men who say “babysitting” to talk about parenting: there is no start or end to parenting

“You don’t babysit your own kids, you know. You just… parent them.”

I’m picking up sandwiches in a local sandwich shop when I hear it – although, I should say, it’s not the first time.

“What are you doing tonight?” the cashier asks her co-worker, who’s busy at the deli counter layering my baguette with slices of turkey and bacon and “American cheese”, the definition of which, I am positive, no one truly knows.

“Tonight?” he asks, absent-mindedly. “Uh… I’m babysitting my kid. Yeah, my girlfriend’s going out with some friends.”

She laughs, not unkindly, and corrects him. “You don’t babysit your own kids, you know. You just… parent them.”

He bristles ever so slightly (this had better not affect the quality of my lunch, I think) and replies, “Yeah, you can. I’m babysitting my kid tonight. You can babysit your own kid.”

“No,” she says. “You hire a babysitter to watch your kids when you can’t. But you watching your kids? That’s just life, once you have kids.” She laughs again, but I can tell she’s losing patience.

This is not, I think to myself, her first time having this conversation – although it might be his.

The Cambridge dictionary defines the verb “to babysit” as “to take care of someone’s baby or child while that person is out, usually by going to that person’s home”. On dictionary.com, “to babysit” is defined as “to take charge of a child while the parents are temporarily away”.

Unlike parenting, “to be or act as parent of”, babysitting is a job, and usually one that takes up a specific number of hours, one for which you can expect remuneration. There is a start time and an end time; when you go home after babysitting, for example, you are leaving your babysitting charge(s) behind.

There is no true “beginning” to parenting – you could argue that it’s at the moment of birth, although, for the pregnant person, it starts well before that – and there is no true “ending”, either. This is something that most of us recognise and accept.

And yet. This is not the first time I’ve heard a man talk about babysitting his own children and it will not, I’d hazard a guess, be the last.

Of course, there are exceptions, but by and large there is a societal expectation that men will be less “natural” parents than women, that they will need time to adjust and a little hand-holding to learn the “right” way to do things.

While I, as someone who has given birth, am expected to simply intuit the best way to parent my infant – I have lost track of the number of times people have answered my (reasonable) questions with, “oh… you’ll figure it out” – it feels as though my fellow parent is given a series of free passes with which to make mistakes and trip up and simply “forget” some of the more involved aspects of parenting.

Not only does this vastly underestimate the brain power of the average man, but it also assumes that the intuitive side of parenting is one that only applies to the birth-giver when, in fact, there is evidence in nature (look at frogs!) that the male of the species, when given the opportunity, will parent just as effectively and intuitively as the female.

A lot of these assumptions are borne out in jokes, in memes that portray men as bumbling fools who don’t know which way a nappy goes on, or what to do with the snot-sucker (the clue’s in the name, but to look at it, I can see why you’d be confused). But the end result isn’t all that hilarious, because it results not only in men being told that they’re incapable of parenting their own children, but it also places extra pressure on women to parent “perfectly”, whatever that looks like, when their male partners are given the leeway to make mistakes and blame them on their innate bumbling foolishness.

Of course, there are also men – this is a generalisation, so assume that there will always be exceptions – who lean into this kind of traditionalist thinking, for whom the idea that the woman will be the primary caregiver offers them a way to shirk the responsibilities of co-parenting their own children.

Here is a newsflash to men who use the term “babysitting” to talk about parenting their own children: there is no start or end time to parenting. There is no leaving it behind when you walk out the door, and though we could all do with a little more praise and appreciation in general, do not expect to be rewarded for doing the bare minimum of parenting your children. (There, I said it.)

For what it’s worth, my husband is not perfect.

“I think women, because they’ve had all this time growing the baby, they automatically feel this bond,” he tells me one night in bed, when the lights are already out and he can’t see the derision on my face – he is using this belief (based on very little bar the fact that he has children and is an avid reader of threads on Reddit) to justify his own ability to simply not hear the baby crying at night.

“I just don’t hear him!” he tells me. “But listen – feel free to wake me. I’m always happy to go in.”

He’s not perfect, as I said, but at least he’s trying.

Photography by Unsplash.