Saturday, May 05, 2007

Who Takes Care of Your Kids When You Travel?

My husband and I have both been traveling a lot lately, and our various travels have involved some amazing choreography so that one of us was home with our daughter at all times. We only had one close call in which my flight was canceled one morning on a day when my husband was flying out that same night, and the airline first rescheduled me for a flight the following day. I did get home that day, so it all worked out. We have friends who would step in and help in an emergency, so it wouldn't have been a disaster if I hadn't been able to get on the afternoon flight.

At an end-of-year departmental party today, two (2) different people asked me who takes care of my daughter when I'm traveling. No one ever asks my husband or me who takes care of her when he is out of town. I have written about this before, but the phenomenon never ceases to amaze me. Both times today when I was asked this question, I said "Guess" and both times the first guess was that a grandmother visits. Guess again.

I found this question irritating but not too shocking when my daughter was a baby, as perhaps the questioner was acknowledging how challenging it is for one person to take care of a baby. Now I just think it is bizarre. Do they really think a father can't take care of an elementary school-aged kid? I have friends whose husbands have never taken care of their kids alone, but I am sure these guys could do it.


Mr. B. said...

Hmmm... Ah yes.

Well Mr. B. is of another generation. But he will merely note that he was able to take care of his approximately three-year old whilst his wife was off in Sweden doing research for a summer and also at various six month intervals whilst she was on sabbatical. He remembers taking his son along to work and having him draw benzene rings on the blackboard during an OChem exam...

And this was long, long ago.

Moral: Yes, indeed, hubby can do it. One might hope that modern universities would make this a little easier, but Mr. B. is, even now, subjected to family unfriendly meetings where his female colleagues with children are subject to financial penalties because they can't realistically attend departmental functions between 8 and 9 am.

But never fear, things have improved tremendously over the last thirty years and, if we keep complaining, they may even get fixed.


Mr. B.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me

Unknown said...

Agreed. But I have slightly stronger views about parenthood although I'm not a parent myself...

Of what use is that parent to the child if he can't be everything the child NEEDS him/her to be? And taking care of the child is as such a parent's basic responsibility...

Plus, if there is anyone who has to take care of the child then it has to be either the kid's mother or father, not grannys or friends... Unless there is no other option...

Scooper said...

It must have been 25 years ago when my male professor, who had a reputation for fierceness, had to take care of his preschool son while his wife was away on business. While he lectured us on graduate Classical Mechanics, his son climbed all over him. Really. Up to his shoulder and over his head.

After that, he didn't seem so fierce anymore.

Maybe the title question of your post reflects a cultural collusion with men to keep their nurturing sides hidden.

Unknown said...

i am going out of town for 3 days and my husband will take care of the 4 little girls just fine. i am always annoyed when people ask, "is your husband babysitting?" i ALWAYS say ,"No, he's watching OUR children."

barbara said...

It is amazing how we all hear the same questions. I've heard fellow scientists describe my husband as a saint or a martyr because he takes care of the kids as much as I do. In my presence.

I have tried to explain that he actually encourages me to spend time away, because he knows I do much better research when I can concentrate. They seem not to be able to grasp that the difference between mothers' and fathers' role in parenting ends once breastfeeding is over.

Zoe said...

Can people actually be so archaic?

Although I sound like a skeptic, have you double checked with your hubby that no one asked about you managing when he was not around? I know my hubby gets a lot of “its tough on her alone. How does she manage without you?”

The one who guessed the answer as a gran instead of your Hubby definitely must have just come off grading papers.

Big O said...

I don't have any kids but I've observed this bias. Normally it's fairly harmless, it's when courts assume that fathers are incapable of caring for their children simply because they're men that I start to get upset.

Crabby McSlacker said...

I'm a non-parent (and have a female partner) so I've always found this issue perplexing. Why is it still assumed that in a heterosexual marriage women are primarily the ones responsible for childcare?

I know this sounds incredibly naive, but I don't get why this is still the status quo. It seems like women like FSP who actively speak out against this assumption are rare. Or at least in my circle--many of my married female friends seem to take on the primary caregiver role as somehow inevitable, and don't seem to object to it the way I feel I might.

When I was younger, I thought these role expectations would soon be changing, but really, it's hard to see a whole lot of progress since the 70's. I guess the issue is just a lot more complicated than I gave it credit for.

Rebecca said...

As I said in a comment a few months ago, when I returned to work, everybody asked me who was taking care of the baby, whereas if I'd been a man, nobody would have asked that question.

I think that a big problem is that fathers are painted as incapable buffoons in commercials, movies, books, etc., combined with the fact that childrearing is not a prestigious activity.

Women used to be perceived as incapable of rigorous academic work, but because it was prestigious and rewarding, we fought the stereotype and entered into science. But men have no motivation to fight the incapable father stereotype, because if men were actually thought of as competent, then that would mean more work for them.

So that leaves us with a society where a man taking care of his child is "babysitting," where my stay-at-home-dad husband goes to the store with our son and everybody asks "Where's your wife?", where people look down on him for making a choice that they wouldn't think twice about a woman making.

Anonymous said...

you should engage in gender- research since this really seems to interest you. In Norway we have paid parental leave from work up to a year from childbirth. 8 of these weeks are given only (obligatory) to fathers.
but i find your examples interesting. alos with regard to the science world. (as employed)!


Anonymous said...

My sister is right now on an extended trip for work. Other times she has travelled it has been less than a week, this time a month. Her husband's first reaction to the news was to panic, will your mom come to help, he asked. She said that no, he was more than capable and if there was an emergency, someone would come to help. I talked to him yesterday at the half way mark. Of course everything is going well (no doubts by the rest of us) and you could hear the pride in his voice that he has done it.

Of course fathers can do it - and sometimes they just need to be stuck in that position to get them over the fear.


Anonymous said...

ha, so true! My husband stayed at home with our second was born (I only took one week off) and my mother's comment was, "how will he manage with two kids?" well, I don't know, mom, maybe the same way *you* did? And don't get me started on all the, "It is so nice of Mr. Man to help you around the house/with the kids."

Anonymous said...

My favorite is when people refer to it as *babysitting* when my husband is caring for our children. I cannot explain why that bothers me, but it does. By the same token, I spent many afternoon's playing in my dad's office while he saw patients and that was 25 years ago!

Jess said...

People like that are ignorant! So hard for them to believe that a man could possibly tend to the duties of taking care of the children occasionally!

Anyway, I work at an institution of higher education and I am also studying at one, so I think I will enjoy your blog immensely. My major is History. Keep up the great work here!

Anonymous said...

big o, I disagree that the assumption is only (or mostly) harmless when it comes to custody battles (i.e., when it hurts a man). It hurts women too and more frequently. A couple of years ago this came up when making grad students admision decisions. A BMP (Bearded Male Professor) expressed reluctance about admitting a woman because she had two kids. I'm happy to say she was admitted and is thriving in the program, but I'm not sure she would have been admitted in the first place if female faculty had not spoken up for her.

The fact of the matter is that women are less likely to be considered for opportunities because there is an underlying assumption that women take care of the house and kids. Statistically, having a family is professionally advantageous for men, but has the opposite effect on women. And yeah, this is in part because women buy into the assumption.

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

My favorite past-time is to answer stupid questions with really bizarre answers.

This isn't at all the same, but people often ask me who takes care of my dog when I'm not there, as if a dog needs 24 hour chaperoning. I usually reply with, "She's fine. Probably just chain-smoking in the backyard."

They also ask me this when my father comes to visit. I'm at school for a meeting, and they say, "What's your dad doing? Is he okay?"

I reply, "He's running around the house with scissors."

Seems like a bizarre answer about babysitting might help stupid people wake up. Or not. It's still fun.

Who is taking care of your daughter?

1. "She's got a job at the mall now, so it's not really a problem."

2. "Oh, I just lock her in my office the whole time."

3. "Oh, she's over at her biological father's house. Don't tell my husband."

I'm sorry you have to put up with stupid people.

Crabby McSlacker said...


Okay, that was hysterical.

And it also seems like practical advice--a good way to get people to question their assumptions without physically bonking them on the head. (Which, while satisfying, can lead to inconvenient jail time or costly litigation).

Female Science Professor said...

I used to reply "The cats, of course", but at some point my husband and I decided that sarcasm wasn't very fun or satisfying in this situation and it's best to go for the direct and unambiguous response.

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate! AND I think people who ask that kind of stupid question deserve the Cat Response! I love that!

Ann said...

I think I'll try the cat response next time I meet this question!

Though I must say, DH doesn't leave me lists when I have the kids by myself for a few days, and somehow I manage to produce a lunch that doesn't have three dairy products and no fruits or veggies (yup, he sent a quesadilla, cheese stick, and yogurt for lunch last Monday). And when I do leave, he usually does take them to Grandma's house! He can do it, you just have to not care about the things he doesn't think are important, like matched socks and regular baths.

Anonymous said...

I'm a new blogger and I'm thoroughly enjoying reading this blog.

My sister chose work from home when her kids were born, and she was judged by a lot of people for giving up work! She was forever explaining that she did work (and was better paid than her husband) and when she went away for conferences and things would always be asked "How will Paul cope with work and the kids? Who'll take them to school?" She would always say "He'll cope the same way I do. And I'm not worried about him getting them to school, the dog always walks them there."

Love the blog, keep up the good work.

Jay said...

When people would ask "who's with your baby while you work?" I used to say "I left her playing with knives".

When I was doing my medical residency, people were *amazed*that my science-grad-student husband cooked/grocery shopped/cleaned. Or, as they also put it, that he "helped" with what they clearly considered to be essentially my job. I have never, not once, heard someone express amazement that I do all those things.

He goes to conferences and doesn't get asked if it's OK with our daughter that he's out of town, or if he feels ambivalent about leaving, or who is taking care of her - and I of course get all these questions.

I think these assumptions are harmful to men and women in and out of the workplace, and I think we're actually worse off than we were in the 1970s because now the social assumption is that, having seen their options, women are choosing to stay home and be utterly fulfilled by motherhood and housework. If it's more fulfilling to be a mom than to have a Hollywood career and make millions (see the cover stories of virtually every magazine in the past decade), then why would those of us with regular jobs want to work for pay?


Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong with being raised by grandparents or people even further removed. I say this because it happened to me. Where I'm from both parents work and there is no way either of them can be there for the day, so it's up to the extended family to take care of you.

Although, I did appreciate it at a young age when I was left alone so that I could play with the matches. This happened every once in a while when I was kindergarten age.

Ummm.... fire. Does your kid like fire?

olaoluwatomi said...

Your article shows that the issue of a man not being expected to help with house work is not exclusive of any race, in africa point reference to nigeria the traditional man is considered exempt from such duties now with many more women bringing in an income to the home many men are albeit reluctantly having to take on domestic tasks. Many of them wiln necer admit to it in public!

Anonymous said...

i have worked with children and infants over the last nine years, either through in home day care settings, after school programs, nanny, baby sitter, or most recently in wilderness programs and in Original Play ( for insight on go to ). oh, i am male.
what i have observed is the fact that the vast majority of people i have spoken with believe they should have a "break" from their child(ren). i am not puzzled by this since our culture almost demands that we go along with this idea without ever questioning why we should say such a ironic and stupid thing. that people would ask 'you' who's looking out for your daughter makes perfect sense to me: it's our unwavering and static belief that there is really only one mom.
it was only after reading the Continuum Concept: The search for happiness lost by Jean Liedloff that the voice of our culture ignorance became deafening. In this book, which i think is one of three of the most important works ever written, jean sketches the life of humans living as evolved beings: that a child when they are born will begin learning from day one how to be a parent and this continues throughtout the life of every member of the tribe. it's not just mom that looks after the little ones, everyone within the community has a child in their periphery awareness... that is their culture from which an evolved sense of self and belonging emerge. this is not to say they are better than 'us', they just have something that work really really well for humans.
it's a shame we value work and exclusionary activities so much that we find paying strangers to care for our own flesh and blood so exceptable.
it's sound like you at least want you daughter to be in contact with a familiar at all times.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how much we hear this question. At a conference when I met one of my former professors and he found out for the first time that I am married to an academic in the same field as myself, his bewildered question was, "So who takes care of the family?" and we do not even have kids!

scholar henry said...

Why does everyone including scholars object to the question. Such cynicism, such rancor.

Perhaps it is an innocent question of simple conversation. Maybe it is question seeking education. Maybe by answering it as a question rather than as something "bizarre" you might be helping.

Well let us blame the questioner. The questioner should have added after you said "Guess" and after they got the answer wrong you say "Guess Again": "I would like to have an adult discussion with my husband about assisting with childcare (He is not as aware as your husband.) Please provide me with some talking points".

Then maybe the question would not have been so bizarre. Oh if questioners would only ask questions like the saints.

Female Science Professor said...

BTW, I said "Guess" and "Guess again" to long-time colleagues, not to random people who don't know me or my family.

Anonymous said...

This is somewhat off topic, but as a late 20-something living in the southern US (raised in the north), I am really tired of the looks I get when people figure out I am not married and not worried about marrage or having children. The whole point of the "women's movement" was to be able to have the option to do whatever you choose. If you choose to have a family and be a FSP, then fine. If you choose to get a PhD and then be a stay at home mom when you have kids, then fine. If you choose to never get married and never have kids, fine. ALL these choices should be fine and well recieved by our culture by now! No woman should be expected to have to have career + 2.5 kids + husband if she doesn't want to. Stop with the weird looks people! And the worst I get are from WOMEN! Bah!

Female Science Professor said...

I don't get it either. It seems like there are endless ways to not fit in. I have a kid, but "only" one. I don't wear a wedding ring. I didn't change my last name when I got married. I suppose if I had the 2.5 kids etc., there would be something else. By the way, I was completely uninterested in marriage/kids for a long time, but that changed, so you never know -- but you shouldn't do something just because society seems to expect it.

Raaga said...

Well... sometimes it feels like it will take another thousand years before stereotypes change :)

Enjoyed reading your blog.

Omnia said...

scholar henry said...
Why does everyone including scholars object to the question. Such cynicism, such rancor.

I'm jumping in very late because I have only just discovered this blog. (Very interesting blog, by the way.)

I have to assume that "henry" is of the "male persuasion" because he seems not to see the point, which is that neither males nor females would think to ask a travelling male with a living spouse, "Who is minding your child?"