U.S. Census Bureau: Dad’s Just a Babysitter

February 10th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The anti-father bias of family courts is clear enough.  How could it not be given the daily litany of fit fathers losing custody and contact with their children all with the blessing of family court judges who never stop reminding us that they’re acting “in the best interests of children?”  But you might think that other governmental institutions would be less anti-dad.  If you did, you’d particularly think that of agencies whose main function is just gathering data.

But, as this article reminds us, if you thought that, you’d be wrong (New York Times, 2/10/12).  It seems that, when the U.S. Census Bureau wants to know about the parenting and childcare arrangements of Americans, it makes the assumption that fathers aren’t – you know – parents.  It does so because it makes the parallel assumption that mothers are.

 When both parents are present in the household, the Census Bureau assumes for the purposes of its “Who’s Minding the Kids?” report, that the mother is the “designated parent.” And when the designated parent is working or at school, the bureau would like to know who’s providing child care.

If the answer is Daddy, as it was 26 percent of the time when these numbers were last released, in 2005, and 32 percent of the time in 2010, the Census Bureau calls that “care.” But if Mom is caring for a child while Dad’s at work, that’s not a “child care arrangement,” but something else. Parenting, presumably.

In short, as “Who’s Minding the Kids?” understands it, fathers, nannies, babysitters, daycare workers and the like, are all on the same plane.  They’re the parenting fall-back position for mothers who are the real parents.

As the Times Motherlode blogger K.J. Dell’Antonia makes clear, that’s doubly sexist; it assumes mothers are caregivers and fathers aren’t.  As such, it tends to reinforce both gender roles.  But while mothers have jumped into the workforce in great numbers, fathers have had a much more difficult time convincing courts that they should be recognized as important in the children’s lives and continue to play an important role therein post-divorce.

As I never tire of saying, we’ve known the vital importance of fathers to children for decades now, but family courts still haven’t gotten the message.  So however much the Census Bureau’s categories tend to keep mothers at home with children, the greater problem is fathers’ judicially-mandated separation from their kids.

Now, the Census Bureau has an explanation for its sexist view of mothers and fathers.

[The Census Bureau’s Lynda] Laughlin assured me that the Census Bureau is just trying to collect accurate data on how “designated parents” arrange care for their children while they’re at school or at work based on “gender norms.” Yes, as Sara Mead notes on the Education Week Policy Notebook blog, it’s important to track changes and trends in who is caring for children while their parents work. But fathers (apparently this needs to be spelled out) are parents too. Work support goes both ways, and if parents are going to work, parents – of both sexes — need support.

I’d suggest one other thing.  If the Census Bureau wants to track childcare and working arrangements between partners, maybe they should just ask their subjects what they do about that without “designating” one of them the “parent” and the other one the “care.”  Why not ask each parent how much time they care for the child and how much time the child is cared for by someone else such as another relative, daycare, a nanny, babysitter, neighbor, etc.?  Couple that with who’s working for pay and how many hours, and you’d have more information than they’re currently getting without pre-deciding roles based on sex.

The whole thing puts me in mind of one of my latest peeves – the notion that because fathers do, on average, less hands-on childcare than do mothers, what they do for their children is in some way less important than what mothers do.  The fact is that, although family arrangements have changed a lot since the 1950s, men still do more paid work than do women and women still do more housework and childcare than do men.  All added up together, the two sexes spend about the same amount of time in those activities, but men are still more likely to do most of the earning in the family and women most of the childcare.

When divorce comes along, that translates into “Mom gets custody.”  After all, she’s the one who’s cared for the child, right?  But why should the one dictate the other?   

Let’s look at Ward and June Cleaver.  Ward earned the money and June raised the kids.  Ward put a roof over their heads, food on the table, clothes on their backs and sent them to school, the doctor, etc.  June changed their diapers when they were little, fed them, bathed them, read to them, dressed them, soothed them when they cried, etc.

It seems to me that both sets of parental behaviors were necessary to the wellbeing of Wally and the Beaver.  But had Ward and June divorced, with even a little ingenuity and the assistance of the family court, June could have arranged it so Ward saw little or nothing of his sons.  Why?  Because the court, like the Census Bureau, regards typically maternal behavior as parenting, and typically paternal behavior as, in some way, irrelevant to children’s wellfare.

Needless to say, children need the food, shelter and clothing that fathers’ work provides every bit as much as they need mothers’ loving arms.  And yet courts, legislatures and now the Census Bureau, are loath to admit the obvious fact.

Indeed, in states that rely on a checklist of factors a judge must consider in deciding custody, one of the most important factors is some version of “which parent has provided the majority of the children’s care” up to the time of separation.  As far as I can tell, that’s invariably interpreted to mean who’s done the hands-on care, while who’s earned the money to protect, shelter, nurture and educate the child doesn’t enter into the discussion.

There are many ways to keep fathers and children separate.  Family courts have found them all and even invented a few of their own.  And it’s all a product of a state of mind that finds mothers to be the only legitimate caregivers for children.  It’s a mindset the Census Bureau shares.  That’s not just anti-father, it’s anti-mother as well.   Most important, it’s anti-child.

Thanks to John for the heads-up.

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