I happened to be walking by a new dad carrying his baby when he was approached by an older male acquaintance, who said (jokingly) something to the effect of, “I feel very sorry for her [the baby]!” Besides finding this a vaguely inappropriate way to congratulate a new parent, even as a joke, something bugged me about it. After thinking about it for about three seconds, it dawned on me: Gender (of course!). Believe it or not, there are gender stereotypes zooming all over this scenario.
Let’s start with the Congratulator. What was behind his little jokelet of a remark? That we don’t really expect a father to take any more than a cameo role in parenting, because really, what’s a dad? Just a bumbling, doofus-y cartoon version of a “real” parent, i.e., a mother.
Second, only a man could get away with making such a remark. No woman could, even as a joke. Why is that? Because we expect women to be genuinely interested in new babies and solicitous of new parents, whereas our expectations of men in this area are diminished: Men get to make a joke and walk away, thereby distancing themselves from the matter at hand — i.e., a baby has been born — which makes them squirm and feel awkward. Women, on the other hand, are expected to exclaim over the baby and make a fuss, whether or not they feel a shred of interest in or ease around babies. A remark such as, “I feel very sorry for her!” coming from a woman would be perceived as rude indeed.
And where does all this lead? To the fact that we socialize our girls to be the responsible ones, the civilizing influence over those wild, out-of-control boys. I see it in our kids: Who does the baking, draws the signs, makes the greeting cards, composes the poems for classmates’ birthdays? Who recruits and organizes the class ditty for classmates’ bar mitzvas? Only in a few years, when fire (barbeques, bonfires) or vehicles are involved do the boys come out of the woodwork. Hmmmm…what’s at work here?