Last week, while working mom Victoria Beckham was busy fine-tuning her latest collection for NY fashion week, her former-soccer-player hubby was helming parental duties. David Beckham and daughter Harper Seven stole the spotlight sitting front row at Posh’s Sunday evening runway show. The daddy-daughter duo were also photographed hanging at the park earlier this week and attending a late-summer Dodgers game. Whether these moments are authentic or as contrived as Miley Cyrus’s bad-girl schtick, the message is clear: David Beckham is a devoted father. But is he also a babysitter?
Both the UK Mirror and Okay! magazine published articles praising Becks for his “babysitting” skills. Given that he is Harper’s father, the descriptor is both erroneous and potentially insulting, but it’s not uncommon. In the celebrity world, actor Liev Schreiber (long-time partner of Naomi Watts) has said he spent three years being a “manny” to his two young children, while earlier this spring Ben Affleck joked that he would be taking on “Mr. Mom” duties over the summer.
I hear it all the time, too. Just last week, my mom asked one of the thirtysomething mothers at a wedding shower whether her husband was “at home babysitting.” The woman in question corrected her (“he’s at home parenting”). Had I not been feeling the effects of celebratory Prosecco, I probably would have pointed out that referring to fathers as babysitters is part of the same systematic sexism has kept women largely absent from the upper echelons of the work force. It reinforces stereotypes about a woman’s place in society and her greatest value, and paints fathers as a bunch of hapless half-parents who need to be left with a set of allergy alerts and emergency phone numbers.
“The thing about something like this is that it seems benign. It’s actually presented as a positive – David Beckham, isn’t he great – but it’s not, it’s insidious and it’s retrograde” says Anne Kingston, author of The Meaning of Wife. Kingston says it’s important to examine the unstated messages: Implicit in the “daddy as babysitter” construct is the idea that the woman is the default caregiver. “A babysitter is someone a mom or dad hires to relieve them of parenting duties – to say that David Beckham is babysitting is suggesting that he’s doing his wife a favour just by taking care of their child.”
Not as many “favours” as he should, though. According to the most recent figures from Statistics Canada, in dual-earner couples where both people have full-time employment, women take on about twice the child-care responsibilities. In her working woman’s bible Lean In (can you write an article on gender inequality without referencing Lean In?), Sheryl Sandburg mentions a professional retreat at which participants were asked to list their hobbies and more than half the men listed their kids. As a hobby.
Of course every familial arrangement is unique, and certainly there are hundreds of thousands of Canadian parents who don’t have time to kvetch over labels because they can’t afford to care for their children. Still, while we strive toward social progress, let’s remember that what we call things matters: David Beckham is not a babysitter; he’s a tattooed man-god with a body seemingly chiselled out of soapstone. And a father.