The field of Democratic candidates hoping to claim the oval office in 2020 got a little more crowded this week when Beto O'Rourke joined the race, and almost immediately sparked a conversation about gender equality in parenting and politics.
On Thursday morning at a coffee shop in Iowa, O'Rourke spoke to a crowd of citizens and reporters, and joked that his wife, Amy Hoover Sanders, is raising his kids, "sometimes with [his] help."
The statement was tweeted by Washington Post reporter Matt Viser and quickly attracted a lot of criticism online, because as we've said before, dads should be seen as partners—not just 'helpers'.
The same morning as O'Rourke's described himself as just a "helper" in parenting, the latest episode of The Motherly Podcast, sponsored by Prudential, put the voice of another political parent, Anne-Marie Slaughter, into the ears of moms across the country (and around the world). She spoke about how women's roles changed when we entered the workforce, but our responsibilities at home didn't.
"We went from caregiving almost entirely to working and working for money and then still caregiving. Men's roles have not changed. I mean they help more but I hate the word 'help'," Slaughter explains in an interview that was recorded before O'Rourke made his comment.
"'Help' means [the mother is] in charge and he's doing what you tell him to do. It does not relieve you of the burden of responsibility of management, of thinking about it, all of that. And lots of men have stepped up, but their role, their socially expected role, is still a breadwinner," adds Slaughter.
According to Slaughter, for America to truly see gender equality, men's roles have to change. They need to evolve from dads who 'help' to dads who see themselves as competent caregivers.
Many internet commenters have been quick to point out that O'Rourke was likely joking when he made the comment, and that his tone and the context around the comment could not be fully captured in Viser's tweet.
But experts say even if O'Rourke's comments were a joke, they highlight the extra burden that working mothers carry, and that men don't. And that's not funny in 2019.
"Comments like this might seem harmless or made in jest, or maybe even a form of praise for women's hard efforts at caring for kids. But these comments aren't harmless," sociologist Caitlyn Collins, author of the new book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, tells Motherly.
"But I'd say that it's problematic for any men—especially those in positions of power—to reference 'babysitting' or 'helping' raise their kids rather than egalitarian parenting. This rhetoric suggests that childrearing is primarily women's responsibility."
We've said it before here at Motherly: A dad is not a babysitter or a helper. He's a parent.
Fathers like O'Rourke may think they're complimenting their partners when they diminish their own roles at home, but these kinds of comments reinforce that while dads are expected to go to work, moms are expected to go to work and carry all the responsibility for managing the family. That sends a signal that moms should not be running for office.
For Caitlin Clarkson Pereira, who has been fighting to level the political playing field by asking Connecticut's State Election and Enforcement Commission to allow those running for office to use campaign funds for childcare expenses, O'Rourke's comments shine a spotlight on how the real advantage many male candidates have over women.
"It's disappointing to hear comments like this, especially when they are made in what appears to be such a flippant manner," Clarkson Pereira tells Motherly. "In order for mothers to run for office, we dissect and calculate every possible situation with our children and how we can be sure to give them the attention they need while being in the race. Who is going to pick them up from school? What if there is a snow day? What if one gets the stomach bug hours before an event? What if you make every attempt possible to find a sitter because you have an afternoon meeting with constituents but are unsuccessful?"
And what if the man you're running against doesn't have to think about any of that?
Beto O'Rourke's comment doesn't make him a bad dad or a bad partner or a bad politician. But it does highlight the need for a shift in how we talk about fatherhood, and it's not just dads who need to change the way they speak.
As Claire Kamp Dush, associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University, previously told Motherly, "Women need to ban 'my husband helps me a lot' from their language."
Because if fathers are helpers, they're not equal parents, and we know that that is what millennial fathers want to be, and what American families need them to be.