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Putting an End to 'Go Ask Your Father'

Photograph by Getty Images

Years ago when I was working in a male-dominated industry, my firm formed a women’s committee that sponsored lunches and presentations focused on gender inequality in the workplace. I loved those meetings, not only because of the free lunch, but also because I’d watch the PowerPoint slides in awe as they listed all the ways in which women fell behind at work: Women speak up less. Women are less likely to promote themselves and highlight their accomplishments to supervisors.

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I’ll never forget a slide in one of those presentations that described how men are more likely to speak in meetings on subjects about which they know almost nothing, while women with greater substantive knowledge of the same subject remain silent for fear of misspeaking.

I rolled my eyes thinking of all the men in my office who would regularly “BS” their way through meetings, while I kept my mouth shut, despite knowing plenty of the facts. “Never again,” I thought and resolved to always be a woman willing to speak up in meetings even if I feared I didn’t know “enough.” I like to think I did a decent job of making valuable contributions, even when I had to leap out of my comfort zone to do so.

So how come, now that I am a mother, I find myself saying this to my kids: "I don’t know, why don’t you ask your father?" Over and over, I hear myself punt to my husband when my kids ask me questions that I don’t know the answer to. Like, "How come batteries taste funny?" Or, "How exactly does a plane stay in the sky until it’s time to land?"

"Ask your father" is a way to communicate the message to both my daughter and my son that I am not as smart as their father.

Here’s the thing: My husband doesn’t know those answers any more than I do. But when asked a question, he’ll get down on his knee and look the kids in the eye and BS his way through, cobbling together a plausible answer with the shards of knowledge that he does possess.

I could do the exact same thing, but I don’t. Where’s that resolve I had years ago at my old office?

In all honesty, sometimes I refer my kids’ questions to my husband because I don’t feel like putting down the vegetables I am washing and talking about jet propulsion. But there’s more going on. First, inside of me is low-grade anxiety that I won’t give them the correct or complete answer that they will need. I hate that feeling of stumbling around for a way to explain technical things. Honestly, it makes me feel stupid.

Second, and more troubling, is that I am setting up a dynamic in my family where my husband is the expert. Of everything. "Ask your father" is a way to communicate the message to both my daughter and my son that I am not as smart as their father. He’s the font of wisdom, and I’m his mentally inferior sidekick. By foregoing the opportunity to be the parent who tells my kids about how the car works or the mechanics of the park swing, I am playing into the stereotype of a ditzy mother. He’s the place to go for hard facts and explanations; I am the place for hugs and a snack.

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This is a problem, because I want a parenting model where both my husband and I are equal intellectual and emotional resources. Each time I cop out and send the kids running to my husband for answers, I frustrate my own vision of equal parenting.

So here’s my new resolution: Stop sending my children to their father for answers to their questions, and become the mother who has an answer or two, herself.

Do you do this? Or is it just me?

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