"At Least I'm Not as Bad as That Dad!"
How men's social comparisons perpetuate the domestic status quo.
Have you ever noticed that men love to hear — and tell — stories about deadbeat dads? The husband who cheats on his wife; the father who doesn’t know how to use a washing machine; the guy who gets mad at his wife if the house isn’t spotless. Their reaction is rarely horror or disgust or “God, what a dick!” — but rather, something along the lines of:
“See, I’m not so bad, right?”
“Look! I’m an angel in comparison.”
“Aren’t you glad you married me?”
I know, I know; #notallmen. But if I had a dime for every time I heard a friend laugh/vent about their husband comparing himself to a bad apple to make himself look good, well, I wouldn’t need any paid subscribers.
Recently, my friends and I were talking about this phenomenon, and I couldn’t help but notice that women rarely make these comparisons. Yes, moms are often judgy about other moms, but we don’t usually judge ourselves against the worst of the worst and say “Hey, at least I’m not that bad!” (If anything, as I’ll discuss in a minute, we do the opposite: We see the Momfluencers on Instagram looking perfect while seemingly doing it all, and we feel like shit in comparison.)
I was fascinated by this discrepancy and wondered if there was any research on the issue. So I reached out to Harvard sociologist Allison Daminger, who studies gender inequality within families and writes the excellent Substack The Daminger Dispatch. “You're definitely identifying something real here,” she told me. “You can come to very different conclusions about your contributions to a household depending on who you are comparing yourself to.” Today I’m going to talk about the research on this phenomenon, which, frankly, blew my mind.
Let me back up for a minute and explain why we make social comparisons. We don’t judge ourselves against others to feel miserable; we do it in part to gather important information. According to a theory in psychology known as Social Comparison Theory, we tend to compare ourselves to other people in areas of life in which we are unsure of how we’re doing. When we don’t know how we measure up in a particular realm, we look at how other people are performing so we can answer the question: Are we doing okay, or do we need to step up?
It stands to reason, then, that who we compare ourselves to makes a huge difference when it comes how we feel about ourselves and how we behave in the future. If I judge my character and choices against a murderer, I’ll feel a whole lot better about myself than if I judge my character and choices against Mother Teresa. Who we choose to compare ourselves to determines if we stick to the status quo (hey, I’m doing fine, no need to work harder) or decide to do better (oh shit, I am really not measuring up).
First, let’s start with who mothers tend to compare themselves to. Although we might not like to admit it, moms often compare themselves to other moms they know. Who’s got a cleaner house? Does my friend read to her kids more often than I do to mine? Mothers are also frequently comparing themselves to ideal versions of mothers on social media, and this is a problem. When we compare our lives to the aspirational, tightly curated and totally unrealistic depiction of life we see on Instagram — mom looks beautiful, the house is spotless, the kids are rosy-cheeked and smiling — we are constantly taking in data that says: You aren’t doing as good of a job as they are. No wonder we all feel like failures.
Research suggests this is exactly what happens. A study published in February found that mothers who tend to make social comparisons are more negatively affected by parenting-related Instagram accounts than moms who don’t make a lot of social comparisons. Social media, the researchers found, gives social-comparison-oriented mothers a “decreased sense of parenting competence.” More than one-third of the moms in the study “mentioned the idealistic picture of parenting presented by InstaParents as something that was affecting them negatively, e.g. “Some people on Instagram make it all seem a little too perfect – then you start doubting yourself.” Sound familiar?
On the other side of the comparison spectrum are dads. In general, there’s much less research on dads than on moms (that’s slowly changing, thank god!), but wow, the research we do have on how dads make social comparisons is …. fascinating. As you might guess, compared with moms, dads aren’t spending as much time on Instagram and Facebook, comparing themselves to ideal parents. Sometimes dads compare themselves to other dads they know, but because dads don’t tend to talk about parenting and household tasks with their guy friends as much as moms do with their mom friends, they often don’t have the data they need to make these comparisons. So what do they do instead? When dads make social comparisons, they often choose to compare themselves to fictional deadbeat dads. And this has big implications.
In one study (from 1998, but I still think it’s relevant), sociologist Constance Gager, then at Princeton, interviewed moms and dads in dual-earner families. (Note: This newsletter focuses on research on different-gender couples. Unfortunately, I can’t find good data on how social comparisons differ, if at all, among same-gender couples.) She found that fathers often “manufacture” other fathers to compare themselves to, and that these manufactured dads are, in her words, “do-nothing dads” who are based on a 1950s version of family life. As she wrote:
The do-nothing dad still viewed his home as his castle and did little or no traditionally female household tasks. He did not ‘baby-sit’ his own children and he came and went as he pleased, assuming his wife was responsible for child care and housework.
What happens when a dad compares himself to a fictional terrible dad? He feels pretty good about himself and his contributions to the family. He certainly doesn’t feel like he’s not doing enough. There is no incentive to change his ways, to do more. As Gaber explained, fathers who compared themselves to do-nothing dads “believed that they were doing more than this mythical dad who left all child care and housework responsibilities to their wives… They wanted to believe the division of labor was fair, even though their wives were doing more housework. By utilizing this manufactured referent, they could argue that their household contributions were greater than the average.”
Amazingly, Gaber even found that some fathers invoked this deadbeat dad comparison even when they knew other dads who did plenty of domestic work. She describes one dad, whom she calls Ethan:
Ethan admitted that he sometimes used this [do-nothing] referent jokingly to remind his wife how lucky she was to have him, even though his brother-in-law, whom I also interviewed, was very involved in family work.
Other research supports Gaber’s findings. In a study published in 2003, psychologists Amy Himsel and Wendy Goldberg interviewed mothers and fathers of school-aged children. They found that dads compared themselves to other dads, but that many of their comparisons were against “generalized other” dads who almost always did less domestic work than they themselves did. As the researchers wrote, “Usually, the image of other dads was invoked to make an implied or explicit downward comparison that placed one’s own level of participation at a more active and involved level.”
It’s also interesting to consider how social comparisons affect men’s and women’s expectations of — and satisfaction with — what their partners do around the house. In the same 2003 study, Himsel and Goldberg asked mothers and fathers how happy they were with their partners’ contributions, and they asked to whom they tended to compare their partners’ contributions. Women, they found, tended to feel satisfied when their husbands did more around the house than other men they knew. Men, on the other hand, tended to feel satisfied when their wives did more around the house than their mothers did. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, that almost made me gag.
Another thing that’s important to mention is that the men in these studies are not comparing what they’re doing to what their wives are doing. They’re not saying Oh, gosh, my wife does a lot more of the cleaning than I do; maybe I should do more so it’s more fair. They are largely blind to the labor imbalance within their own home, in part because they do not consider their wives to be a relevant point of comparison. As Himsel and Goldberg wrote:
When [the men] contrasted themselves to their wives, they often acknowledged that their wives assumed a greater share of family work, but their wives’ level of involvement was not a standard to which the men aspired. Rather, in making lateral comparisons to others their own age, or comparisons back a generation to their own fathers, the men in our interview sample engaged in “social downgrading.” These men described an image of the generalized other whose meager contributions to family work enhanced their own relative involvement.
I want to take a second to address the dads who are reading this. Maybe you’re a dad who doesn’t do this (yay). Maybe you’re a dad who does. If you are, that’s okay. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. As these studies show, men have been comparing themselves to below-average men for a long time. You probably saw your fathers do it, and you hear your friends do it. It’s become a norm, part of our social fabric. So instead of feeling guilty or defensive, consider this a call to action. Now that you’re aware that this is a problem, you can try to shift your perspectives and comparisons.
You could also argue that all of this has changed since 2003, when the most recent study I could find on this phenomenon was published. (Related: Why don’t we have more recent studies on this? Argh.) Certainly, husbands are doing more around the house than they used to. But are their social comparisons changing? I hope so, but I can’t help but notice that many men still love to compare themselves to deadbeat dads (and that women still do not compare themselves to shitty moms — if anything, I’d say some moms today are comparing themselves to even more idealized versions of motherhood). As long as men keep telling themselves they’re doing better than the “average” guy (who actually is rather below average), and they consider the amount of work their wives do in comparison to be irrelevant, they’re not going to see much of a reason to step up.
What can we do about this? I’m not really sure, but I think we should start by calling men out on their social comparisons. When you hear a man latch onto a deadbeat dad story and say something like “Hey, I’m not so bad, eh?,” point out what they’re doing: They’re choosing to compare themselves to a below-average dad in order to feel better about themselves. Perhaps, you could say, they should be comparing themselves to an above-average dad instead. Or, maybe, they should consider how their domestic contributions stack up against those of their spouse.
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In last week’s New York Times Well newsletter I discussed new migraine treatments. Although migraines have long been understudied (because they’re a “woman’s disease,” ugh), the FDA has recently approved some promising new medications and devices. Read it here.
I’ll be on vacation next week — visiting family in California — so you won’t be hearing me again until the week of August 1. Stay cool out there, folks!