Alanah Pearce, a 21-year-old Australian video-game reviewer who wrote about sexism in the gaming industry, visited the ugly side of cyberspace recently when she received death threats and misogynist abuse from young boys. We’ve been reading about how she tracked down their mothers and complained. When one woman responded, Pearce shared her comments and got a lot of attention for her creative shaming of the boys.

But why take for granted that the boys’ mothers were responsible for their behaviour, or at least for stopping it? Unless all the boys came from lesbian families or were raised by single mothers, aunts or grandmothers, they probably also had fathers. Why not contact them? Surely they have some responsibility and influence over their sons. Surely they’re not all unconcerned about how their sons treat women.

Hey, I know women rule the world. At least we do a huge amount of the emotional heavy lifting. We have massive influence on our children. But so do men.

Like everything else, there are two sides to the global tendency to mother-worship. We get credit, but we also get plenty of blame, from ourselves as much as anyone else. I’m sure you’ve said, or thought, or heard, “Didn’t your mother teach you anything?"

Just as men don’t have total dominion over going out, slaughtering dinner, and dragging it home, women shouldn’t have all the responsibility for how the children turn out. Or how safe and cared-for they are. I bet those of us who are mothers spend more time blaming ourselves for our children’s problems or failures, than men do. And the world is happy to support us in that blame.

I take my daughter to school and pick her up almost every day. I’m also the parent who goes away more, and her father is more reliably at home to cook dinner and do math homework. Several years ago I left town for a few days for work, and got a call when I was on the bus coming back. The child was sick, they told me, and needed to be picked up. No worries—her father went and got her, and they had a cosy day together. The next day, I saw the school nurse in the hallway, and she looked accusingly at me.

“I think she was sick because she was stressed and upset that you went away and left her," she told me.

“No, she wasn’t!" I said indignantly. But a small insecure part of me felt guilty. Maybe I did cause her illness. Maybe I should stand outside school all day in rain, sleet or snow, hopping from foot to foot because it would be irresponsible of me to leave my post to go to the loo, so that on the one day in 10 years the precious offspring needs me, I can leap right in.

Meanwhile, my brother tells me that even though he is listed as the primary contact at his sons’ schools, the schools invariably call his wife when they need anything. Then, when they don’t get her, they try him. It’s just too much to comprehend, the idea of going first to the father, to either discipline the child or take care of him or her.

Intrigued by the Pearce story, I asked my brother who he thought had more influence on our values: our mother or our father. We decided it was pretty equal, as far as we could tell. Our parents were equally fierce, nutty, and jolly. We are a slightly unusual family, though, because my brother and I were raised by superheroes with magical powers: Our father zoomed around in his stardust-powered Rolls-Royce with a never-ending bar of chocolate in the glove compartment; our mother shot turbo-charged death rays from her eyes to pulverize Bad Guys. So not really your typical parents. What’s a typical parent anyway? From Atticus Finch to Ma Baker, it takes all kinds.

When I set out to research what people have to say about fathers’ influence on children, my trusty Google flunkey brought back lots of religious websites. From Christian Scientists to writers pontificating about Hindu values, people wrote about how much fathers can affect their children for better or worse. It’s interesting that this issue gets so much play in a religious context, while so many of us secular people still hold mothers accountable for their children, and let fathers off the hook.

When I was in college I had a button that said, “I’m not your mother." It used to drive people, especially boys, crazy. What does it mean, they wanted to know. I wasn’t sure myself. It was just a silly button with a silly statement. But it somehow tapped into people’s giant expectations and assumptions about mothers.

Just to negate everything I’ve written here, let’s not forget the rueful reality: We actually have very little control over our children. They’re going to do what they’re going to do and be what they’re going to be no matter what we do, and we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride, trying to have what little influence we have along the way. While we must and should look after our children’s needs, it’s a bit grandiose to think we control them. We mothers and fathers probably count for something, sure, but in the end they will decide who helps them figure out how to navigate through life.

Maybe instead of asking, “Didn’t your mother teach you to…" this, that, or the other thing, we should start raising our eyebrows at people and asking a much cooler question: “Who’s your daddy?"

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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