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Obama mandates baby-changing stations in men’s and women’s restrooms

While the law will only apply to public buildings, its passage reflects a shift in the way parental roles are viewed, both in the eyes of the public and the law.

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    President Obama holds a sleeping baby boy as he visits Ross' restaurant in Bettendorf, Iowa, in 2011.
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It's about to get a bit easier for dads toting young children to visit public buildings, thanks to a new law signed Friday. 

The Bathrooms Accessible in Every Situation (BABIES) Act mandates that all restrooms in public buildings – both men's and women's – be outfitted with diaper changing stations. The new legislation, which passed 389 to 34 in the House of Representatives, with support from both sides of the aisle, and passed unanimously through the Senate before reaching President Obama’s desk, serves as an indicator of how parental roles are changing and how the law is catching up. 

“Government needs to do more to ensure that public buildings are family friendly. No mom or dad should ever have to worry about finding a safe, sanitary place to change their baby – least of all in a federal building that’s paid for by taxpayers,” Rep. David Cicilline (D) of Rhode Island, who introduced the bill, said in a statement. “The BABIES Act is a commonsense proposal that makes government buildings more welcoming for families and helps promote good public health.”

Fifty years ago it was more common for fathers to feel that childcare, particularly in infancy, fell on the mothers' shoulders. While that notion is less common today, the lack of changing tables in men’s restrooms makes it difficult for parents to fully share responsibilities, perpetuates harmful gender roles, and discriminates against same-sex parents and single fathers, advocates of equal parenting say

“There is a lag between the time that things that become socially acceptable and when they really become normative.” Francine M. Deutsch, professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College in western Mass., and author of “Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works,” tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

The BABIES Act, which received a great deal of support on both sides of the aisle and passed quickly from the House to President Obama’s desk, is a step toward normativity and a necessary case of legislating common sense, changing room equality advocate Doyin Richards told the Huffington Post.

Changing station availability has been an issue within parenting circles for some time, but took on more prominence in 2015 when actor and new dad Ashton Kutcher took up the cause. He noted on Facebook how hard it was to find changing stations in public and started a successful Change.org petition calling for Target and Costco, companies that have historically supported families, to include changing stations in men’s restrooms.

Later that year, Sen. Brad Hoylman (D) of New York proposed a bill calling for changing station parity at the state level. Mr. Hoylman, who has a daughter with his husband David Sigal, was inspired by Mr. Kutcher’s activism and personal frustrations findings places to change his daughter when out in public.

The federal BABIES Act reflects a trend as family rights continue to surface in the political sphere more. For example, the issue of paid family leave, not just for mothers but for fathers as well has seen an unprecedented amount of attention is this election, as the Monitor's Schuyler Velasco notes.

Additionally, Facebook founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg drew attention to paternity leave when he announced he would be taking two months off after the birth of his daughter, pointing out that "when working parents take time to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families."

Like the BABIES Act, guaranteed paternity leave would recognize the father’s role and help fight the ingrained notion that child-rearing is women’s work, as well as put emphasis on the importance of family in an increasingly busy and work-obsessed society – because despite all its social and legal challenges, equal parenting has benefits for both parents and the children Deutsch says. 

“The most moving things I have found in my own research are the testimonials that men who are equally involved give me about their relationships with their children,” Deutsch tells the Monitor. “It creates a possibility for real intimacy between fathers and their children. Just like it gives women a chance to develop the professional side of themselves, it gives men a chance to develop the nurturing side of themselves. Through this kind of equality we all become fuller human beings.”

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