In a year when “bathroom legislation” has made waves all over the nation, there’s another one to add to the list. Last week, Obama signed the Bathrooms Accessible in Every Situation Act, which requires that baby-changing stations be available in both men’s and women’s bathrooms in public buildings.
The BABIES Act, as it is known, applies to all bathrooms in facilities owned, occupied, or supported by the federal government. This includes office buildings, post offices, and courthouses, to name a few.
This is exciting news for people like me, who automatically knows when I’m out with my male partner and small children that diaper duty will be mine because there isn’t likely to be an accessible changing table for my husband to use. It’s also great news for single dads; families with two dads; or dads who happen to like going out in public with their kids solo and find themselves out of luck unless there happens to be a unisex family restroom they can access.
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On the surface, this bill is a huge step when it comes to recognizing that not only mothers change diapers or care for babies (not a new point, but one Ashton Kutcher made last year when he started a petition begging for equal access to changing tables). For far too long, the bulk of child care has fallen on women. This gendered inequality plays out on micro levels in homes across the United States. But it also manifests in institutional ways, like Trump’s proposed maternity leave that would only apply to birthing mothers, or, yes, the fact that baby-changing stations are often only available in women’s public restrooms.
But research shows that equity in parenting roles in heterosexual partnerships has a positive impact for both parents. A 2015 report found that “fathers who take an active role in child-rearing and household duties are a benefit to their entire family,” and that “involved fathers report being happier and have fewer mental and physical health problems.” But it’s hard for fathers to take on equal parenting roles when the structures are not in place to help them do so.
The BABIES Act is also important for families that may not have a mother at all, like queer families, gender-nonconforming parents, or dads who are single parenting. For them, finding somewhere to change their babies in public settings can be a nearly impossible task, and their needs are hardly ever taken into consideration when it comes to support for families.
But while my progressive-leaning Facebook timeline has been applauding the BABIES Act all week, a closer look at the bill reveals that it may not be as far-reaching as it first sounds.
Affecting only federal public buildings, the law is limited in scope. The law is only required to be enforced on new construction or in buildings that are “undergoing a congressionally approved alteration.” Already existing federal buildings that are not being renovated are not obligated to be brought up to this new standard. It’s also unclear how this law could apply to gender-neutral bathrooms, since the bill text doesn’t mention those at all.
With all of these exclusions, the effect that this bill may actually have is likely to be minimal. Very few buildings and very few bathrooms will be updated to meet this new standard. And, unless you’re frequently bringing your baby into federal buildings, it’s probable that you won’t benefit directly from the change.
And while that reality is disappointing, this bill could potentially set precedents for state laws and private companies. In an ideal world, legislators, businesses, and building owners will take note of this bill and make policies that encourage or require the installation of baby-changing stations in all bathrooms. Costco and Target pledged to do so after Kutcher launched his petition (though again, they only promised changing-table parity in new stores, not in existing ones).
So while the BABIES Act is a step in the right direction, more progress is required before society is equipped to treat all parents as equal.