I was speaking to a friend on Facebook Messenger the other day. She’d been in touch to congratulate me on the new addition. She asked how I was handling fatherhood. I said I was enjoying it. She was impressed and asked if I’d been changing his nappies and waking up to feed him in the night and so on. The question was completely innocent but it bugged the hell out of me. Why wouldn’t I be doing those things? I’ll tell you why – because I’m a man. There’s no way a mother would be asked the same question, least of all a single mother. I responded how any parent would – “Of course I’m doing those things because a baby can’t be left unchanged and unfed.” Yes, it was a bit abrupt and yes, I felt guilty afterwards. This person is super sweet and I know she’d never ever mean to offend, but she touched on an issue that bothers me – the lack of recognition towards men as parents.
I mentioned the conversation to my mum (pictured) that night. She said she understood why I was irritated, but people make those assumptions because men generally don’t get involved in parenting. I told her that was a sweeping statement and I took offence to it. She said she didn't mean it to be directed at all men. We bickered. I just don’t think it’s the case that men don’t get involved in parenting. Alright, I’ll accept that the household roles are traditionally the man as breadwinner and the woman at home with the kids, but times are changing now aren’t they? As women embrace their careers surely men are becoming more involved parents.
I read an article recently which I suppose stoked the fire. A male journalist, heterosexual I think, was lining up in a supermarket with his child when a woman jokingly said “Dad’s been left babysitting then”, to which he responded to my absolute joy, “No. I’m a parent, not a babysitter.” On a personal note, I remember a female ex-colleague once said that men who like kids are just weird. I wanted to ask her who died and made her Judge Judy, but I’m awful with confrontation so I sat there with steam coming out my ears and made a mental note to blog about her in 7 years’ time. That showed her! OK so this girl is an extreme example, but I think she and the ‘babysitting’ remark are a reflection of our time. No matter how diverse the workplace becomes, the home still suffers with the dated idea that men who like kids DO appear unnatural.
So what is natural? The man at work and the woman at home? Whenever that formula is turned on its head it’s often described as the woman ‘wearing the trousers’ in the relationship. This is a phrase many women relish, but they should take a step back and consider the fact that whilst they may enjoy emasculating their husbands, the phrase fuels the notion of the ‘man’s world’, adopting an item of traditionally-male clothing in order to dominate. This therefore perpetuates the myth that to be stronger is to be more like a man, rather than a woman being strong in her own right, and the comedy of the husband’s new role therefore comes simply from bearing a closer resemblance to a woman - why should that be such a fall from grace?
I think a huge part of the blame needs to go to the media. Picture an ad for something, let’s say soap powder. A man is playing with his kids. Mum arrives home, sees dad with the kids and shakes her head disapprovingly. “A detergent for big kids too” says the voiceover. The message in the ad? Mum, we know you’re the one in control, so buy our powder because we understand you. I’ve seen this formula lapped up over the years. Its nothing new and its hugely condescending. It serves to reinforce the image of the domestic goddess and the simple oaf as a cheap marketing tool.
Of course, advertising is a huge issue and ripples onto many other things – the overall portrayal of men being lazy, drinking beer, watching football and leering at women; and the portrayal of women with bags of shopping, wanting a new lipstick and dropping everything for a pair of shoes. Both stereotypes are equally shallow and two dimensional and, as a result, make it an uphill struggle for men to be taken seriously as fathers. Men themselves then have little incentive to excel from the age-old role of the ‘second parent’.
But we are where we are. This is the perception of the society we live in and I think our best chance at equality is through the law. Maternity leave can now be shared parental leave, giving both parents the chance to enjoy the statutory entitlement. This helps level the playing field and the more mainstream this approach becomes, the more both parents will be seen as equal. It probably wont level out any time soon though, or at least not until scientific developments allow men to give birth and therefore earn their stripes as a worthy parent. Until that day, I guess I’ll just have to keep cringing at those bloody soap ads.