Some Dads DO Babysit. It’s All That’s Expected of Us

This time last year, there were a flurry of stories about my daughter and I published around the world. A US writer spotted an angle for a “sweet article about (my) daughter’s outfits”, and that got noticed by the likes of The Independent & Metro in UK, Buzzfeed and ABC News in US, and then various outlets across the globe. Radio and TV appearances followed. Perhaps you are reading this because you started following my blog after coming across one of those.

The premise was basically I was an at-home parent letting my (then) 3-year-old daughter choose what she wears every morning. And the outfits were kinda cool and not traditionally ‘girly’.

When I asked, the writers of those articles told me the same thing – what made this story ‘a story’ was the fact that I was a dad of a daughter.

While it was nice to bask in the mostly supportive comments (US conservatives aside – yikes), the fact people were reacting strongly to it highlighted an issue we have with parenting.

Is dad all there is?

Continue reading Some Dads DO Babysit. It’s All That’s Expected of Us

“You Are Not Going Out Dressed Like That!” (Unless You Want To)

This picture depicts a classic scene of a father berating his daughter for wearing a revealing outfit. The intergalactic twist is that the father is Darth Vader, his daughter is Princess Leia, and she’s wearing her ‘Slave’ costume from Return of the Jedi.

It’s one of the many memorable panels from Vader’s Little Princess by Jeffrey Brown, the second in his series of books set in a parallel Star Wars universe where Vader is an involved father to his twin children. The calendar is one of the many Princess Leia things my daughter has in her room.

From my 3yo daughters room. #WeWantLeia

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Vader’s Little Princess takes a rather stereotypical view of girls – Leia is shown chatting endlessly on the phone, obsessing over boys (a certain scoundrel in particular), being bored by sports, having tantrums, and being preoccupied with clothes. While the author treated Luke as just a child in the preceding book Darth Vader and Son, here Brown – who is the father of two boys – makes some seemingly lazy assumptions about young girls.

Despite being able to see these sexist flaws, I still love the book. It highlights the most high profile female character in Star Wars, is full of delightful & funny vignettes, and at its heart it’s about a loving father/daughter relationship.

This was one of the first Star Wars ‘things’ I showed my daughter, and frankly I credit it with hooking her interest in Star Wars at a young age (she was 21 months old at the time). She often chose it for us to read to her. Soon, she spotted my old Star Wars toys, instantly recognised familiar characters and vehicles, and they never left her grasp. I always thought I wouldn’t show her the movies until she was at least 5, but at age 2 we were watching them. We continue to do so and her love of Star Wars gets stronger as she gets older.

Every time we watch a Star Wars movie or cartoon, she picks up on something new. Eventually the ‘Slave Leia’ outfit was referenced:

My way of talking to her about it was this: Jabba had taken Leia prisoner, and made her wear what her wanted her to wear, because he had that power and that’s how he wanted her to look. I continued that it was wrong because Princess Leia should choose what she wants to wear herself.

We carried on watching, and whenever Princess Leia appeared subsequently in the movie, my daughter declared “Leia decided to wear that herself!”

It’s still a part of the story that she frequently references, including with her our Star Wars toys.

For instance, here Vader is unhappy that Leia has been treated so badly by Jabba:

"Give my daughter her helmet back too Jabba!"

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Another time, Leia shows she’s none too happy with Jabba either:

‘Slave Leia’ remains one of the few Leia figures we don’t own, and it continues to be divisive amongst Star Wars fans.

What’s so bad about Slave Leia?

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Slave Outfit Star Wars Return of the Jedi Slave Leia
From ‘Return of the Jedi’, Dir: Richard Marquand, TM & © Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL) 1983

Clearly sexualised, the look was a hit with the dominant male fanbase. As the boys grew into men, the Slave Leia look became ever more popular, and became one of the most used depictions of Leia.

There were vocal dissenters, such as in the growing fangirl community, or as many male fans became fathers of daughters, some (ahem) started to complain about this being the prevalent depiction of Leia. She’s a politician, fighter, Rebel leader – yet mostly shown as a sexually exploited woman.

On the other side, people talk about how it’s no worse than you see at the swimming pool or beach, or on overly sexualised dolls aimed at girls. Some defended the outfit as a symbol of Leia’s defiance against her captor. Many members of the female cosplayer community enjoy wearing it.

In one memorable defence, the daughter of comedian Adam Buxton said Leia should keep wearing it because it’s a “pretty good look for her”.

As far as Jeffrey Brown’s picture goes, the cliche of the father telling his daughter not to wear such revealing clothes is also problematic.

While as parents we make decisions and rules we like to think are in the best interests of our children, they need to find their own path too – and that includes the process of understanding their own sexuality. This clearly begins long before they are adults.

When a father is telling his daughter not to wear something revealing, is he helping her develop, or trying to limit her growing sexuality? If my daughter wanted to wear a Slave Leia outfit out of the house, I’m pretty sure I’d insist she doesn’t. But she’s 3, and I think that’s fair enough. But what about 10, 13, 15? What age is Leia in this picture? Is she a child or a young woman?

Tricky questions for my future.

“You Are Not Going Out Dressed Like That!”

'Vader's Little Princess' by Jeffrey Brown. Published by Chronicle Books.
From ‘Vader’s Little Princess’ by Jeffrey Brown. Published by Chronicle Books.

For now, I still like this picture. For one, it’s funny. But it’s also part of an alternate Star Wars narrative my daughter has melded from various sources.

So I look at the scene like this. Perhaps Darth, instead of limiting Leia’s sexual expression, is upset that her exploitation by Jabba is having lasting effects. That far from being her choice, her father feels she has been conditioned to think this is what men want.

But if we want to empower our daughters, ultimately the choice of outfit has to be theirs. At the moment my daughter’s only real dress restrictions are about being weather/environment appropriate (although I did suggest she rethink her summertime idea of wearing a short skirt as a dress). In the future, school uniforms and dress codes will feature. But eventually we won’t be the ones responsible for what she wears – she will.

I hope I never have a “You Are Not Going Out Dressed Like That!” moment with her. If any woman, be it Leia, my daughter, or someone else, truly wants to dress in a revealing gold bikini, then fair enough. I guess it’s a pretty good look for some.

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What do you think about the Slave Leia look? Or parents telling their teenagers what to wear?

Please comment below, or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

Daddy Swans Can Raise Their Kids Too

“There’s the mummy swan with all her babies!” exclaimed my three-year-old daughter about the swan on the canal with their cygnets. We had probably seen daddy swan earlier, picking fights with the local geese.

I’m one of the growing number of stay-at-home dads, and I’ve been home with my daughter since she was six months old. Yet despite having an at-home dad for most of her life, she still defaults to the assumption that the parent looking after their children must be the mother.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. We had just left the baby & toddler group I help to run, where there were dozens of parents and carers – but I was the only man there. On the walk home, we bumped into a few more parents we knew, all of them mothers at home with their children. That morning, I had read numerous books to my daughter, including classics such as Where The Wild Things Are, Dogger, and some Mog books – all of which, like many in our collection, feature the mother as primary carer.

This ‘norm’ carries over into other aspects of how parenting in portrayed or perceived – including nature, where there are far fewer everyday examples of nurturing fathers to cite. We tend to humanise, or give character too, the animals around us. When it comes to their parenting, the gender roles can be perceived very rigidly, whether it’s a cartoon with talking animals or us observing their behaviour in real life.

But one of the things that makes us human is our ability to transcend nature. Unlike animals we can choose to suppress our urges, not act on instincts we know are not relevant to the world we find ourselves in, and change the way we parent to suit our circumstances.

Being the dad used to be seen as being the breadwinner, or the sports guy, or the one who cooks with on the barbecue. Some of those dad cliches apply to me. But I’m also the dad who’s at home with our daughter, loves cuddling her, will happily play dolls with her, and ties a damn good ponytail.

Reflecting this changing view of fatherhood, stock photography provider Getty Images has launched a special collection to coincide with Father’s Day. The images show fathers as nurturing, caring, and attentive parents, offering a more modern idea of masculinity and fatherhood.

These stock photos will become part of the everyday noise of the online parenting world, turning up in peoples social timelines and hopefully evolving perceptions about dads among those that don’t see fathers this way yet.

It’s easy to relax into accepted norms. Sometimes we need to curate the way the world around us is presented, to reflect not only the way it is, but the way we want it to be.

So when my daughter pointed out the ‘mummy’ swan, I felt the need to introduce an element of doubt and analysis into the conversation. “How do you know it’s the mummy swan?”, I asked, “It might be the daddy?”. She pondered for a moment, then decided that this time it was indeed the daddy, while it was the mother that was off having ‘me’ time battling the geese.

This may (almost certainly) have been factually incorrect, but learning isn’t just about facts. I am a great believer that one of the key ways we learn how to be human is through stories, and this includes the narratives we witness in everyday life. We take what we learn in these tales, to build up a vision of how society works. The fluidity of gender roles in parenthood is part of that.

And perhaps I’m being unfair on the poor old male Swan? They CAN change the way they parent to suit their circumstances. Cobs (as they’re called) are known to rear their cygnets by themselves if they lose their mate, so they clearly have within them the same desire to love and nurture their children as the female. So as far as we were concerned, daddy swan was with the kids that day, and we agreed they were having a wonderful time of it too.

Do We Need to Stop Talking About Working Mothers?

Working mom, Working mum, working moms, working mothers, work life balance
‘Working Mom’ by Ran Zwigenberg. Photo used under CC license

Whenever there’s coverage of mothers in the workplace, it’s never long before the topic of how they cope with the competing needs of their children and their job comes up. What’s wrong with this? It’s a narrative that’s only ever applied to working mothers, and rarely – if ever – working fathers.

On the BBC series Inside the House of Commons this week, one of the featured MPs was a busy mum who juggles the demands of her job with the needs of her family. As the listings described the scenario: “Lib Dem MP Jenny Willott… seeks to balance new parenthood with politics.”

I am not denying Ms. Willott’s very real struggle between being a parent and an MP (and Deputy Chief Whip), but yet again, the search for this ‘balance’ was presented as an issue only for the working mother. While we did see the involvement of her partner, where was the male MP also struggling in the same way, having family dinners in his parliament office, dropping off his children at the House of Commons nursery, or leaving his crying child with an aide so he can dash off to the house for an important vote? Maybe he doesn’t exist. Maybe society’s expectations of working mothers are different from those of working fathers.

This was yet another example that feeds into the myth that when a mother is working, childcare is her responsibility. That the need for flexibility is the preserve of the working mother, not the father. That mothers struggle to maintain a work/life balance in a way that fathers don’t.

This week there was a report about the rising costs of childcare in the UK, which is indeed a big problem for parents. Yet I kept reading how this was an issue for working mothers or mothers returning to the workplace, never about fathers.

My wife has a full time job, and I freelance as well as being home with our daughter. In any discussions I enter into about work, the cost of childcare up at the top of the list when determining the feasibility of me taking on the job. The issues around flexible hours and an understanding that I may have to be absent when my child is sick are also important for my employer to know, because I am the primary caregiver to our daughter.

Why We Need to Stop Talking About Working Mothers

I don’t understand why are we always framing any discussion about childcare, flexible working, balancing the demands of home and work, with ‘Working Mothers’. These issues are not exclusive to mothers – they are parenting issues.

As a father, I find it depressing that people think dads don’t care this much about their children, that we too don’t lament the lost hours we could be spending with them when working. But as a parent of a daughter, I find the sexism of this prevailing attitude towards women in the workplace far more depressing.

It’s an attitude that is especially toxic when there are employers that would prefer not hire a mother, because they think that it’ll be too much hassle. It’s an attitude that fathers rarely encounter.

I am not seeking to diminish the emotional stress and logistical hassle of being a working mother. Despite not being a mother, I understand it completely.

I just think we need to stop talking about working mothers, and start talking about working parents instead. These are issues that affect us all and problems for us all to deal with.

What do you think about the way working mothers are perceived? Is being a working mother different than being a working father? Please get involved by commenting below, joining the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.

Valentine’s Day is for Lovers and Retailers, Not Parents and Children

Valentine's Day, Valentine's Day card, Valentine's Day cards, Valentine's Day children.
(Photo by Shana, used under CC license)

I fear I’m in the minority, but I find a little girl giving her daddy a Valentine’s card a bit creepy.

This week playgroups, preschools, and nurseries across the globe were having their usual themed crafts, which in all likelihood involved making Valentine’s Day cards. I didn’t think much of it. I figured these cards would be given to the parent who wasn’t there, from their partner that was.

Contrary to my assumption, at the playgroups I went to, many children (well, only girls) were being encouraged by mothers to make cards for their fathers. The thought of getting a Valentine’s Day card from my daughter makes my skin crawl.

Valentine’s Day is one of two things. It is either a cynical marketing opportunity to sell themed cards, chocolates, lingerie, and even ready meals (‘Give your Valentine a night off cooking with a special Macaroni Cheese’). Or it’s a day to celebrate love with your partner, a partner to be, or just a good old fashioned secret admirer.

Valentine’s Day is a time for lovers, and a time for retailers to exploit that love. It is not a time for parents and children to express their very different love for each other.

There is an argument against children ‘celebrating’ Valentine’s Day because it’s asking them to grow up too soon. I don’t agree with that, as role playing adult scenarios is an important part of our children’s development. The desire for a partner, who is more than a friend, is an important concept for them to understand. It’s how they came to be after all.

I also remember getting cards as a child from secret admirers who I still have no idea about. It almost remains my purest experience of the day. Who’s heart wouldn’t be sent aflutter with a note from a secret admirer? Valentine’s Day is a day for love, but romantic love, which is to say that heady, intoxicating combination of love and desire.

Valentine’s Day is a time for lovers

Remember the song Somethin’ Stupid? It’s a catchy duet about someone lamenting their missed opportunity of getting a date into bed by saying Somethin’ Stupid’ (Like I Love You). If you’re younger than me, perhaps you know the Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman version. That was a fun rendition of a cute song.

However, it’s more famous for it’s frankly creepy version, which was a duet between Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy.

Have a listen.

It’s also fairly creepy when sung by Nancy Sinatra and her brother, Frank jr. Take a look.

It’s really NOT cute to have a father and daughter, or brother and sister, pretending to sing about a sexual attraction to each other. It’s gross. That’s why this song referred to as The Incest Song.

Every day, I tell my daughter that I love her. But that is not the same love I have for her mother, and I want her to understand there’s a difference. It’s not better, not lesser. Just different.

What do you think about getting a Valentine’s Day card from your child? Cute? Or creepy? Please comment below, join the conversation on my Facebook page, or tweet me @manvspink.