Empowering My Daughter via Star Trek and the Supermarket

I had a quiet moment of parental pride this week, and it was over something seemingly trivial.

As anyone with kids who shops at Waitrose will tell you, one of the most important parts of any shopping trip is the chance to pop in the green counters into their Community Matters box.

The supermarket donates £1,000 to 3 local charities or community groups each month, and the amount of counters in each box indicates the proportion each one will get.

What’s supposed to happen is that you choose the one you think should get the money. What I and many other parents of young kids do is give our sprog the counters and let them put them in whichever box they like. I figure they’re all deserving of a bit of overpriced Waitrose cash.

My daughter took her standard five counters, and was going through her process of divvying them up, when 3 older boys bundled over. They had spotted that one of the boxes was for their local school, and were excited to add to the counters.

Upon seeing that my daughter had a collection of counters to distribute, they proceeded to hector her into placing them where they wanted – namely their school.

My daughter has a tendency to back away for any potential conflict. At playground she will usually let anyone waiting to go on the slide ahead of her. In playgroups, if anyone tries to take a toy from her, she will let them have it. When it comes to songs, she will back away from the instrument box until everyone else has taken one (with only crap ones left).

Letting people go first, and have things they want, is in many ways a positive. I’m pretty strict on manners, and when we have playdates or guests, I make sure she realises that their needs come first – so if they want to play with a toy, they can. If they want to do something else, they can. Our role as host is to make them feel happy and comfortable. It’s worked, as she is great when we have people over.

But this is just for when we have guests. In life, she also needs to put her own needs first from time to time. She needs to be selfish.

The dilemma of embracing our ‘bad’ side reminded me of a classic Star Trek episode (geek alert!) when Kirk is separated into good and evil versions.

While the ‘bad’ Kirk was running amok on the ship, acting on his uninhibited aggression, ‘nice’ Kirk was being… nice, like he normally is. Only he begins to realise he needs the aggressive side of him to be an effective Captain of the Enterprise. Sometimes. we need our ‘bad’ side to do good. It’s a story that’s stayed with me since I was a kid.

So while I teach my daughter that being selfish is wrong, for her to be empowered she needs at least a dash of selfishness, ego, aggression, and any number of other less seemingly desirable traits. It’s a nuance that I feared would be lost on a pre-schooler.

So it was with great pride that I saw her stand her ground with the 3 older boys. Under repeated badgering from them to do what they wanted, she simply said “No thanks” and put the counters where she wanted – which included the collection for their school.

Afterwards, she relayed the event to me finishing with “They tried to tell me what to do, but I don’t have to do what they tell me.”

Further discussion emanated from that. Adding to the nuance, I followed up by explaining that it’s ok for them – or others – to try and persuade you to do something. But if you don’t want to do it, then you don’t have to.

It is a lesson that is incredibly important for the rest of her life, encompassing moral & ethical dilemmas, sexual consent, workplace bullying, and more.

There’s a quote attributed to Louis CK (whether correctly or not) that we’re not raising children, but the adults of tomorrow. I want my daughter to grow up to be what sounds on paper like a mass of contradictions – sensitive and assertive, strong and tender, humble and confident.

I have no real idea how to achieve this, but I’m trying my best. In the meantime, I have also learned from writing this that while I adore the thrill and adventure of Star Wars, perhaps I need to show my daughter some classic Star Trek too.

Kirk out.


STAR TREK™ & © 2015 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Labour’s Paternity Leave Policy: Is it even a step in the right direction?

Stay-at-home dad, bottle feeding, paternity leave,
Feeding my daughter during her first month

A Labour government will double paternity leave for dads from two to four weeks, and increase their weekly paternity pay to £260 – over £100 more than present. No doubt this move will be tagged as anti-business by Labour’s opponents. But is it as pro-family as it seems?

I was lucky that I spent the first 6 weeks home with my daughter. I can’t imagine not having spent that time with her, and I feel for other fathers who wanted the same but weren’t able to.

While this Labour policy may seem progressive, reflecting the reality that many fathers want to be at home with their newborn too, I feel what it’s really reinforcing is that after 4 weeks a man’s place is still at work while a woman’s is at home with the baby.

There are many reasons why fathers decide to become stay-at-home dads. In our case is was a combination of me really wanting to be home with our daughter; my wife’s desire to return to work and maintain her career; and a feeling that I might be better suited to being home all the time with an insatiable grub that lacks basic conversation skills. The fact that my wife also earned more than twice as much as me was not an obvious influence, but perhaps it made our decision easier.

What I think families need more than a simple increase in paternity pay and entitlement, is support to make these type of flexible decisions that are right for them, for there is no one size fits all way of parenting any more. While for some couples the mother being home full-time is what’s wanted, others (like us) would prefer have the dad home in those early years. Many couples would like to both be working as soon as possible. The financial hit would be harder on some rather than others, so that too would affect decisions.

Far more progressive is the Shared Parental Leave system that comes into force from April, where parents can share the majority of the mother’s 52 week leave entitlement between them, in theory letting the couple decide which one of them is to become the primary carer. One of the biggest stumbling blocks with this is that many women have generous maternity packages from their employer that are far in excess of the Statutory Shared Parental Pay of £138 per week.

I remain unconvinced about Labour’s proposal, though I am sure it will lead to more fathers taking time off to be with their newborn. The IPPR, who came up with these proposals, believe take up will increase from 55% to 70%. That sounds optimistic, but I guess we’ll see should we have a Labour government come May.

I believe that the level of pay is really a small part of the reason for the low numbers taking paternity leave. For parents who had no interest in the father being home, their feelings will remain unchanged. Many men feel that their employer would look unfavourably on them taking leave, that their job cannot be interrupted, or that it will hurt their career. They too will remain feeling the same way about paternity leave.

The policy seems rather outdated next to Shared Parental Leave in that it assumes the father will return to work after 4 weeks while the mother is home with the baby. If Labour really wanted to encourage more men to become stay-at-home dads, or women to become working mothers, then I think they should really be building upon the Shared Parental Leave system, perhaps finding a way for mums and dads to share an employers parental leave system.

So is Labour really trying to be progressive? I am reminded of the free childcare/early education for three year olds. The 15 hours of free childcare per week, notionally intended to encourage at-home parents back to work is now seen as more of a rebate to middle class families. They would be paying for the childcare at nurseries anyway but now get a term time fee reduction. I have a similar feeling about these proposals, that it’s intended to be a nice little financial present for those families who would have probably used paternity leave anyway.

This feels less about a policy helping families, than a headline to help persuade disaffected supporters to vote Labour in May. But at least a few more dads will get to spend time with their newborn like I did.


What do you think about these paternity leave proposals? Please get involved by commenting below, joining the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.

When a Four-Year-Old Girl Thinks Science Toys Are Only For Boys, Something is Very Wrong

Some friends had an upsetting family trip to the Natural History Museum in London.

They have a bright, bold, and delightful daughter called Zoe – she amused me no end when inventively used our toys to enthusiastically stage a river raid on Noah’s Ark by Spider-Man & Hulk to rescue the animals from the clutches of supervillains Annihilus & Joker. Sitting cosily inside the stereotyped marketing category of ‘Girl’ is seemingly not for her.

So at the Natural History Museum shop, it was a shock to her parents when then 4-year-old Zoe, after carefully inspecting the general science toys on display, sighed and lamented how they were only for boys.

Zoe’s mother was so upset about this that she wanted to cry. This is definitely not the way they wanted to bring their daughter up, and in fact they thought they were doing well by giving her trucks and other non-traditional girls toys. Their only conclusion was that this message must have come from outside the home.

It indicates the scale of the problem with gendered marketing. As parents, we do what we can to instil our children with positive & empowering messages and influences, to encourage them to discover what will engage & inspire them. But gendered marketing is so threaded into our everyday life – shops, TV, movies, magazines, and peers – that its effects will probably permeate through whatever defences we put up.

People like myself and others can rail against this. We may even convince the occasional retailer or manufacturer to change the way they define their products. One thing some toy makers have done is produce ‘girl’ versions of toys. You know the sort of thing, tool boxes, guns, and even science kits, that instead of being ‘normal’ colours, favour only shades of pink.

Some people (usually toy industry people) hail these as an ingenious development. But to me it simply reinforces the ‘pink is for girls’ mentality. They may play with the ‘perfume factory science kit’, but what happens when girls see an item that isn’t pink? They may assume it’s for boys and ignore it. What do boys take away from this? That only pink things are for girls, but this also excludes them from the likes of baby dolls and kitchen sets.

While we have this mentality, there will be countless stories where a girl decides a career isn’t for her because it’s not presented as such, or a boy may think being home with children is for mothers only. Children may privately carry on in this way of thinking their entire lives, perhaps even perpetuating it when they become adults. Who knows, maybe they’ll move into toy & children’s clothes marketing.

I actively encourage my daughter to play with toys that are not in the ‘pink aisle’, and to also wear clothes from the ‘boy’ section too. But as our daughter gets older, and seeks out her own media, the marketeers will be able to reach her directly. The peer group pressure upon her to conform to the identity portrayed in these messages will also grow.

The retailers and manufacturers in question claim they are only feeding demand, but if as a consequence our children can grow up with the belief that science – and any tech or engineering role – is only for boys, something is very wrong. At least Zoe’s parents became aware of the the issue, and have managed to turn it around with her, by getting her a dress-up labcoat, science kits, and they even had a female chemical engineer telling Zoe how cool her job is! Many children will not be this lucky.

I hope the colour palette of childhood in retail evolves. That pink and pastels stop being the exclusive domain of our girls. That the whole spectrum is opened up for all. Luckily, there are entrepreneurial companies spotting the gap in the market for something beyond pink and blue.

In the US, the #WearYourSuperheroes Day was created by a young girl in support of her sister, who was teased for her love of superheroes. Whenever my daughter runs around the playground in her beloved superhero cape, I know (because they tell us) many boys and girls notice and have their already formed assumptions challenged.

Girl Wearing Cape, Female Superhero, supergirl, superhero fancy dress, gendered marketing to childrenI dearly hope my daughter’s love of all kinds of colours, toys, and interests continues, that she doesn’t get directed exclusively down the pink aisle – and that we inspire others to join her too.

An earlier version of this post appeared here.