“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.
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.
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.
Why dos we need a playgroups survival guide for dads? Well, these can be pretty intimidating places for the man flying solo.
“Do you all spend the whole time cackling about shoes and celebrities?”
That was an actual question I asked my wife about our antenatal group. Like most men, I hadn’t really spent much time around large groups of women, and when I had they were usually drinking lots of Pinot Grigio or watching Mamma Mia. Or both.
Well, they DIDN’T chat endlessly about Women’s Mag stuff, and they accepted me as a stay-at-home dad without batting an eyelid, comfortable to talk of cracked nipples and weaning strategies alongside the kind of stuff we all used to converse about a lot more before becoming parents.
Playgroups are an extension of these gatherings. However, when you’re the only man walking into a roomful of women & kids who know each other but not you, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed. Don’t be.
You will be told how brave you are for going to a playgroup with lots of mums. Don’t believe this for a second. You’re not being brave at all. You’re just a dad taking his child to a playgroup. Treat it as the most normal thing any parent would do, because it is. If you approach it this way others will too.
So dads – whether you’re stay-at-home full-time or on temporary leave – don’t be shy and get out there. Here’s a few pointers to help you on your way.
Playgroups survival guide for dads
No one wants to hang out with grumpy Graham in the corner. If you look like you don’t want to be there, you also look like you don’t want to talk to anyone – so they won’t bother. Smile, and people will smile back.
2. Children are a great conversation opener
“How old is your child?”, “How long have they been walking?”, “What a cool outfit”, etc. It’s very easy to start a conversation with women at a playgroup, by simply sharing facts & compliments about each other’s children. This also works in bars.
3. Be the engaged parent you are
To many, it’s still a novelty (even weird) to see a dad enjoying spending time with their child. In all likelihood, the mothers you want to know will recognise the same level of engagement that their partner has, or even wish they were more like you (no, really). Either way, they’ll like you all the more for it.
4. Offer to help out
Whether picking up a dropped toy, tidying up at the end of the session, or helping to run an actual group (as I do), helping out is a great way to endear yourself by showing again what an engaged parent you are.
5. Remember peoples names
I’m terrible at this, and it does really help to build a connection by demonstrating you’re interested in them enough to recall their name. Here’s a good playgroup hack: If you’ve forgotten, ask the child’s name, DO remember this, then look down the sign in book/sheet for that name and cross reference the parent’s name.
6. Bake something
Possibly sexist (sorry), but mums at one group still mention the batch of Anzac biscuits I brought to a group once. I didn’t even bake them – my wife did. It was the first time a lot of mothers actually talked to me, and they have done ever since.
7. You will think your singing voice sounds worse then everyone else’s. Probably because it is…
Most groups end with a sing-song. Your voice is (probably) lower than the mums & kids, so your singing will stand out. Don’t worry. This isn’t choir practice. If they do notice you, it’ll be for enthusiastically singing with your child, because it makes them happy. Which is cool.
8. Not all groups of mothers are a clique…
Don’t be intimidated. Just because there’s a group of women talking intently to each other in the corner, it doesn’t mean they’re an exclusionary clique. Stop basing your idea of female social structures on Mean Girls and Heathers.
9. …but mother cliques do exist.
Just like Mean Girls and Heathers, there are still exclusionary cliques around. If you encounter one, just walk on by. Don’t even assume it’s because you’re a dad – there are plenty of mothers who also feel excluded by these packs too. Be thankful – there are far more interesting people for you to get to know.
10. If you don’t like it, move along
It took me a few groups before I found ones I liked. Remember, it’s ok not to like them. Some groups were too religious, some classes too scripted, some full of mothers that just wouldn’t talk to me. Wherever you are, there are probably a bunch of groups to choose from, so shop around. Don’t be swayed by other people’s opinion – even your partner’s. Just because they found a group or class brilliant, doesn’t mean you have to. Find what works for you and your child.
What do you think of this playgroups survival guide for dads? Let me me know in the comments below.