Wait until your father gets home!”
That’s what they used to say, wasn’t it? Except in my house it was always wait until ‘your dad’ gets home – ‘father’ was a word more associated, to my young mind, with priests and Star Wars baddies.
Let’s unpack all this for a moment.
When I was growing up, ‘Dad’ was a distant figure (both emotionally and geographically) who would return from a nebulous world called ‘work’ and distribute punishment (usually of the smacked-legs variety) when ‘Mum’ had reached the end of her tether with our shenanigans.
These days, life is considerably different for many children (and their parents). I’m a stay at home dad: a phrase that often conjures images of softly spoken, hummus-addicted, Beta males who wouldn’t be considered threatening to a wet paper bag – and our bags are ALL paper, we’re far too right-on to touch anything non-biodegradable. As such, our kids don’t see dad as a distant threat, rather we are treated with the same level of familiarity (and contempt) with which kids have always regarded their mothers.
What’s my point?
As Father’s Day approaches (some might say ‘looms’), it’s into an environment where the role of ‘the father’ is in a state of flux. What it is to be a dad, or a parent in general, has transformed. Yet, I’m not sure whether, as a society, our consciousness of what these roles entail has kept up with the pace of change happening in our midst.
Many, many, men’s experience of being a dad is TOTALLY different to how their own fathers fulfilled the role. This change is welcome and necessary. But it also means that an entire generation is working without the safety net of a model to emulate – dads are cutting a new path and it’s bloody hard work.
Now, before you start writing in, I’m very aware that women have been at the coal-face of this ‘bloody hard work’ for eons without making a fuss about it. Mums, throughout the ages, should be praised for the work they’ve done without any hint of reward. My point is larger than: ‘isn’t it tough to be a dad’. What I want to discuss, and spark a wider discussion on, is the way we, as a society, view childcare.
We don’t give enough status to those who raise our next generations – and this is a problem that’s massively detrimental for both men AND women.
I’m going to break a taboo. Hold onto your hats.
My partner, the mother of my children, earns more money than I do. You heard me correctly. This is a man, announcing in public, that he is less ‘successful’ than a woman. That how much is in your bank account gives a very narrow view of what ‘success’ can be, is an argument we can save for another day. My point is, in a relationship where the highest earner just happens to be female, it makes total sense for that person not to ‘give up’ work to devote themselves to childcare. So, I became a stay at home dad – dividing my time between wiping bottoms and freelance writing work. It was, for my family, a totally logical decision.
Yet, sadly, since taking over this role, I’ve discovered that society – as a whole – isn’t quite ready to see men pushing prams full time. The fellas in this position are viewed with a mixture of sympathy and suspicion, as if caring for the children they produced was somehow emasculating.
This is a concept I really can’t get my head around. Why is conceiving a child hugely manly, but changing the same kid’s nappy a form of societal castration?
Since becoming a dad, I’ve experienced amazing, often merely thoughtless, interactions. Daily I’m asked if I’m busy: ‘babysitting’. For the record, you can’t ‘babysit’ your own kids. To ‘babysit’ is to fulfil an amateur childcare role, usually given to teenagers while mum and dad nip out at night for a quick tikka masala. Why must a dad’s expertise in childcare be reduced to that of a fridge-raiding teen, watching endless episodes of Game of Thrones while the tots sleep upstairs? You wouldn’t ask a builder if they were doing ‘a bit of DIY’, would you?
I once had a random lady follow me around a supermarket, grabbing items from my basket and pronouncing that my son ‘wouldn’t like them’, because, clearly as a dad, I had no clue how to feed my own child. On another occasion a man (a total stranger) approached me while I was supervising my kids and announced: “Is your career on the skids then?” As it was assumed that a father involved in childcare during the week must be in the midst of a career catastrophe.
Dads are routinely shunned at ‘Mother and Baby’ groups (the titles of which are clearly anachronistic), in playgrounds and other communal areas. This has happened to me on numerous occasions. Why? Because, for so long, these environments have been felt to be ‘female’ spaces, where a man is an interloper. In reality, they are ‘parenting’ spaces, but that change hasn’t, as yet, fully filtered down.
So back to my larger point. I’m not looking for sympathy, far from it. At times, being a stay at home dad can be hugely fulfilling. It can also be as boring as hell – but that’s parenting for you. What I want us to recognise is as long as we perpetuate the myth that parenting is a low-skilled, low-status occupation, true gender equality is never going to occur.
If women want equality in the workplace, it has to be in a culture where men are not afraid, embarrassed and actively discouraged to do a lion’s share of childcare. As long as we mock and degrade dads who’ve embraced a changing work dynamic, and are involved in looking after their small children, women will not be fully free to pursue the workplace parity they deserve.
The government seems confused as to why shared parental leave hasn’t become more popular. The answer is simple, dads don’t want to do it because they think it’ll affect their careers, their relationships and their perceived masculinity.
There’s a lot of change needed – the way we view fathers in the 21st century must transform. Dads are no longer distant enforcers who bring home the bacon. We’re involved parents, doing our best to adapt in a changing world. So, this Father’s Day, let’s finally put the ‘pipe and slippers’ view of fatherhood to bed. Rather let’s celebrate a role that has changed, for the better.
Daddy may not be ‘cool’, but he’s certainly no embarrassment either.
Chris McGuire is a writer and stay at home dad. He blogs at Outofdepthdad.com giving his perspective of the ups and downs of being a man on the vanguard of a constantly changing parenting culture. @Outofdepth_dad