Honestly, what did the Fatherhood Institute think it was going to happen? You launch a report with the word “worst” in it, next to “mums and dads” and ending with the term “childcare” and you expect the press (especially the rightwing tabloids) to give you an easy ride?
Only a self-delusional Martian unacquainted with planet Earth, its traditions and customs could think that The Daily Mail (also known as The Daily Hate) and co. would pass up such a golden opportunity to try to put one over us, forever-on-the-crosshairs parents. Dad-as-conscientious-carers is yet another bête-noire to be added to the long list the Mail, The Sun and other newspapers have chosen as their favourite targets. Single mothers and immigrants are two other categories that come in for heavy fire from their ranks.
What the Fatherhood Institute attempted to explain was that tomorrow, as most of the world celebrates Father’s Day, British men will spend an average of 24 minutes with their children compared to one hour for British women. That does not mean that “British Dads Are the Worst in the World” as a headline reporting on the findings stated. What it means is that when it comes to sharing childcare responsibilities, men and women in the UK are still less gender-equal than parents in countries such as Sweden and France.
Rather than beating ourselves up about it, we ought to analyse the reasons for this imbalance. I can think of different elements, none of which takes precedence over another.
In my view, there is still a prevalent fathers-won’t-engage mindset in society worldwide. This, despite the many examples of men adopting a more hands-on approach in creating and raising a family nowadays. There is also a tendency to see parenting at odds with business. Parental leave is almost a four-letter word for the world of retail and commerce. Yet, as Scandinavian nations continue to show, the more time parents spend with their newborn baby, the better the outcome will be, not just for the child but also for the parents. The gender pay-gap is another reason why sharing childcare in the UK is so poor. As long as women earn 17.4% less than men (according to the Fatherhood Institute) in similar full-time jobs, the male-as-breadwinner mentality will carry on unchallenged. Parity in pay plus encouraging men to opt for part-time employment in order to spend more time with their children should go hand in hand.
At the heart of this discussion on modern fatherhood is the issue of trust. Fathering a child is easy, being a father is not. What I mean by this is that the biological process of creating a life is, on the face of it, fairly uncomplicated, if you catch my drift.
However, the process of bringing that child up together with your partner (I notice the report, as well as much of the literature that comes out of Fatherhood Institute, is chiefly heterosexual-centred. In the 21st century the straight nuclear family is no longer the norm) is very, very, very messy. Therein lies the beauty of being a parent, or more specifically, being a dad. Making the baby, anyone can do it. Raising it, well, that’s the million dollar question.
This is where society as a whole has to come to some sort of agreement. It is not impossible. I am sure that Denmark and Sweden had a male, chauvinistic culture decades ago, but they realised that the way forward was inclusion not exclusion. Antenatal, natal and post-natal services must cater to both sexes. Parental leave for fathers must be equal to that for mothers and we have to trust that dad will be most of the time with baby and not at his local watching the footie. Trust is fundamental when thinking of holistic, social solutions because their impact is not easy to measure. Some fathers need more encouragement than others in the same way that some mothers need reassurance that whatever they are doing with their babies is right. Did I mention that parenting is messy? Of course, it is, we are caring for a new being. We have been entrusted this new person’s wellbeing.
Will the UK ever catch up with the likes of Norway and Holland? In defence of my adopted land major steps have been taken. When my son was born I was in the hospital with him and my wife and was present at his birth. I was told at the time by people older than me and born and bred in Britain that had that happened a few years before I would have been asked to wait outside. During the course of both my children’s early years in primary school I noticed the increase of male presence at the end of the school day. That was certainly another step in the right direction. At work now I see men more involved in their children’s education, either dropping them off in the morning or picking them up in the afternoon. Perhaps we will get there one day, but we will need government legislation to help us along the way. We will also need to highlight issues that might not be fatherhood-related such as the gender pay-gap, women’s position in society (bottom of the ladder, sadly), the economic impact of austerity in the UK (it has mainly affected women as they are the ones who perform most of the care and voluntary roles). Fatherhood is not just about fathers, it is bigger than that.
As for the dad-shaming headlines, a piece of advice: never, ever include the words “worst”, “mums and dads” and “childcare” in the same press release. We, fathers, deserve better than being cannon fodder for The Daily Hate and its gang of doomsayers. Let us push for positive change together. Have a happy Father’s Day!
Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd June at 6pm (GMT)