Sunday 29 November 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Recently there has been a spate of articles in the UK on motherhood, fatherhood, working hours and the balance between professional and domestic life. You can arrange those words in any order you wish, especially if you want to highlight priorities and hierarchy, but the outcome will convey the same message: parenting has just got harder.

Harder not because we're still enamoured of the idea of the traditional nuclear family with dad going to work and mum staying home to look after little John and Jane, but because of the many options open to parents in western societies at the end of this century's first decade. The vast goulash of family settings nowadays encompasses everything from single parenthood to gay couples adopting and raising children. And sometimes multiple choices pose difficult quandaries.

However, this should not be interpreted as a call to arms to return to the dark ages when men were the main breadwinners and women the crumbs-gatherers, but rather as a pragmatic analysis of what means to be a parent today in the West. And it goes without saying that my point of view is mainly based on my experience as a father.

The fact that the kernel of many of the aforementioned features and articles points at growing concerns about work-balance amongst women should not be underestimated. One of the milestones of the feminist wave of the 60s and 70s was equal opportunities at work. The fact that as of 30th October women in the UK have been working for free should not go amiss either, but on the whole there are far more opportunities at both junior and senior levels for women to succeed than twenty or thirty years ago. This development in career choice has brought with it positive economic, social, political and psychological changes.

But one of the unintended transformations, or at least one not planned in the long term, in my opinion, was the role of fathers or male carers in child-rearing.

For many years fathers impersonated a character that was a cross between a villain and a buffoon. Smoking and pacing endlessly outside labour wards whilst their partners inside were doing all the hard work, driving the family car on a Sunday afternoon after a long week of getting home late way past little John and Jane's bedtime or waving goodbye to the whole family at the airport as he went on yet another business trip; this was the typical caricature we came to expect of the paterfamilias. And if truth be told, many men enjoyed the ride. What is less known is that in today's topsy-turvy world, men do want more flexibility to be with their children. And unsurprisingly we come across many hurdles.

The first obstacle is fathers from the previous generation or the one before. These dinosaurs succeeded most of the time through sheer hard work and if a balanced domestic life was to be sacrificed, then so be it. And this mindset cut across classes, whether dad was a blue-collar or a white-collar worker the message was the same: bring home the bacon. It should then be expected that they demand the same of their employees.

The second impediment comes from women, paradoxically. And the crux here is generational, too. Like those antiquarian male bosses who are slowly waking up to the fact that female employees can and do become mothers, women from previous generations are gradually realising that for some men a career path can be to become a househusband and looking after his and his partner's children. Yet there's still reluctance in mothers and grandmothers to accept this transformation.

The third challenge we encounter as fathers arrives courtesy of the state. The current paternity leave is still a work in progress, although it has come a long way from when my daughter was born. Nevertheless it still places the emphasis of child-rearing on the mother whilst dad gets a minimum of two weeks off work with payment of just over £120 per week. One of the schemes going through parliament at the moment is how to extend fathers' leave to six months so that both mum and dad (or mum and mum and dad and dad) can take that half year together during their baby's first year.

There are other barriers which I won't mention now because this post would become tedious and repetitive. The message is clear, though: there's a discussion going on in the UK about parenting, and this debate has both positive and negative sides. In my case it has touched me at a personal level.

Recently my wife landed a job as a Special Education Needs Assistant Teacher at our daughter's primary school. Her role is to support a child who suffers from autism. Whereas before she would be the one usually staying at home to look after our children if they got ill, now the situation has changed and I am the one required to step in if one of our little ones is unwell. I am, however, in a lucky position, in that I have a boss, the school's headteacher, who is very open-minded and supportive but when I worked in retail the atmosphere was anything but. And that was one of the reasons why I left the travel industry. Because it was not a child-friendly environment. However, even with that support from my current boss, I still feel guilty when I miss a day at work and have to carry out my duties and responsibilities from home. Why is that? Surely my family should come first. My only explanation is that as a man, I have an in-built device that goes off the minute I have to swap 'real work' for childcare. The former is seen as more relevant and important than the latter. And that, to me, is the issue at the centre of this debate of fathers and male carers adopting a more hands-on approach in child-rearing.

And if anyone thinks that my experience of sharing childcare with my wife is a one-off, he/she will be mistaken. It is a similar situation across the UK but where class and families' purchasing power make a big difference. Men who want to be involved in their children's lives and decide to stay at home to look after them, or to work from home, are usually well-off to begin with. The majority also belong to the so-called chattering classes. There's also a divide across the professional field with more stay-at-home fathers being part of the creative and cultural industries (CCIs) and self-employed sector (and no, I have not got figures to back this claim up, it is chiefly based on observation and my professional experience). Their partners are on an equal footing financially and that goes some way towards addressing the income vs annual inflation conundrum.

But what cannot be denied and I hope my previous paragraph did not put any future dads off, is that fathers do fulfill an important role in a child's life. I was given a book by my wife before our son was born. It was called 'Fatherhood Reclaimed'. On the evidence I've seen in twelve years living in the UK I would say proudly that the outcome of this enhancement of paternal responsibility will be 'Fatherhood Re-Imagined'.

I wonder if David Milliband will be wearing a blue suit next time he meets Hillary Clinton. Alternatively he could do with a blue dress, if he is feeling kinky. Will Vogue be running next a story along the lines of 'Clinton: I did not have sex with David'? Oh, the shame and decadence of it. Have a nice Sunday.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 1st December at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Un buongiorno domenicale Cuban.

    Ho letteo con molt attenzione il tuo post, e le tue riflessioni sono molto precise.
    Riferendomi ai cosidetto "dinosauri" come li chiami tu, di una volta.
    In vecchi tempi, vecchi tempi che trovo siano abbastanza recenti secondo le origini di provenienza, secondo le diverse culture, e secondo il luogo dove questi hanno avuto alimentazione, potendo cosi valutare visto che da piccolissimo ho vissuto e visto questi cambiamenti e sviluppi famigliari, il ruolo dell'uomo e della donna, come anche la loro posizione sia cambiata.
    Io credo che tutto dipende anche da destini e sviluttpi personali. E da quello che la societá e lo stato ci ha imposto e impone.
    Prendo il caso ad esempio di mio padre, e con esso quindi anche lo sviluppo della sua/nostra famiglia, e gli effetti collaterali che portarono in sé.
    Mio padre (nato nel 1926) é cresciuto senza padre. Gli morí quando lui aveva solo 6 anni.
    Costretto cosi da piccolo a badare per la madre e il fratello neonato, dovette lavorare a soli sette anni vendendo basilico, prezzemolo e ció che la terra gli offriva. Dovendo anche cosi imparare e adattarsi ad aiutare la madre nei lavori domestici.
    Tutto questo fece di lui un uomo non tipico per i suoi tempi. Un anti-mache in tempi di macho, per essere precisi.
    Questo suo sviluppo di paritá dei sessi per costrinzione, é ció che trasmesse a noi figli. E cosi siamo cresciuti! Mamma era sempre ammalata, e insieme al duro lavoro di mio padre, lui doveva anche badare a lavori domestici, come anche a noi figli finché era possibile.
    Da un lato, una cosa molto dura per un uomo dei suoi tempi. Da un altro lato peró nello stesso tempo una scuola buona per noi, imparando il rispetto reciproco subendo sacrifici e unendo cosi il senso famigliare per sopravvivere la quotidianitá.

    Oggi é tutto diverso. Non piú la situazione stabilisce il movimento di una famiglia, ma molte volte lo stato o il governo della terra dove viviamo.

    Potrei aggiungere molto altro, ma credo che dal mio commento si leggerá benissimo cosa intendo e ci si puó immaginare come nel nostro caso siano andati le cose.

    Ti auguro una buona domeminca a te e famiglia Cuban.

    Un saluto da Colonia,
    Salva :)

    PS: Billy Joel lo adoro :)

  2. Hi Cuban, I'm spending a mellow Sunday morning catching up with my blog vists! Thanks for the great posts on the Zadie Smith article.

    I'm not a parent so it's difficult for me to comment on this post!

    Autism is a difficult special need to deal with. My husband's one godchild has autism and it's tough. Your wife must have immense courage to take on a job like that.

    Enjoy the rest of your Sunday. :)

  3. Cuban, like Ann Victor, i'm not a parent and it's a bit difficult for me to comment on this post.
    But i undrestand exactly what you mean.
    I know certain families having kids with autism and how difficult this is to deal with.
    I admire you for having left travel industry, a non friendly enviroment for children as you had said.
    I send you a big hug and i'm thinking of you.
    Hope you're having a nice Sunday!

  4. Me ha gustado mucho este post. Nosotros todavía no somos padres, pero lo querríamos ser pronto y es muy interesante y cierto lo que escribes.

    Nosotros también dejamos atrás trabajo de alto estrés para poder estar más tiempo juntos, y poder dedicar tiempo a nosotros y, esperamos que pronto, a nuestros hijos.

    Happy Sunday!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Hola Cubanito...

    As always your ideas are spot on and thanks for educating those of us on the other side of the pond on your gender pay issues. That article about women working for free in the UK after 30-10 was eye opening.

    One thing that I've always observed here in the US is that we (women that is) since the suffrage have been working towards equal footing, pay and respect in the workforce. [This is only for those women holding professional or vocational training. i can not speak for blue collar workers.] A difficult task but we have for the most part acheived that here. I would say that more than the majority are on equal footing with the men in the work force. i can definetely vouch for that for women in the military. An area of expertise for my family and I.

    The newest complaints come from moms going back into the workforce after caring for their small children and getting them into school. Many of us feel that we have lost our competitive edge and that we would choose to stay home or start our own businesses rather than come back to working in our fields of study for peanuts. As women have been were working up the trenches they, too, have felt the sacrifices jon family life just as their male counterparts and will continue to do so no matter how flexible the work industry may be.

    Let's face it, for most of us, our children are everything and they have us wrapped around their little fingers. We will do everything humanly possible to make them happy...even if that means changing legislature to ensure that we can balance family life and careers. No, situation is perfect and it's okay not to give our little cherubs everything. It's character building.

  7. 'Re-imagining' usually happens from the ground up - and so parents have to question the 'role assignments' that get handed down through the generations and be flexible enough to create new ways of fulfilling parental responsibilities.

    I think it is always a worthwhile exercise to question, re-think, re-imagine any roles handed to us. It is so easy to end up 'reduced', diminished and disheartened by an inherited role.

    Sounds like you and your wife have very flexible parenting roles and that either of you can step in and do what needs to be done for your children.

    Great post Cuban!

  8. You’ve done a fabulous job with this post at looking at parenting and the changing role of fathers in particular. Congratulations to your wife on her new job and to you for being so supportive. A friend of mine wrote an award winning middle grade novel about autism – Rules by Cynthia Lord.

    My husband and I have had similar discussions about parenting vs career. Part of the reason he left banking for academia was so that he could be more involved with our family. I chose to be an artist/writer because it was work I could do at home while raising our children. Should I get published and need a book tour, my husband is willing to step in as the primary caretaker, especially now that he is tenured. It also gets easier as the kids get older (except during soccer season!)

    I believe that taking turns, when possible, is the fairest solution. Plus the kids benefit too from more time with both parents. It’s also a good role model, teaching that parenting and marriage are about partnership not gender delegation.

    I love Billy Joel – nice to hear that piece again. The visual display is too wide for your blog, though. I saw Billy Joel live at Madison Square Garden close to 20 years ago – he was very energetic. I was just thinking about him when I was at Madison Square Garden for the Cirque du Soleil earlier this week. Perfect Sunday track with my cup of tea. Thank you!

  9. This is a very interesting post and the link to the article in is quite shocking. I work at a University, public sector, so I benefit from being on a pay scale. I must say that I didn't realise that the issue of pay inequality is still such a major one.

    I wish I could comment on the parenting issues, but I'm not a parent so I can't. Hopefully one day that will change and I'll make sure that me and my partner share the parental duties fairly.

    And I love that Billy Joel song. It's one of those on my ipod which I would never admit to but secretly I listen to it over and over again.

  10. Wow, Cuban! What a post! I can hear and feel your frustration, although in all fairness, I have to say I am not a parent, so I cannot possibly fully feel it. My husband and I decided before we ever got married that children were not what we wanted, and specifically, for some of the issues you discuss in your post. But I can understand entirely when men are trying to make a change and they have not only the system working against them, but also their own, internal, clocks that are ticking clockwise when they're trying to make them tick anti-clockwise. A challenge, to say the least. But I do see a sincere effort on your part, especially in making such a huge change to your life as changing your job so you could work in a more child-friendly environment. I will say this - change is sometimes slow, too slow for comfort. But when we see it happening we have to feel somewhat heartened.

    Cuban, your Sunday morning posts are always so much to think about, but it's a good type of "so much".

    As an aside, now that I know you will be reading "Lolita" I would highly recommend watching the movie "Lolita" starring Jeremy Irons when you've finished with the book. The movie might be difficult to find, as it's currently out of production, but if you can get your hands on a copy, I can guarantee you won't be disappointed.

    A lovely Sunday to you, Cuban! And thank you.


  11. I am a parent, and come from a long line of parents who lived a steriotypical projection of parenthood. The introduction of individual human potential recently came upon the scene. So the partner could or should have the inner fem or inner male.
    We just have to try harder to get past what's hard wired and what's cultural. There is no perfection, just humanity evolving through another idea.
    Good insight.. thanks for this post...

  12. Many thanks for your feedback. Thanks, Sarah, for that shout out about the Billy Joel video. I noticed something strange about it this morning when I came on my blog but I thought it was to do with my computer. I have changed the dimensions now so you should be be able to maximise the screen.

    There's so much to discuss when it comes to men and women's childcare responsibilities. What I noticed from the comments above is that those who are not parents yet are at least thinking in a new direction from the one I was thinking many, many years ago before meeting my wife. I thought I would be a hands-on dad, but not to the extent I am now. At the back of my mind the Cuban parenting style - mum is the primary carer - was ubiquitous.

    I agree with the statement that there's no perfection, just humanity. I would add to that it's down to the individual to make his or her choices.

    Thanks for your wonderful comments.

    Greetings from London.

  13. I have to come back and finish reading your post.
    Tonight it is too late for serious reflection for me.

    I am often astonished when mothers or fathers who decide to sacrifice their careers or income - or both - and take up the work of bringing up their children themselves instead of delegating it are being treated in the discussion about the paritá dei sessi as if they were "only crumbs-gatherers" and doing no real work. I know of one father who is constantly being asked when he is going to write "that book" or along that line, as if he were supposed to be "staying home" to do some "real" "important" work instead of "playing" with his kids.

  14. A lot of people are working 60 hours a week in the world today. Family life down the tubes.

  15. Interesting post with lots to think about. If you haven't heard of them already, the married writers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon have two books about mothering and fathering out right now that are much debated. And there's an interesting review in the December Atlantic Magazine, written by Sandra Tsing Loh about the Waldman book. Happy Sunday and week ahead!

  16. Much food for thought there. It hadn't occurred to me that parenting had become harder because of the range of choices available. It should have, but it hadn't. I do recall being very vexed by the lack of options open to us and have tended to be rather envious of today's parents - in that one respect only.

  17. I salute you, Cuban, for embracing your role as father in all its dimensions. You're right. Money, class, etc. have a great deal to do with how this issue is viewed and handled. The other variable is that in an increasingly atomized world, we no longer have the resources of the metaphorical village to support families. We are also still in a transitional period in the definition of acceptable roles for both men and women. I have no doubt, that whatever fleeting reservations you may have, you are doing a great job as a father.

  18. great post. i was just settling in when it ended. you left me wanting more. thanks for your insight... spain is not far behind:)

  19. Kudos to your wife for taking on such a challenging job. My sister has teenage triplet sons with autism, so I know what a difficult road it is.

    Your children are lucky to have such a caring father, who is sensitive to all the issues of parenting.

    Gosh, I've got to dig out some of my old Billy Joel albums now. I haven't listened to them in ages!

  20. This was an eye opener, Cuban. Thank you. It never occurred to me to consider the hurdles and biases on men who want to spend more time with family. But you are absolutely right. I chose to stay home with my children long ago, and even though the pressure on women to have a career and bring home the bacon is not as strong as it is on men, I still feel guilty, less of a citizen for not contributing to society intellectually or economically. Men who choose to be househusbands will eventually have to face the reality that after their children are grown, they will no longer be as marketable or primed to re-enter the workforce. I certainly feel that way. Unfortunately, with the added pressures on men, this realization may be harder to deal with.

    Thank you for a very thought provoking post.

  21. Thank you very much for your lovely feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  22. Hello London,
    I came late to the post having fallen very behind in my readings. However, it was worth the wait!
    It is most interesting to hear about this issue from a father/husband's point of view. Two things I'd like to say are that I loved your use of the word 'goulash' to describe ' les familles recomposees as the French so drily put it, and secondly, that men are not the only ones to put a lesser value on child care than paid work. Women are just as apt to do this, although it could be argued that they have become convinced of this because of the male dominance/influence in our society. How many times have I heard in my life 'Oh, I'm just a stay-at-home mom'?

    Things are moving in the right direction and our children will be the better for it. Boys particularly, I think, have a much healthier emotional life when their fathers are involved with them. I would be most interested to hear what you might have to say about why fathers and sons so often have fractured or incomplete relationships.

    I enjoyed reading this, as always, as much for the style as the content.

  23. Perhaps we could generate more light and less heat if we refrained from being harshly judgmental when others have different opinions from our own. it's interesting that you refer to older men and women who disapprove of men being stay at home dads as "dinosaurs" and "antiquarians." Yet apparently it's perfectly acceptable to express the same disapproval of women being stay at home moms. For the past 40 years or so, anyone who has expressed disapproval of stay at home moms has been praised as modern and progressive.

    As far as fathers being essential/beneficial to the emotional life of boys, does that mean single mothers of boys should all get married? Does that mean that lesbian mothers of boys should all change their orientation? You mean gender does matter after all?

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