Towards Equal Parenting
On a cold evening in early 2016, my wife and I underwent the biggest change of our lives. Just before 5 pm, our son was born. We were both exhausted from the birth (her obviously more than me), but ecstatic at getting to finally hold old tiny troll. It was a feeling that’s difficult to describe: excitement and trepidation, as your nurturing and protective instincts kick in. This is something we were about to do together.
But shortly after my baby was born, I was told I had to leave the hospital without him… My wife, in desperate need of some sleep, was told she had to look after my son for the night, alone. Two and a half years later, I still face this disconnect between the kind of caring and fully responsible dad I want to be, and the dad others expect me to be. This attitude of placing all the burdens of childcare on mum and telling dad to leave doesn’t make sense, and isn’t fair on mums or dads.
I haven't met a dad who hasn't been overrun by goose-bumps and nurturing instinct when taking care of his little trolls. Over 60% of parents believe dads should have an equal role in parenting, and a majority of new dads are now saying they want more time and responsibility with their kids. On top of that, the benefits for dads, mums and kids of more equally shared parenting are backed up by a growing body of research.
Why mums and dads make equally good parents
Attitudes are changing fast around the role of dads in the family. But we’re still stuck with a lot of outdated baggage that guilts mums into being left with all the childcare responsibility, and implies that dads ‘naturally’ don’t belong in the role of a lead parent.
Why do dads need to justify being the responsible parent?
Settling Little Bear into nursery I was asked to fill in the emergency contact details in case they needed to get hold of us during the day. Naturally, I put mine down first. My first instinct (as for many blokes) is to try to explain why I put my name first rather than his mum’s, and I have to explain it in terms of why my wife couldn’t be the first point of call. I want to explain that: ‘my wife is really busy during the week’ or ‘my work is closer than my wife’s to the nursery’ or ‘she’s often abroad so it’s easier to get hold of me’. I struggled to stop myself giving these justifications to the nursery staff for me accepting a pretty basic parental responsibility. I was of course treated to a ‘are you sure you want to put your name there?’ from the nursery staff ‘you realise it means we’ll contact you first, before mummy?’ [yes, this is what ‘first point of contact’ normally means]
A year ago last week, Little Bear and I went into shared parental leave together. 7 months, 2 new back-pains and a toddler later, I emerged from full-time care of my little troll. Going back to work was a culture shock. It’s like you’ve been on a fast and slightly dangerous roller-coaster, before stepping off and walking along the mundane pavement feeling giddy. For the first week at least, you feel a little shell shocked. Every few minutes or unusual noise in the office, you look around for your little guy in panic because you can’t see him, only to remember that it’s because he’s several kilometres away at nursery.
Little Bear is pretty amazing, but most dads will say that about their babies. Most dads look at their little ones and know they want to be there for them every step of the way. It’s a deep instinct that goes beyond just wanting to earn to feed them or elbow dangers aside. Some dads may not feel it from day one (probably due to exhaustion from the birth) but they see the feeling grown on them the more they look at the little round eyes in the unstable, wobbling head, and start to see the first smiles. Others may start to feel it, tears and all, the moment they hear the rapid thump of the heart beat coming from the tiny shrimp shaped blob on the screen of the first scan.
But it’s a feeling and an instinct dads will know. An instinct to protect, nurture and care for this tiny human. It's a want to see them grow, and play a part in building this particular little person. An interest in someone else’s happiness they’ve never felt so strongly before.
Security Guard: 'So you're baby-sitting today?'
Why is being a bloke often lumped with not wanting to parent properly? What do we expect from dads? What do we mean by 'fatherhood', aside from a bloke who gave half the ingredients for a baby? And what impact do these ideas have on our jobs and the rest of our lives? People agree what 'maternal' means. Mums are thought to be instinctively nurturing and responsible. But things get a little more fuzzy when it comes to what being a dad is about...
Whilst I was dancing beside the baby-viewing cinema screen last week (trying to get Little Bear to sleep in the middle of teething and tiredness induced hysteria) I counted the parents. There were just over 100 watching the film. Out of them, there was 1 other dad on his own. I was actually surprised to see any other dads at all. Normally there are none. I've been to about half a dozen baby activities, and have yet to talk to another dad alone with their baby.
I'm certainly not complaining about there not being enough blokes to talk to. I really enjoy spending time with the mums and their little monsters. But where are all the dads on shared parental leave? Shared Parental Leave ('SPL') could just need more time to take-off, but there might be deeper problems.
Looking for some real numbers on how many new dads are taking shared parental leave is difficult, but the best estimate puts it between at 2 and 4% (Compared to 9 out of 10 dads in Sweden, Norway and Iceland)...
'mothering instinct'; 'mummy knows best'; 'only a mummy can fix it'; 'daddy should be working'; 'mummy shouldn't go back to work "early"';
'can you trust dad with the baby?'
Dads taking on the role of a full-time parent is shaking up a lot of the things people are use to. Some people don't just expect mums to be the only person responsible for the baby, they also think it's better than the dad being in charge. They think it's neglectful for mum to return to work 'early', and that the dad needs to keep up his role as breadwinner for the family (awkward stereotype for me since the wife earns way more than I do).
Nowadays, it's rare to come across these views openly, but a lot of people think them privately. Around 22% of people in the UK still think that mum makes the best parent, with most of those thinking that mums just make 'more natural' parents, or that dads just don't fit into the role of full-time parent well... But I haven't met a single dad yet who hasn't been overrun by goose-bumps and nurturing instinct for their little trolls. Nor have I seen a single reason why dads make worse parents than mums...
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots