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 But we’re still stuck with a lot of outdated baggage that guilts mums into being left with all the childcare responsibility, and implies that dads ‘naturally’ don’t belong in the role of a lead parent.
The other week I was at Story Time at the London Docklands Museum. The kids and toddlers all sat round enrapt by the enchanting puppet show… No. Some of the kids were listening, but toddlers being toddlers were also just doing their own thing. One toddler’s dad was sitting on the floor near his son, waving at his little guy. The toddler stood up, bumped into a bigger kid and fell over. The tears started coming, and the dad leant forward and slowly began to pick him up to soothe him.
Then, as if from nowhere, a woman knocks parent and kid alike to one side to swoop in and pull the child from his father’s arms. Is this a kidnapping!? No, it’s the kid’s mum. She shoos away the dad and takes her son to one side to comfort him, whilst the dad stands there, awkwardly, not sure what to do with his now empty hands.
The scenario and the feelings involved are familiar to most active parents. Some parents are hit by the weight of responsibility, and a need to surge into action at any cost to help their kid. Others will have the same need, but are stopped dead in their tracks by the sense that they’ve just had rank pulled on them by their boss.
Little Bear was at the playground yesterday, when a younger munchkin fell over and hurt her knee. The parent swooped up their little girl as the tears started rolling. Little Bear became transfixed by the hurting baby, giving a look that resembled a struggle with constipation. His little awkward anxious grin stared at the baby until she calmed down. A few awkward steps towards the baby: “Is it ok Pappa?” “Yes, Little Bear, the baby was sad but she’s had a cuddle and is ok now”. He then runs off to throw himself recklessly down the nearest slide.
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]
When I say softer parent, I’m not thinking about round the waist. At the moment I’m leading that one. The question is: out of mum and dad, who is more willing to break when the baby’s siren starts up?
The stereotype is that mums give the cuddles, and dads dish out the discipline. Alternatively, dads leave all the strict stuff and coddling to the mums, and occasionally peer over their newspapers to tickle the little ones. I’m guessing that in most modern families, the picture is no longer so clear.
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...
Ever heard the expression 'Mr Mom' when dads parent? Mums, ever noticed what a hard time mums get parenting compared to dads? Dads, ever felt over-indulged, patronized or like your masculinity is being questioned just because you're parenting? What if people saw dads like they saw mums and vice versa?...
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots