“They’d all be there in the playground chatting but if he tried to join in, they’d politely block him. They also had a Whatsapp group for all of them to arrange playdates and share kid horror-stories, he wasn’t in it.”
The above isn’t a mum worrying about her child being bullied. It’s what one woman told me about her husband’s experience of being a stay-at-home dad and how the mothers at the school gate treated him. It’s not the only story like this I’ve heard. Since I started writing about women and work four years ago I’ve met numerous families which don’t conform to the “mum as chief care-giver” stereotype and every single one of them has a story of how the father has been ostracised, ignored or questioned, by other parents, by his mates and sometimes even by his own family. Because while we might say we want men to take on more of the housework, be better dads and put down the Alpha male stereotype, when it comes to our society’s culture we’re still light years away from acting out what we really want.
18 months on from the introduction of Shared Parental Leave and we still see women as caregivers and men as the economic resource. Research from My Family Care back in April showed that 40 per cent of companies haven’t seen a single man take up SPL. Why is something that should support equality so unpopular?
Creating a world that values fatherhood, and expects more from it, requires more than just legislation, it needs serious culture change from each and every one of us
One simple reason is money. While most companies that offer the same parental leave package to both men and women, not all do. When new parents are looking at the financials, sometimes it doesn’t matter if the father wants to spend more time with his children, they simply can’t afford for him to do so. This is particularly true in families where the man is the higher earner to begin with. Add to this that 50 per cent of men think taking SPL will negatively affect their career, which let’s face it is the truth for women, and you can begin to see why the incentive isn’t really there.
Creating a world that values fatherhood, and expects more from it, requires more than just legislation, it needs serious culture change from each and every one of us. We need to start thinking about how we treat men and women from the very first second of pregnancy, not just once the baby has been born.
Just as employers expect pregnant women to need time off for hospital visits, let’s start to make this assumption about fathers-to-be as well. Let’s assume they’ll want to come back from parental leave working part-time or flexibly, that their priority will be their family not their work. This is the first generation with SPL, they’re pioneers and they’re scared, we need to get better at supporting and normalising it for them.
Both sexes still judge men by their economic status, this not only impacts how likely they are to want to take on caring responsibilities, but adds extra pressure onto men in a way that women simply can’t understand. If we decide we want to give up our jobs and just look after our children, it’s a decision that is supported. When men do it they face criticism from the generation above who want to protect the status quo, they face questions from their mates who might see it as a judgement on their own choices, and they have to go against everything that society tells them makes a successful man. They’re rejecting money, status and power in favour of family and love, that’s not the choice that little boys are brought up to respect.
We need to remember that men are surrounded by images telling them that masculinity is linked to action and achievement. Even the famous Athena poster of the ‘80s, featuring a semi-naked man cradling a baby, had a man that clearly spent more time in the gym than at the nursery. And as a society we behave in a way that backs this up from an early age. Where are the toy babies for boys? Where are the TV shows featuring stay at home dads? When there’s a crisis at school, why is it always the mother who is called first? Why do signs for baby-changing facilities always feature a mother and child? We need to look at the imagery around caregiving and get militant about changing it.
And finally, we could ask ourselves what else we, as women, could do to allow men to take on more caregiving responsibility because there was one very revealing stat in the My Family Care survey: 55 per cent of women don’t want to share their parental leave with their partner.
Historically being the caregiver has been what’s given women status. We weren’t allowed to wage wars, run for government or bring in the money, the only way we could shine was by being amazing mothers. If we really want society to change then we have to admit that men can be as good a parent as we are, sometimes even better, just as we could be as good at running a country as they are, sometimes even better. We have to let them take on those caring responsibilities and champion them when they do. That’s where the real change will come.