Downsized and out in Bristol and Somerset

Friday, July 02, 2010

Also on fatherhood

My brother Hugh wrote a very interesting piece about fatherhood recently. It basically discusses the idea that the gender roles and social structures defined by patriarchy do not function to the benefit of men any more than they benefit women. Well, I totally hear that.

One point that I found particularly interesting was his discussion of role models of emotionally available men, and why this makes it difficult for men to be the caring, ‘present’ fathers they might like to be. This interests me greatly because I see this in many of my friends as they become parents and it applies to women just as much as to men.

It is just as challenging for women to work out how to be the kind of mother that allows the father to be emotionally available, to be practically involved on an equal level, when the only role model you have is a 1970s/1980s nuclear family where the father wasn’t interested in being home for bathtime and the mother – who was a full-time homemaker - took it as read that she would mother her husband as much as her children.

So I see many people whom I previously thought of as quite radical, revolutionary thinkers acting in ways that seem odd, for example at parties the women gather with the children in one room and talk about childcare while the men stand in another and talk about anything but – even though by doing this they are showing their own children exactly the kind of family unit that they would *say* they didn’t want to perpetuate.

We are all trying to figure out our places in the new society that we would like to see, indeed we aren’t even really sure what that society would look like, and as Hugh says this is even tougher when you haven’t slept properly for months. I appreciate that Hugh is writing specifically about fatherhood here but to present it as a problem that only applies to men means he doesn’t address the whole issue.

Ironically, though, he is guilty of doing exactly the same thing elsewhere when he assumes a ‘normal’ family unit is one where a father goes out to work to support a family and the mother is a full-time homemaker.

It’s easy for a new father to end up feeling quite lonely because, at work he has to be a professional and perform, and at home he needs to be a great dad and there’s little space left for him to reflect. Of course that is not to say for a moment that Mums don’t have it tough too – being a Mum is one of the toughest jobs in the world. It’s just that, like trying to manage a home and look after a young child, consistently earning cash to feed a family, trying to be emotionally available and not having time to see the friends who gave you a sense of who you were prior to fatherhood do all pull in different directions.

Yes. Of course it is difficult to juggle the different demands on one’s time. But Hugh, I am astonished that you seem to think this is limited to men and that women have only the job of ‘being a mum’. This was your own family set-up until quite recently, but surely you are aware that in Western societies most households need two incomes? Usually, both parents must work out of necessity.

With that in mind, do you think a working mother gets more sympathy than a working father when she tries to put the needs of her family before the demands of her job – for example, needing time off to care for a sick child? And if she does ask for it, do you think the reaction is ‘What a great mum, she’s really there for her family, it’s so great to have people in the organisation who care about work/life balance’ or is the reaction in fact suspicion that she isn’t ‘dedicated enough’ to her job and therefore should, for example, be passed over for promotion in favour of a man? Do you think that mothers, even those who are lucky enough to have a partner involved in childcare, do not feel pulled in different directions trying to ‘consistently earn cash to feed a family, to be emotionally available and not having time to see the friends who gave you a sense of who you were’?

We need to decide: do we want Fathers to be strong Real Men, or do we want them to be loving and emotionally present? It’s quite confusing to be asked to have it both ways. If we want Dads to relate more fully to their families, we need to stop mocking and denegrating their feelings and instead to acknowledge and celebrate them.

The assumption you seem to be making here, which is usually the underlying assumption in complaints from men that they aren’t ‘allowed’ to show their feelings, is that women, by contrast, are allowed to show our feelings without negative judgement in our society. That is simply not true.

Yes, women do tend to be more honest about how we factor feelings and emotions into our decision-making, and yes, we constantly see images of women being emotional. But this is not lauded in our culture as a positive trait.

On the contrary, it is used against us and has been the main crux of our oppression for centuries: women, patriarchy tells us, are wishy-washy bags of emotion who just can’t think logically, so shouldn’t be allowed to vote, shouldn’t be doctors, shouldn’t expect to have responsible jobs, just can’t think/argue logically like men. On the other hand, if we deny our emotions we are unfeeling bitches and likely at any point to dissolve into a mess of (probably hormone-related) emotion at any point, so you can’t trust us either way.

You might as well ask the question here: do we want mothers to be strong Not Real Women, or do we want them to be loving and emotionally present?

We need to stop mocking and denigrating feelings in *everybody*, not just men, and acknowledge and celebrate them in *everybody*, not just men.

And this brings me onto your mention of ‘win-win’ and your aside that ‘that goes for feminism too’. Feminism is about achieving equality, not about putting one gender above another – in fact the very same arguments that you are making throughout your preceding few paragraphs, with which I wholeheartedly concur, and in most of the entire post. Please get a basic understanding of feminist theory rather than assuming that ‘we’ are de facto against ‘you’ as is so often portrayed by people who haven’t done their homework – see here for starters

The adjustment required on becoming a father isn’t helped by negative stereotypes in the west. I have pulled up one or two female speakers in public recently when they have projected stereotypes of men that would be considered outrageously sexist if they were expressed about women today. Rightly, it is no longer acceptable to crack dumb blonde jokes about women, but Dads are still fair game for negative humour.

Hugh, of course it’s unacceptable to denigrate fathers with negative stereotypes, but are you seriously suggesting that ‘it is no longer acceptable’ to be sexist? Perhaps dumb blonde jokes aren’t laughed at in your circle of liberal middle-class nice guys, but please, look around you, open a copy of the Sun, watch a stand-up comic, whatever. Women are most definitely still ‘fair game for negative humour’. And if you think it's only fathers who are denigrated, or who don't have 'safe spaces' to discuss their experiences, open the Daily Mail, or talk to a mother about whether she finds it easy to admit that she found it difficult to breastfeed, or whether she has a 'safe space' to talk to friends about how her child's company sometimes bores her shitless.

Hugh’s points about the prevalence of female authority figures in a child’s early years are very interesting and valid. Again, this is something that works to the detriment of females as well as males – the idea is set very early on that women do the nurturing, men do the wage-earning.

This contrasts with what I’ve seen in other cultures such as the Far East, where men are proudly involved in nurturing children and it is perfectly normal for babies to be carried, cuddled or disciplined by the men in their family. Whether they are entirely involved in the practical side of childcare such as feeding and nappy-changing is another matter, but the displays of affection are there and this carries on into adulthood where it is often perfectly acceptable for men to hold hands or hug.

But if you want your sons to have more male role models, you are going to have to be those role models, lads – no one else can do this for you. Are you willing to give up your high-paid jobs, downsize your affluent lifestyles to something you can afford on two part-time wages and spend more time with your kids? If you want to address the imbalance of female authority figures that children meet in their early years, why not retrain as a nursery nurse or primary school teacher? You can’t have it both ways. Or sign up to be a scout leader and when people take the piss, tell them how and why their attitude is unacceptable.

it is confusing as a man to be expected to Be Strong and Bring home the Bacon and also at the same time to be emotionally available and be present and involved. Some clarity about what constitutes a workable set of possibilities for the role of a father would be helpful: something pragmatic and rooted in reality not something derived from an ideological standpoint.

Yes, things are changing. Deal with it. No one else is going to figure it out for you, and the process is not always going to be comfortable, nor are you always going to have unflinching support from everyone around you. Things is tough all over. Want some clarity about a workable set of possibilities? Decide on them and then live them. If you want change, you have to pick up your pitchfork and make a revolution.