Let’s think about dads for a minute. The role of fathers in modern family life has changed enormously over the past couple of decades, from a time when expectations were largely based around the mother being the primary caregiver, and the dad as the primary breadwinner, more or less absent from the day to day demands of babies - feeding, dressing, bathing, changing. Dads whose only foray into the kitchen was to carve the occasional hunk of roasted meat or whose only child-related duty was to lay down the law or offer career advice have mostly been consigned to history. Nowadays, dads push buggies and carry babies in slings, get up at the crack of dawn to play lego, change nappies, do the school run, wipe noses, stuff tiny fists into mittens and do all the other things that not so long ago was considered the domain of women only. Dads who haven’t done laps of the bedroom in the middle of the night, patting and shushing a tiny angry person are now the exception rather than the rule. Huge strides have been made in challenging polarised gender roles in caring for children. Stroll into any playground anywhere early on a Sunday morning and see for yourself!
And yet. Traces remain of the social and cultural norm that for a long time dominated Dad Identity. Portrayals of dads in popular culture - mosly sitcoms and advertising, but extending into other dimensions of day to day life as well - inform understandings of what are“acceptable” and “normal” roles for a dad to occupy. Somewhere between Homer Simpson and Chris Rock in “What to Expect…” there remains a fairly deeply entrenched idea of the dad as a sort of well-meaning but bumbling idiot - who panics at the idea of childbirth and “women’s troubles”, faints in the labour ward, can’t figure out a nappy, puts the child’s clothes on backwards, and sends them off to school with some chocolate covered sugar bombs and a pack of crisps, while all the responsible adults - the mothers - gasp in horror or roll their eyes. At the same time, when dads are seen as doing things without every aspect of it descending into chaos, people lose their minds in awe and admiration. My husband used to take our kids to the pool every Sunday when they were little, and I would almost inevitably hear about this marvellous feat of capability the next morning at school when I would be wrangling children in and out of car seats and buggies in the rain. Double standards!
It’s worth taking a closer look at portrayals such as these, in terms of what they reveal about what we think about dads, and what they think about themselves. At one end of the continuum is the guaranteed laugh of the dead-beat dad, but at the other end is the near universal lack of decent paternity leave. Even in places where paternity leave is a thing, there are often unwritten but present social and cultural obstacles to actually taking it, for fear of sending a signal that you’re less bothered than you really should be about career progression. Unless you happen to live in Scandinavia where gender equality legislation facilitates and legitimises parenting opportunities for fathers as well as mothers, these elusive barriers do exist. The message coming from both ends of the involvement continuum is the same: this is not really your job, mothering belongs to mothers. The upshot is that having successfully expanded the perception of mother’s roles in society to include “worker”, our failure to truly expand the role of dads as carers does neither gender any favours. Mothers still bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities in addition to expectations that they will have a successful career, and stay-at-home fathers are few and far between, and still viewed with a degree of suspicion. We have a couple of dad friends who have taken on the stay-at-home role, mainly for economic reasons, and describe all sorts of encounters during which their choices are questioned. One youthful looking dad was asked if he was a manny, which gave us a laugh, but another put up with a lot of criticism from his father-in-law who clearly felt that by staying at home he was failing in some fundamental man-father-husband way. Consider the difference between the meaning of “mothering” and fathering”. Mothering conveys a universe of meanings, hinging on ideas of nurturing, comforting, caring. Fathering just means a one time act. Maybe we need a new word. Let’s just call it dad-ing. Dad-ing, in an ideal world, would begin around the time that health professionals start asking the mum-to-be to “pop up there” for their first scan. Antenatal education does emphasise the importance of a supportive birth partner, but inevitably (and rightly!) centralises the needs of the mum. The role of the dad during labour can be ill-defined since it’s difficult to know how things are going to go, but there are definitely opportunities to support the transition to fatherhood in ways that acknowledge it as monumental, daunting, overwhelming and joyful.
Being a dad - or becoming a dad - in 2020 throws up all sorts of challenges, but for some who have been able to work from home for the first time, spending a lot of time with their kids has been eye opening and transformative (in a good way!). I volunteer to support breastfeeding mums once they come home with their new babies, and it’s been such a pleasure and privilege over the past few months to witness new families in their first days and weeks. The new dads,without exception, are bursting with pride and really want to look after their partners and babies and love having the unexpected extra time to do it. Sure, the lockdown isn’t anyone’s idea of conventional “quality time”, and being stuck at home with kids has undeniable groundhog qualities to it. But let’s focus on the Pandemic Silver Linings: 2020 has provided an opportunity for many dads to become immersed in their children’s lives in ways that modern life rarely allows, and for dad duties and relationships to expand into previously uncharted territory so they become familiar, and normalised. In the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, let’s remember that “real change, enduring change,happens one step at a time”. Even if those steps can be measured out in spoonfuls of pureed carrots and post-bath cuddles, they lay the foundations for lasting equality and a decisive move away from gendered parenting. We applaud you, dads!
Susannah Sweetman - writer and mum of 4.