Despite some progress, research shows the idea of men as carers has yet to be fully embraced by employers, society or men themselves. Why? Author and journalist REBECCA ASHER believes we must start with the way we bring up our boys.
FATHERS’ day-to-day, positive involvement in family life really matters. It is good for children, mothers, fathers and wider society.
There’s substantial and ever-growing research evidence to show that fathers’ active involvement supports children’s social, emotional and educational development, strengthens couple relationships and opens up work options for mothers. The rest of society also benefits from greater numbers of parents in the workforce and from more progressive and nurturing roles for dads.
Yet despite all this good evidence, many fathers remain wary of embracing their caring role. New research, commissioned to coincide with this month’s Being A Man festival at London’s Southbank Centre, found that just over half of men who have taken shared parental leave worry that fathers who do so risk being viewed as ‘less of a man’. We need to tackle the social and cultural constraints that are holding men back.
The debate about how to encourage fathers tends to focus on the period when couples have just had, or are about to have, children. There’s much discussion of paternity leave, shared parental leave and the switch to flexible working. There’s good reason for this. Comparisons with other countries show that family-friendly and father-friendly policies are essential to enable men to play a greater role at home and to help mothers devote more time to their careers. In my first book, Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, I argued that fathers must be encouraged – and expected - to be more active carers if we are to achieve equality between the sexes. Put simply, feminism needs fathers (and fathers need feminism, too).
BEYOND FAMILY POLICY
Yet after writing Shattered I was still left with questions, and the need to find out more. Family policy can only get you so far. I was struck by a recent letter in the Financial Times, written by a Swedish businesswoman, who noted that despite her country’s laudable push for equality, mothers there continue to shoulder the burden of domestic work and childcare. As she neatly put it, “the woman is still the household project manager.” She’s reached the conclusion that there need to be “more profound societal changes” in addition to progressive social policies. Clearly the two are interlinked. Nonetheless, as the Southbank Centre research shows, it’s important to address wider cultural assumptions about the roles of men and women, including as fathers and mothers, if we are to change those roles substantively and for the better.
It had also become clear to me that fathers (and mothers) come to parenting with often quite fixed ideas about what their role should be. The fathers I interviewed spoke of their preconceptions, built up over a lifetime, of appropriate male roles and behaviour, and how they informed their approach to fatherhood.
"DON'T ACT LIKE A GIRL"
Fathers talked movingly and regretfully of the rigid, male rules that were drilled into them from an early age: act tough, take control, don’t – whatever you do – act like a girl. These messages certainly came from their own families – particularly their fathers. But they also came from media representations of masculinity - from television programmes, to comics, to ads for toys - and from their interactions with teachers and school-mates who often had very clear, and stereotypical, ideas of how boys should behave. Boys should be noisy, competitive, stoic and, of course, obsessed with football.
It’s been heartening to see the widespread support for challenging stereotypes for girls. But we need to tackle male stereotypes too. That is why I set about writing my second book, Man Up: Boys, Men and Breaking the Male Rules. Damaging ideas about what it is to ‘be a man’ are strongly linked to rates of violence and suicide among men, and they influence fatherhood too. Today’s dads may be more emotionally demonstrative and practically involved than their own fathers but fathers in heterosexual couples still feel under pressure to be the (financial) providers for their families.
Most couple mothers are in paid work these days too but, arguably, they don’t feel the same degree of cultural pressure as men to bring home the bacon – although it goes without saying that they suffer their own gendered pressures. Men also worry about what friends and colleagues will think of them if they adjust their work hours to spend more time with their children. As one father, who works part-time in order to be with his children, put it to me “‘Some people do react as if they think I have a lack of ambition, whereas for a woman it would be seen as normal.”
Caring just isn’t seen as manly. In fact it can be seen as shameful - hence the hazing ritual to which new members of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team are subjected. They are required to push around a toy pram with a doll in it. After all, what could me more embarrassing than being forced to act ‘like a girl’ mimicking caring for a baby?
STARTING AT THE BEGINNING
If we really want to prevent these harmful beliefs from taking root then we need to start at the very beginning of children’s lives. The smallest details matter, from the portrayal of fathers in children’s books to the range of toys we give our boys and girls. When the former MP and Equalities Minister Jo Swinson dared to suggest that parents give their boys a doll to play with to encourage their nurturing side, she was met with derision. This shows how far society has to go. We need a joined up and determined effort to bust stereotypes in the media, in schools and in other public services as well as in our own homes.
Of course, public policy that enables fathers to be more closely involved in the lives of their children is an important part of that strategy. And this is a work in progress. But we need to think more fundamentally and imaginatively about challenging the male rules in order to encourage the ‘profound social change’ in which mothers and fathers are equal parents - and joint project managers.
Rebecca Asher is the author of Man Up: Boys, Men and Breaking the Male Rules and Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality. She will be chairing The Paternity Debate, part of the Southbank Centre’s Being A Man festival, on Friday 25 November 2016.