We should expect men to be good fathers, but society is set up to enable bad ones.
Watching women do the lion’s share of the parenting is unremarkable. In heterosexual relationships, the mother is more likely to have the most active role in child rearing, and in the UK it’s estimated that one in four children are being raised in single parent households, with 90% of those headed by women (BBC).
I firmly believe in the power of single mothers, I was one for some time and I’ve known many incredible women be successful sole parents. But I know it’s not always something the mother chooses or wants, and I know how easy it is for fathers to decide to back out of their child’s life as if they aren’t equally responsible. Men can be, and should be, good parents even if their relationship with the mother has ended, yet our world seems set up to enable bad fathers.
Men don’t need women to carry all the physical labour of nappy changing and school uniform shopping, nor all the emotional labour of planning and caring. They don’t need mothers to parent them through raising their own children, and they don’t need celebrating like a hero for doing a simple task that mothers do all the time. And yet we don’t expect men to capable of caring for their own children. We still refer to fathers as “babysitting” their own children.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative MP known for his snobbery and twatty attitude about grammar, famously said “I have six children but never changed a nappy.”
I’d like to suggest this is unusual and commonly derided, but how many men’s public toilets have baby changing tables in? When we took our little ones out together I almost always had to change the nappies because the only changing table was in the women’s toilets. If he was alone, it would have to be the floor. There is no reason for this. Fathers are just as capable of changing nappies, and should be just as willing to change nappies, but by not providing facilities to do so, the notion that it’s not a father’s job is indulged. Good fathers are unable to parent sufficiently, whilst negligent fathers are enabled.
If we assume men will be good parents, we will cater for men to be good parents. By simply making parenting facilities universally available, regardless of sex, we are not only making fathers equally responsible but we are showing children that fathers are equally responsible.
Yesterday my three year old picked a new book: Mr Bear’s New Baby by Debi Gliori. The story features Daddy Bear caring for his new born daughter. It doesn’t dismiss the mother’s role, she’s an active part of the book, but it also doesn’t depict her as the nagging and put upon mother having to parent the bumbling and incompetent father either. Daddy Bear is a good parent. He takes care of the baby because he’s an equal part of the household. The story neither celebrates Daddy Bear for being such an unusual and wonderful man that he’d actually look after his own child, nor does it need to remove the mother from the story in order to empower the father to care for his own child. I wish this wasn’t unusual, I wish I saw this kind of father represented more regularly. I believe it would be a force for good in the world.
Perhaps I’m biased, but I believe stories are such a vital part of how society functions. We learn from stories, we carry stories from childhood with us in our hearts. Characters inspire us and teach us, show us morality and evil, and good stories can change us. If more stories show fathers as equal and competent, as loving and nurturing, gentle and kind, then children will grow up with that as normal, and expect it when they become parents themselves.
Of course, none of this will prevent men from abandoning their families. We can’t stop anyone from doing that, no matter how much we teach them in childhood and how easy we make it for them to stay. If people want to leave, they’ll leave. It’s not a miracle cure, it’s simply a way of shifting our society’s norms so being a responsible parent is the obvious choice.
We should expect men to be good parents. The involved and responsible fathers of our world should be as common and expected as the involved and responsible mothers. Fathers abandoning that duty should be seen as shocking as when mothers do it. We can’t stop anyone being bad parents, but we can normalise everyone being good ones.