Being a father is not a unique, mystical role. Photo: Getty
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Paternity leave: why we should stop romanticising fatherhood

Labour's latest pledge reveals how an equal allocation of arse-wiping duties is hindered by our view of fatherhood as a unique, glittering prize.

Like many women of my generation I grew up believing that feminists had already won the argument regarding housework and childcare. We’d pointed out that the current distribution of labour was unfair and no one, apart from the out-and-out sexists, had dared to disagree. None of my male peers would have dreamed of saying “a woman’s place is in the home” so I thought it fair to assume that none of them thought it, either. Yet here we are and women still constitute the vast majority of primary carers, with childcare becoming more and more expensive in relation to salaries. It turns out achieving an equal allocation of arse-wiping duties is far more complicated than we could ever have imagined.

At the 1975 National Women’s Liberation Conference, feminists added free 24-hour nurseries to a list of demands that included “abortion on demand” and “equal pay now.” Clearly they didn’t realise that when it comes to sorting out inequality, you don’t just make an obvious list of all the things that might help to achieve it. You can’t just say “free 24-hour nurseries, please.” It is obligatory to faff around for ages, decades in fact, chipping away here and there, trying to find ways to sell the idea that having children isn’t just some evil conspiracy hatched by women who are out to ruin the economy. Oh, and as for fatherhood, tread very, very carefully. You don’t want to risk making anyone feel unmanned.

When Sheila Rowbotham observed,“the creation of a new woman of necessity demands the creation of a new man”, I wonder if she could have predicted the degree to which the creation of “new men” would topple over into anti-feminist backlash. All too often “what about the dads?” has become the battle cry of the modern-day men’s rights movement. In many cases these are men who had no interest in shared parenting until divorce or separation removed them from their role as head of the household, but there are also more subtle pro-dad voices whose parenting recommendations still smack of traditionalism and control, despite all their claims to the contrary.

Meanwhile, the role itself is romanticised. Fathers’ rights don’t include the right to be paid less, the right to be talked over or the right to perform all of those childcare-related tasks that don’t involve any immediate contact with your child. We’re talking about the right to be like the dad in that Nizlopi JCB song. You’re a giant, you’re a working-class hero, you’re Bruce Lee, and Bruce Lee doesn’t stand over a toilet scraping the faeces off the pants of his potty-training son.

And yet I am, tentatively, pleased that Labour is proposing an increase in paternity leave and paternity pay. It could have done without the “father’s month” branding, which makes me think of a big, macho version of Woman’s Hour, but it is a step in the right direction (which is the kind of things mums always say, whether it’s to do with politicians mentioning parenting at all, or children getting halfway round Sainsbury’s without the first tantrum). I find myself cringing slightly at the notion that “more fathers want to play a hands-on role in childcare particularly in those first crucial weeks of a child’s life” (what, you mean while it’s still a novelty?).

Four weeks is nothing, a heartbeat. If it matters for anything, it’s more for the support that a partner – male or female – can offer a new mother during those initial dark nights and zombie days. Indeed, part of me wonders why can’t it be framed as “partner” or “co-parent leave.” What, after all, is fatherhood? Is it some unique, mystical role, involving a special kinship with the fruit of one’s loins? Or is it something both more magical and more mundane, a chosen self-sacrifice that might sometimes make you less of yourself, not more? You know, a bit like motherhood?

In What Should We Tell Our Daughters? Melissa Benn asks whether today’s young men “are being brought up to see that the work of the home is work, a form of labour they should recognise, value and share”. I’d count parenting and caring work as part of that, but the answer to Benn’s question is, I think, no. If anything, I doubt young men really think about it at all. Perhaps I underestimate them, but simply failing to anticipate the need to perform a role can be much the same as expecting someone else (a mother, a woman, not you) to do it. And when such unspoken assumptions and expectations have embedded themselves, it can be hard to challenge them without seeming to be asking far too much. Even so, we can’t offer up fatherhood as a glittering prize when it is something else; it is what it is – love, care and work – and that should be enough. And perhaps four weeks is a start.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge