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.

Green Party
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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.