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.