Earlier this year Boris Johnson was giving a speech at Mumsnet’s 15th birthday party. Before an audience of somewhat tipsy women, he decided to list all the wonderful things that mothers do. We’re always there for our families. We cook and clean, listen and empathise, wipe away tears and bring smiles to faces. We put in endless hours for no monetary reward. And why, asked Johnson, do we do all these things? His answer was all set to be “love” but an honest heckler got in there first, to much applause, with the real answer: “the patriarchy”.
Yes, that’s right, Boris. We might love our kids but we’re not total mugs. If it wasn’t for that pesky social conditioning and appropriation of resources, you might find us much more ambivalent about this whole parenting business, too.
Still, I don’t think we should hold this particular incident against Johnson. He might be a mop-topped, hard-as-nails, Astroturf buffoon, but he was only providing evidence of what we already know: patriarchy believes its own lies. All that propaganda about women being “naturally” good at empathy and care work is so well-honed that men have convinced themselves it’s the truth. We’re not really oppressed; we’re just so full of love for others we can’t help ourselves.
In the eyes of Boris et al, women don’t really constitute a subjugated sex class; conveniently enough, we identify with the roles we perform. We’ve not really been forced, through both actual violence and the threat thereof, to put our own needs last; it just so happens that we’re built that way. We’re not really faced with relegation to a male-defined private sphere; luckily for us, when God created work/life balance, he gave all the “work” to men and all the “life” to us. As far as patriarchy is concerned, to be a woman is not to be coerced, from the day one is born, into giving one’s emotional, sexual and reproductive labour for free. It is, on the contrary, to be a member of The Woman Club, in which one gets to wear high heels, express one’s feelings and generally flit around being frothy and feminine (meanwhile men sweat it out in the rat race, wearing flat shoes and muted greys, wondering why on earth their more exotic counterparts came to consider themselves oppressed).
Obviously there have been some areas – all in the past, mind – where men have conceded that misogyny did exist. But ever since women pointed out the injustice of being denied the right to vote, get an education, own property, receive equal pay for equal work, say no to sex, make decisions over one’s reproductive destiny, be considered to have a soul etc., men have countered that they, too, have been denied rights, such as the right to cry in public, wear dresses and stay at home with the kids. To be fair, they’re not wrong. It’s perfectly true that the maintenance of male supremacy disadvantages individual men by making masculinity compulsory. However, as feminists have long been saying, it is not possible for men to access the benefits of gender equality unless they are willing, as a class, to relinquish power. Otherwise there’s no equality at all. We just have a series of pick ‘n’ mix demands from a group who still wish to dominate but are unable to recognise that they already do.
Which brings us back to childcare. It is great that more and more men would like to be seen as carers. But just as being seen as a woman is not the same as experiencing life as one, being seen as a carer is not the same as undertaking all of the day-to-day, non-heroic, crappy tasks that carers have to do. For far too long care work has been sold to men as “being a great male role model” – kicking a football in the park, or teaching junior to ride a bike. Parenting guides, especially those focused on raising boys, have reinforced this viewpoint, stressing that fathers really come into their own once children reach their teens (presumably once mummy has dealt with all the basics such as sleepless nights, tantrums and potty training). It’s a model of parenting which still fits into the patriarchal narrative of how gender works, that is, one which claims that once we “get gender right,” no one has to do anything they don’t want to. It’s one which still denies that our current division of labour is based on exploitation. After all, as Boris says, women wouldn’t be doing all these things if, deep down, they didn’t want to.
A recent study into the impact California’s Paid Family Leave has found that men are far more likely to take leave if their child is male and/or firstborn. Yet a baby born with a penis requires no more care than one born without (okay, so you have to remember to point said appendage down when putting on a nappy, but that’s about it). A second- or third-born child is no less suited to having a male carer than his or her older sibling. Childcare is childcare, right? Well, apparently not. What we’re dealing with here is a new, male-centric version of childcare, in which the male belief that women only do things because they “naturally” want to persists even when said men believe themselves to be challenging gender norms.
“It may be,” argue the study’s authors, “that fathers get more utility from spending time with their sons than daughters.” Wait, what? Since when did anyone expect to “get utility” from spending time with one’s children? What has this got to do with what children actually need: to be clothed, warm, fed, loved and prevented from strangling each other? The truth is, caring for children is not a performance one puts on. It is not one’s chance to shine as paternal role model extraordinaire. “Carer” is not an identity. It is, primarily, just being there. But how does one sell that to people who have a vested interest in making it something more?
Like all feminists with an interest in maternity, I could launch into a long diatribe about how the life/work division isn’t real, and how childcare isn’t really like anything else, or perhaps it’s like everything else, but either way it’s not how it looks from the outside. But none of this would get around the fact that too many men want to do it without really understanding what it means. How mixed-sex couples parent today – the essence of it – is still based around an unequal balance of power between men and women. Until we tackle that, unreconstructed views of what women are will frame male understandings of what childcare is. And while the cultural pressures placed on men mean it takes some courage to take parental leave at all, there needs to be far more recognition of the fact that we’re not seeking some holy grail of gender identity perfection. We should just be trying to do what is right, and part of that means acknowledging that we’re not dealing with some mix-up; we’re dealing with one particular outcome of the dominance of women by men.
Women have tried to be polite about this. We’ve tried to flatter our menfolk into “helping out”. But what it still comes down to is this: patriarchy, the right of the symbolic (and actual) father to define reality for everyone else. Because if men were to accept that actually, women are not doing all those extras because we feel like it – we just happen to notice the dirt, the missed birthdays, the babies who don’t have penises – but because we are in a subordinate position, even the most feminist among them would have to do a double take and consider that perhaps there’s still a problem. Patriarchy is built on lies. These do not vanish the moment one man picks up a wet wipe.