The “Dads for Change” campaign is a good start, but it’s no parenting revolution

The more men changing nappies, the better, but let’s not kid ourselves that it will liberate women from caring responsibilities.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

If there’s one men’s rights campaign that even the most ardent feminist can get behind, it’s this: the right of men to wipe babies’ arses. For far too long men have been excluded from the joys of dodging the sudden-exposure-to-cold-air wee, or removing a soiled vest without getting faeces on the baby’s head. If equality means anything, it’s ensuring that female demands for equal pay don’t come at the expense of male ones for equal poo.

In keeping with this, the #dadsforchange campaign is highlighting the best and worst UK changing facilities for fathers and their babies. As Dad Network founder and campaign leader Al Ferguson explains, “many dads have been in situations whereby they have not been able to safely and hygienically change their own baby’s nappy when out and about. […] Society is going through a cultural shift seeing more and more dads take active, hands on roles in parenting and public facilities need to reflect this.”

As far as paternal protest goes, this definitely beats scaling a building dressed as batman because your ex-wife doesn’t think divorce has turned you into Colonel von Trapp. However, before we start redistributing wet wipes and Sudocrem in a manner fit to smash the gender binary, I think we should a note of caution. There are, it is true, good fathers’ rights campaigns as well as bad ones, and this is definitely one of the former. Nevertheless, one might ask whether one can ever be on safe ground when it comes to extending the reach of Dad, even if it’s into the nearest nappy bin.

While groups as diverse as Fathers 4 Justice and the Dad Network suggest that fathers’ rights are a new concept, resulting from changes to gender roles during the latter half of the twentieth century, this isn’t strictly the case. Men did not suddenly realise that it was okay to take a hands-on role in feeding, clothing and washing children just as women realised it was okay for them to wear trousers, earn money and think little thoughts of their own. The oldest and most successful fathers’ rights movement is patriarchy and that’s been around for millennia. While we often forget how it originated, concluding that men must just have got into the habit of being a bit mean, patriarchy is all about paternity. And while we might see changes in how paternity is established and expressed, it would be naïve to conclude that such changes are always to the benefit of women and children.

I’m all for dads changing footballs, or kicking a nappy around the park, or whatever it is they do nowadays. Even so, we still live in a world where motherhood is constructed around care and fatherhood around ownership. Men still seek to limit and control women’s sexual behaviour, denying them access to reproductive choices and insisting that any offspring take their name. It’s a throwback to a time when, short of keeping a wife under lock and key, there was no way a man could be sure that the children she bore were really “his”. Medical science might have changed this but women retain the perceived advantage of intimate knowledge and assurance of their own family line.

Today it is increasingly accepted that a strong family unit need not be Mummy, Daddy and 2.4 kids. While this is generally a good thing, it’s worth remembering that patriarchy is robust and can survive superficial changes to gender and sexual norms. While it is often argued that reproductive technology has liberated women, what it has also done is offer men a greater range of options when it comes to achieving the same patriarchal ends. That men can now rent out the wombs of poor women of colour halfway across the globe is a measure of changing attitudes to fatherhood, but it’s also proof of how adept patriarchy is at finding new ways to exploit female bodies. It would seem to me premature for feminists to celebrate the fact that men have more freedom to explore parenthood, gender expression and sexuality while still being permitted to treat half the population as mere carriers for their fantasies and their seed.

Women are put in a difficult position when men automatically expect us to support their “new” interest in parenting (or indeed anything traditionally associated with women). We’re supposed to be grateful, even to consider it brave.

After all, haven’t we spent years moaning about all the unpaid work we’ve been left to do? Shouldn’t we be falling at the feet of any man willing to fling a muslin over his shoulder and get stuck in? Perhaps, but this ignores the fact that while parenting practices can change, power dynamics can remain the same. Women have a right to approach the “new” fatherhood with caution. What’s more, we don’t owe men a debt of gratitude for facing the same problems with which we’ve always had to contend. Yes, not having baby care facilities available when you want them is a pain. But hey, hasn’t anyone told you that men have been having babies since the dawn of time? Isn’t it time you yummy daddies got a grip and stopped hogging the pavement with your Bugaboos, thinking the world should revolve around you and your precious offspring?

It’s not that I disagree with #dadsforchange. The more men changing nappies, the better. May their newborn baby’s poo be mushy pea-scented and of the brightest yellow. But let’s not consider this a parenting revolution just yet.

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