“It’s really very complicated.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Besides, it looks like your partner isn’t eligible.”
“Yes, so it does. Oh well.”
Thus ended my own recent conversation with my HR department regarding Shared Parental Leave (SPL).
Since 5 April this year, new parents – some of them, at least – have been able to change the way in which leave entitlements are divided between them during the first year of their child’s life.
Whereas previously it was assumed that mothers would take maternity leave and any partners would more or less carry on as normal, couples now have the option of splitting leave entitlements between them, providing both of them are eligible and both of their employers agree to the arrangement.
Have you noticed the difference yet? No, me neither. It is early days, of course. But what should we expect? And furthermore, why should anyone who does not have a baby on the way plus a willing partner even care?
There are many ways of reading the new policy: a concession to feminists, a concession to fathers, yet another way to piss off poor, beleaguered employers and childfree colleagues.
In the short term it will probably make very little difference at all. Nonetheless, the political implications could be far-reaching and important – at least if we want them to be.
I would like to think there are ways in which changes in how caring work is shared could contribute to the creation of a more equal world – or at least mitigate the increasing inequality in this one.
But the route towards this is complex. Superdad will not save us, but a different understanding of who the carer is and where he or she is situated just might.
Waiting for New Daddy
Let’s stop romanticising fatherhood. Photo: Flickr/Preston Smalley
The legal changes apply to both mixed- and same-sex couples, although the media focus has been on how shared parenting will affect heterosexuals. This is doubtless a symptom of media heteronormativity (people will write how accepted a phenomenon has become but never make it so accepted as to mention it within the context of an intersecting issue).
Even so, I suspect there is also a way in which heterosexual couples are seen to present a kind of test case for the re-examination of sex-based differences in domestic roles. The possibility of shared parental leave means that finally we get to examine whether men and women are really all that different when it comes to raising children.
If a heterosexual couple can decide between themselves how best to distribute childcare in the first year of their baby’s life, then surely this will provide some insight into whether fathers have truly been prevented from caring while mothers have simply been unable to share the load.
The implications of this for how we understand inequality could be significant. At the same time, they could easily be misread and used to exaggerate sex role stereotypes that have no real connection to what or who – without numerous other social and economic factors – men or women could really be.
If shared parental leave makes little impact in the first few years – and there is already evidence to suggest that this will be the case – could this be used against women to suggest that actually, we are indeed “nature’s carers” and hence should stop fussing about equality and just accept our “natural” role?
Women may have spent many years – centuries, in fact – demonstrating to men that we are not what they think we are (yes, we can get an education without our ovaries shrivelling up; yes, we are capable of independent thought; no, we do not disappear in a puff of smoke whenever there’s no man present to validate our existence). But as long as we have been left holding the baby, men have carried on assuming that, deep down, caring for others is what female people are for.
A recent Telegraph report with the headline “Myth of the new-age father as traditional parenting roles re-emerge” provides a good illustration of this. In response to an Oxford University study showing that many new fathers who supported equal parenting in principle “were ending up in quite traditional structures where mother raised the child and father worked to support them,” the newspaper quotes Harry Benson, “research director of the Marriage Foundation,” who tells us, “it is perhaps not so much a question of traditional roles and more a question of human nature”.
Just because women traditionally raised children in the past doesn’t mean they are “nature’s carers”. Photo: Flickr/Suzanne
This is unsettling news for mothers, who may not wish to feel dependent on men to establish what is or is not a part of their own “nature”.
Moreover, as the study itself and other research has shown, there are other, more practical, reasons why male uptake of shared parental leave may, in the initial stages at least, be low.
One obvious reason is that men still tend to be paid more than women, especially within heterosexual couples who already have one or more children. If a couple is deciding who should be earning their regular wage and who should be receiving Shared Parental Pay, it is likely to make sense for the lower earner – the woman – to be at home.
Many companies offer enhanced maternity pay packages for female employees with no corresponding package yet in place for men. In addition to this, an estimated two-fifths of men will not be eligible for SPL, as it is dependent on the employment status of their partner.
In countries where shared parental leave arrangements have been in place for several decades, uptake has gradually been facilitated by a series of incentives (that no doubt some would see as “social engineering”).
When the policy was first introduced in Sweden four decades ago, uptake was a mere 0.5 per cent (initial UK uptake is predicted to be 2-8 per cent). Since 1995, couples in Sweden have been granted an additional month of paid leave provided both partners are taking at least one month of leave each.
Since 2002, this was expanded to two months extra if each partner is already taking two months. Uptake among new fathers is now at 25 per cent. A similar policy was introduced in Germany in 2007. The Economist reports on the Swedish (semi-)revolution in glowing terms:
Since Swedish men started to take more responsibility for child rearing, women have seen both their incomes and levels of self-reported happiness increase. Paying dads to change nappies and hang out at playgrounds, in other words, seems to benefit the whole family.
The Swedish Feminist Initiative political party want to take things a step further, proposing that parents be forced to divide their 480 days leave 50/50. This, however, is an area where I have misgivings (and, frighteningly, seem to find myself in agreement with the Spectator’s Toby Young). This relates, perhaps, to the issue of “maternal gatekeeping,” to be discussed later in this piece.
A second reason why men may be unwilling (consciously or not) to take on more of what has traditionally been “Mummy’s role” may simply be that Mummy’s status remains so low.
Whatever joy it brings – and regardless of how essential it is to both the economy and humanity in general – childcare is still seen as unskilled, low-value labour in comparison to other forms of work.
Care is dismissed as low-skilled labour. Photo: Getty
The phrase “working parents” betrays how only paid work in the public sphere is seen as “real.” Even when childcare is performed by someone other than the parent or guardian and hence itself becomes paid work, the rewards and status remain low, on the basis that the competition is someone who would be doing it for free.
Shared parenting policies do not actively challenge this skilled/unskilled, public/private division. As Mielle Chandler puts it, “sharing devalued labour does nothing to revalue it; it simply spreads what is devalued more evenly between more persons within heterosexual nuclear families”.
One does not have to take the essentialist view that status is more important to men to see why many couples may be reluctant to “spread what is devalued more evenly”; one man’s loss is not necessarily his partner’s gain.
Moreover, if the performance of childcare means that your employer is more likely to see you as a liability, I suspect most couples in the current climate would rather that one person felt they were skating on thin ice rather than both.
A third problem arises from the need to manage men’s own expectations of stay-at-home parenting. In the Oxford study reported by the Telegraph, the lead researcher, Dr Anna Machin, suggests the problem is less one of essential difference and more one of men having to cope with different cultural expectations and inadequate support networks:
All of these fathers were very up for the idea of involved fatherhood but over the course of the study it became clear to them that that ideal wasn’t easily reached […] The reality is that as a society I don’t think we are ready for that – we don’t support the fathers in doing that, we pay lip service to it but we haven’t put in place systems which are fit for purpose.
While I do not question Machin’s findings, I also wonder what the subjects of the study – a relatively privileged group who “had a reasonable level of financial income and a reasonable level of education and weren’t on the surface particularly vulnerable” – were expecting on a personal level.
For instance, since both childcare itself and the people who have performed it have been so grossly undervalued for such a long time, it seems to me perfectly possible that even the most consciously pro-feminist man could subconsciously assume it can’t be all that hard.
Of course, it is not as though women have not written fairly extensively on how difficult it is to care for a baby and how little the reality corresponds to the ideal, but then that is just women writing on women’s issues, not human beings expressing great human truths.
I doubt many new fathers find themselves referring to A Life’s Work, The Mommy Myth or, God forbid, Of Woman Born. Thus what is in many ways a universal problem – caring for children is difficult, isolating and unsupported – may be repositioned as a gendered one as soon as the going gets tough.
We think men struggle because they’re men, glossing over the fact that women struggle, too. As Adrienne Rich wrote:
The woman at home with children is not believed to be doing serious work; she is just supposed to be acting out of maternal instinct, doing chores a man would never take on, largely uncritical of the meaning of what she does.
Even if men have felt excluded from the domestic sphere, the truth is that they have not pushed all that hard to be placed on a level with Mummy. Of course, many fathers will protest that they desperately want to take on a more equal role in parenting, but that broader structural arrangements, such as those outlined above, have thus far not permitted them to do so.
Men find it hard to challenge cultural norms too. Photo: Flickr/Lies Thru a Lens
This forms part of a viewpoint challenging the idea that sexual inequality is based on male dominance of female people as a presumed inferior class, and instead presents it as a kind of mismatch or lingering cultural anachronism. Yes, in the past it made sense for women to do the majority of childcare, but now it doesn’t. Yes, women suffer due to their exclusion from the public sphere, but men suffer just as much from their exclusion from the domestic one.
It is an argument I find only half-convincing. It erases the material, physical and psychic reality of women’s oppression – the fact that men have understood and treated us not just as different, but as lesser beings – and pretends that men have not had just as much opportunity to storm the domestic barricades as women have had to storm the educational, political and professional ones.
It is not easy for men to challenge cultural norms, but then it has hardly been easy for women, either. Why is it that the only men who seek to compare themselves to suffragettes with regard to childcare are donning Batman suits post-divorce? Where were they at the beginning, and where are their fellow men?
In our rush to find out what men and women really want “all things being equal” (which they never are), it is worth keeping in mind the distinction between what people say they want and what they are prepared to give up in order to get it.
As the philosopher Sara Ruddick reminds us, “responsible, equal childcaring would require men to relinquish power and their own favourable position in the division between intellectual/professional and service labour”.
Are privileged, middle-class men, such as those featured in Machin’s study, truly ready to do this? If is sounds as though I am accusing men of a form of false consciousness, I would argue that I do think heterosexual women can be guilty of the same. Many of us say we want the fathers of our children to play an equal role, but when it comes to handing over the reins, are we actually ready to do it?
“In Sweden Men Can Have It All”, declares a New York Times headline. Good for them! I don’t mean to sound cynical, but having grown up with constant reminders of the fact that “women can’t have it all”, the ability of men to do just that has never seemed a major priority to me.
Nor am I overly thrilled at the idea that women’s liberation – something for which individual women have fought and died – is actually contingent on New Daddy storming in on his white charger, Pampers in one hand, a copy of Commando Dad in the other.
Can’t women have any sphere in which they are the acknowledged experts, and in which their experience of reality is regarded as dominant and fundamental? Do our worlds always have to be that transparent and accessible to men?
Perhaps fathers just aren’t as good at care work, because of historical and social realities. Photo: Flickr/Sakena
In short, can’t we just say that however much women’s lives and maternal cultures vary, historical and social realities mean that female insight into care work is currently more valuable than male insight – and can’t we say this without throwing out the baby with the bathwater and reverting to essentialist definitions of woman-as-nurturer?
I’d like to think that we can, but I thereby run the risk of being accused of maternal gatekeeping, a process whereby mothers curtail fathers’ involvement in childcare even while consciously stating a preference for equal role divisions.
This is something about which new mothers are often warned, usually in ominous “don’t be your own worst enemy” terms. We are frequently encouraged, for instance, to let Daddy “find his own way” when it comes to caring for baby, as this post on the What To Expect website illustrates:
Back off, Mama, and let Papa have some fun. Let him give the baby a bath or handle a few feedings (or if you’re nursing, ask him to put the baby to sleep). Welcome all questions but try to zip it on the backseat driving. Daddy may seem to have ten thumbs when it comes to wrestling junior into a onesie, but that’s just because he hasn’t had nearly as much practice as you. If you’re hypercritical or bossy, he might just decide to throw in the towel.
I am sure I cannot be the only mother who finds such advice infuriating, coming just after you’ve spent nine months being told what to eat and drink, how to exercise, what position to lie in in bed, how to avoid too much stress, which medication is permissible, how much pain relief is allowed during labour, followed by weeks and weeks of why breast is best, how to avoid nappy rash, how to get into a good sleep routine, how to lose weight, how to make stimulating conversation with your screaming newborn etc, etc.
You are meant to be totally fine with this – the constant nagging from all corners shouldn’t make you want to throw in the towel – but heaven forefend that anyone tell a man what to do. Push too hard and he might not do anything.
Therefore mothers are expected to tiptoe around new fathers, allowing them to make things up as they go along while we, on the other hand, are expected to follow the most detailed, contradictory advice before then being ridiculed for being so darn obsessive (ever wondered why so many more “irreverent” parenting guides and columns come from ‘new’ men? Because when they fail to fasten a nappy correctly it’s endearing and when we do the same it’s neglect).
Pregnant women and mothers are constantly given instructions and made to feel inadequate. Photo: Getty
To be honest, I think there are times when it’s perfectly fair for mothers to say, “gatekeeping, my arse – I just want you to have to deal with as much bullshit as I do”.
That said, there have been times when women in general, and some feminists in particular, have been openly mistrustful of men getting involved in childcare. After all, if we genuinely value the practice of motherwork, isn’t the assumption that mothers and fathers could just swap places overnight somewhat insulting? Shouldn’t we be acknowledging that different mothering practices across different cultures are specific, complex and, above all, learned?
Motherwork may not be instinctive or based on any innate capacity to nurture others, but it involves skills that women have passed down, consciously and unconsciously, for generations. We have not all been waiting for Supermanny to swoop in and save the day.
If men are not willing to learn from us – if, as the What To Expect piece suggests, they would find the very idea emasculating – why should we wish to share what has been for many women not just a source of oppression, but of joy and empowerment? As Ann Snitow puts it, “giving up the exclusivity of motherhood is bound to feel to many like loss”:
Men will have the power of the world and the nurturant experience, the centrality to their children. Only a fool gives up something present for something intangible and speculative, Jack and the Beanstalk exchanging the cow for a couple of beans.
Similarly, Ruddick has argued:
As long as a mother is not effective publicly and self-respecting privately, male presence can be harmful as well as beneficial. It does a woman no good to have the power of the Symbolic Father brought right into the nursery, often despite the deep, affectionate egalitarianism of an individual man.
Both Snitow and Ruddick do conclude that, on balance, it is better that we work towards a situation in which men and women parent on an equal basis rather than give up on the idea entirely, but other feminists have remained more resistant.
Martha Albertson Fineman points out that, “fathers, as a group, do not have an impressive record when it comes to continuing relationships with, or meeting responsibilities for, their children postdivorce”, and suggests that, “the opportunity to reconceptualise fatherhood as part of the evolving family debates has produced more rights rhetoric than re-visioning”.
In her article “The Radical Potential in Lesbian Mothering of Daughters”, Baba Copper takes a more extreme line, decrying the “lyrical psychobabble [of] heterofeminists about the redemption of the human psyche made possible through male mothering of infants”:
No one has been denying fathers the joys of parenting. Some men have been successful fathers. But for every well-fathered child, there are a million who were conceived irresponsibly or abandoned or raped or physically terrorised or emotionally denied by their fathers.
(To think What To Expect thought men being told how to change a nappy in a “bossy” manner was as bad as it got!)
I do not think the fears of feminists such as Albertson, Fineman and Copper are without some justification. For many mothers, the Fathers’ Rights movement has been more about patriarchal control than child welfare post-divorce.
It is not unthinkable that, for some, shared parental rights and equal parenting rhetoric could become a means of coercion within an ongoing relationship.
Nevertheless, I am not sure where such thinking leaves mothers who share their lives with men yet still want social change – or those men who genuinely wish to transgress patriarchal norms. While it is important that pro-shared parenting rhetoric does not further marginalise or stigmatise lesbian couples and single mothers by reinforcing the belief that children, especially boys, need a male figure within the home (they don’t), I do not think we should exaggerate the risk that most men pose to children (consider this my #notallmen moment).
Current reporting on shared parental leave is limited insofar as it treats stay-at-home parenting either as a joy (for the wannabe hands-on father) or as a burden (for the poor, beleaguered employer). It rarely mentions broader power structures.
The hand that rocks the cradle does not rule the world – the finger on the trigger is having far more success at that – but as feminists of colour such as bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Dorothy Roberts have pointed out, the domestic sphere is a place where cultural values are transmitted and individuals realise their human worth.
Why else would dominant groups – defined not just by sex, but by race, sexuality and class – have sought to control the conditions of reproduction and the raising of children by those whom they oppress?
Middle-class white feminists have often been divided between those who over-celebrate maternity (as hooks writes, “romanticising motherhood, employing the same terminology that is used by sexists to suggest that women are inherently life-affirming nurturers, feminist activists reinforce central tenets of male supremacist ideology”), and those, such as Firestone, who dismiss it entirely.
A more intersectional approach would perhaps acknowledge that sharing carework among all people – as opposed to dividing the world into those who manage it and those who perform it – is ultimately essential if we wish to challenge other divisions and hierarchies across society as a whole.
In Feminist Theory: From Margin To Centre, hooks is openly critical of feminism’s maternal gatekeepers, going so far as to accuse them of sexism:
Masses of women continue to believe that they should be primarily responsible for childcare—this point cannot be over emphasised. Feminist efforts to help women unlearn this socialisation could lead to greater demands on their part for men to participate equally in parenting.
She argues, “the biological experience of pregnancy and childbirth, whether painful or joyful, should not be equated with the idea that women’s parenting is necessarily superior to men’s”.
The “necessarily” is important; however care work is distributed in the here and now, different potentialities exist and need to be explored. Recent scientific work such as that of Cordelia Fine, debunking neurosexist beliefs about male and female brains, backs this up, showing that the “nurturing brain” is not something one is born with, but created through repeated exposure to and experiences of carework.
The mother can have more of an influence on early approaches to childcare. Photo: Getty
At the same time, I do think pregnancy and childbirth – and thereafter breastfeeding – can and do have an influence on early approaches to childcare and that we, as feminists, should not be afraid to say this.
Feminists influenced by psychoanalytic theory, such as Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinnerstein, have suggested that male involvement in early childcare could combat misogyny by disrupting the infant’s immersion in the world of, and subsequent need to separate from, the mother.
However, it is not clear to me how far this challenges traditional Freudian misogyny and mother-blame and how far it merely reinforces it. I think there is still a certain squeamishness associated with close physical and emotional relationships – ones that cannot easily be replicated in other ways – that exist between mothers and babies.
It is easy to dismiss such attachments as “unhealthy” or “too involved,” thereby sidestepping accusations of biological essentialism while appealing to the neoliberal politics that position us all as isolated, self-determining individuals, but I don’t think it’s so straightforward.
We need to be careful that moves towards shared parenting do not become indistinguishable from patriarchal demands that Mummy cuts the apron strings.
For this reason, I am unsure whether the first year of life is the best time in which to develop a universal model of gender neutrality for care.
Different families – heterosexual couples, gay couples, lesbian couples, single parents, adoptive parents, foster parents, co-parents, othermothers, mixtures of all of these and more – will have different needs.
What we need is a model that embraces everyone’s potential as a carer, and recognises everyone’s need for care – while keeping in mind the way in which some women’s status as mothers interacts with their social position as women.
From Universal Mummy To Universal Carer
First, we need to change attitudes to care work. Photo: Flickr/Chris_Parfitt
In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? Katrine Marçal describes the way in which modern images of the foetus in utero correspond to contemporary representations of what constitutes liberated, “free” personhood:
The baby floats, an independent astronaut, with only an umbilical cord connecting it to the world around. The mother doesn’t exist. She has become a void – the already autonomous tiny space hero flies forth. […] The pictures don’t show any relationship between mother and child: we are born complete, self-sufficient individuals.
Of course, such self-sufficiency is a fantasy. As Rebecca Schiller points out, there is something especially challenging about the true relationship between foetus and gravida: it presents us with an image of human interdependency that cannot be intellectually overridden.
Marçal is not the first feminist to identify the drive towards shoehorning the origins of human life into binary constructs – public/private, independent/dependent, person/parasite – that it inevitably transcends. As Barbara Katz Rothman writes, “we have in every pregnant woman the living proof that individuals do not enter the world as autonomous, atomistic, isolated beings, but begin socially, begin connected”:
And we have in every pregnant woman a walking contradiction to the segmentation of our lives: pregnancy does not permit it. In pregnancy the private self, the sexual, familial self, announces itself wherever we go. Motherhood is the embodied challenge to liberal philosophy, and that, I fear, is why a society founded on and committed to liberal philosophical principles cannot deal well with motherhood.
Not all feminists have wanted to consider this in too much detail. Many second wavers, such as de Beauvoir, Friedan and Firestone, have tended towards presenting a fully individuated, self-sufficient subjectivity as the marker for women’s liberation.
This is understandable from a “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” perspective; if there is a carer class, and that class is a subordinate one, why shouldn’t women wish to leave it? But such thinking is a political dead end. The problem is not that motherhood is dependency. Dependency is everywhere and cannot be overcome. The question is how we acknowledge and deal with it.
Care work has traditionally been assigned to women and justified on the spurious basis that because most women go through pregnancy and birth, women are therefore “universal mummies”: lesser beings who exist to enable more important people – men – to attain authentic, independent selfhood.
But care is not a linear process that ends once a subject has reached adulthood. We all age, we all have accidents, we all get ill, we all have physical and emotional needs that vary over time.
The current panic over increasing life expectancy and an ageing population that we “can’t afford” bears witness to the fact insufficient effort has been made to integrate the basic facts of human existence into our political and economic structures.
It is not as though people living longer and such people requiring care should have come as any surprise to us, yet it has. Care is meant to be invisible. In those instances where we cannot hide it – even the most ardent libertarian cannot hold a newborn baby responsible for its own lack of resources – we compartmentalise it and pretend the job is thereby done.
Our current Conservative government, now overseeing the policies of shared parental leave and free childcare for the over-twos, is not a government interested in supporting a broader ethics of care. On the contrary, during the coalition years and now more than ever, we have seen dependency increasingly stigmatised and seen as worthy of punishment.
Those who define their families as “hardworking” and look up to the super-rich as “wealth creators” shy away from acknowledging our universal status as potential dependants and receivers of care. They do not see how much of their own “hard work” is supported by others receiving very little in return for their contributions.
Care is not a self-contained problem to be solved with vouchers for those who conform to a highly prescriptive model for what the family should be.
Shared parental leave and 30 hours a week of free nursery care is of no use to the woman or man who is caring for elderly or sick relatives or friends. It is of no use to the worker who is trying to cobble together an income from zero-hours contracts with unpredictable hours (perhaps Norland nannies are available on call at the drop of a hat, but the average nursery has fixed hours and limited places).
The government’s childcare provision isn’t enough, and it stigmatises those who are dependent. Photo: Getty
This government values carers insofar as it sees them as a Big Society resource – people upon whom to gradually shift all of those “burdens” that the state should, for reasons no one has ever explained, no longer have to bear.
It doesn’t have any serious understanding of, or commitment to, the lives of carers, who are seen as Other. It doesn’t want to break the strict division between private and public – on the contrary, it wishes to strengthen it.
I do not wish to denigrate Shared Parental Leave, or to suggest that it is all some sinister trick aimed at preventing us from asking for more. The policy can and will be used by those who wish to argue that the performance of childcare is a free choice, not a human necessity, and that therefore mothers can no longer claim to be marginalised or exploited per se.
Even so, we do not have to listen to such claims, certainly not so long as our “free choices” remain so circumscribed. SPL is a crumb from the table, but it is one we shouldn’t reject. It is one route in – one among many – that feminists, and indeed anyone with an interest in social justice, needs to explore.
The principle we seek to establish is not “#notallwomen want to take their full entitlement of maternity leave” or “#notallmen are incapable of changing a nappy” – it is that the world is not divided into the workers and the carers, those who have a measurable value and those who do not.
If this is something we can teach our children, by whatever means, we can hope to raise generations who will reject the selfishness promoted by our current political class. As Katz Rothman writes:
It is not that the children are “subhuman,” but that we ask them to turn away from humanity, away from care, and toward power. We do that whenever we separate the world into the kinds of people who take care of children and the kinds of people who rule the world.
If we wish to challenge not just sex-based, but racial and class oppression, we need to confront the false hierarchies that position some people as self-determining, self-contained individuals and others as merely living for the sake of, or at the expense of, others.
The critical theorist Nancy Fraser articulates a vision of the “universal caregiver” – a person who combines paid employment with primary care work – as a model for all people, both male and female, both parents and child-free.
Feminists have long argued that both motherhood and gender are harmful social constructs, but so too is the isolated self, solely an independent agent, whom some of us nevertheless treat with utter reverence.
We need to get beyond this, and can only do so by disrupting, whenever and wherever possible, the systems that seek to fence off care as separate from other identities and other spheres of life.
Will a new dad wielding a jar of Sudocrem achieve this? Not on his own. But the greater the diversity of carers – and the more we accept our own inevitable vulnerability and dependency – the closer we are to creating the world that our children deserve.