Feminism, at its core, is about equality. In patriarchal society women have been , and are, at a disadvantage. How does this society also disadvantage fathers?
In terms of traditional measurements of ‘success’ in our society, wins for feminism are often seen as cases where women have gained at a seat at a typically male table. Politics, sport, business, CEOs, MPs, Professors. The goal of gender equality is to get more women in these high profile, high status roles.
Except it’s not, really. What we are really aiming for is a dismantling of the hierarchy. For this to happen those traits and qualities which have been traditionally ascribed as female, need to be as valued as those deemed male.
How can parenting be used to smash the patriarchy?
Despite the constant media analysis of working mams vs stay-at-home mams, it’s considered acceptable now for mothers to work outside the home. What hasn’t yet happened is a reverse trend : although stay-at-home dads do exist , they are still a rarity. Likewise when you go to the school-gate, chances are it’s predominantly women you will see doing the pick-ups, organising the play dates, running the school fair. Whilst for eons women were disadvantaged due to motherhood – what now for the man who wants to embrace fatherhood, but feels restricted by societal expectations?
If we’re fighting for the rights of women to go out to work, we should equally be fighting for the rights of men to stay at home.
What does a father look like?
Mothers are capable and effortlessly competent. The duties of caring, cleaning, considering all come naturally to women the instant the child enters the world. Not only that, but the high-flying career mother is also able to effortlessly breastfeed her child whilst negotiating million dollar deals.
Fathers, unfortunately, are hapless. The extra child to be looked after. Bumbling their way through changing nappies, putting babygrows on back to front and upside down, snoring obliviously through nightfeeds. The movie Daddy Day Care managed to make a whole movie out of fathers staying at home to mind their kids, and setting up a child minding business. You know, like women have been doing for decades.
We infantalise fathers, and glorify mothers. It’s not fair to anyone. Mothers are unable to live up to the myth and fathers should be allowed to outperform the limited expectations of them.
How can mothers help fathers?
In her essay ‘How to Raise a Feminist’ Chimamanda Adichie suggests that women are complicit in the role of diminishing fathers, so conditioned are they to do it all.
This seems to be undeniably true, whether it’s done intentionally or not. Very small babies and the raising of them are a thorny area for gender equality. In most cases, the child is born and the mother stays at home with the child for a period of time whilst the father goes back to work, within a few days if not immediately. Therefore due to being in its company 24 hours a day, the mother more quickly gets used to the needs of the child and , it seems, more capable of caring for it. The father is less sure, reluctant to join in lest he does it ‘ the wrong way’. There is no wrong way, to be your own kind of parent, we all do it differently. None of us are experts.
So, how do we level the parenting playing field? Mandatory paternity leave is one way, which I have written about before. Putting the father slap bang in the midst of it in the early days, so he too learns how to feed, clean and soothe his child.
The other way is for mothers to take a step back. Relinquish control. Acknowledge that to be a good mother does not mean having to do it all, all the time, despite what we have been taught. Women have been encouraged to ‘Lean In’ in the workplace, but when it comes to parenting, they need to lean out. Dr Jemimah Bailey is an academic specialising in fathering and has written an excellent paper on understanding contemporary fathers, where she talks about the disadvantage facing men who want to father in a new way. At our recent Raising Feminists discussion, Dr Bailey suggested mothers need to make space for fathers to parent.
Putting it back in the woman’s court
I do agree with the leaning out sentiment, but I admit that part of me does bristle slightly at the onus this puts on women. Why do we need to make space? Are men being asked to make space in their traditional spheres in the same way? Whenever the idea of quotas is introduced to combat gender inequality in politics or boardrooms, it is roundly dismissed claiming women should gain their place at the table on merit alone.
At the first Raising Feminists event, there were no men on the panel , and only one or two in the room. It was suggested that it was required to have a man on the panel, to let men know this was a male space as well, and that the conversation needs to be not just about mothering, but parenting.
I sometimes struggle with the idea that we need to be pleading with men to join in these conversations, making space for them, accommodating them. But that is a self-defeating attitude. For feminism to work, it has to be for everybody.
“The courage to raise our sons like daughters”
Gloria Steinem said, “We have begun to raise our daughters like sons, but few have the courage to raise our sons like daughters.”
It is as important for us to challenge limiting masculine stereotypes as much as the feminine. But it doesn’t seem as easy, or as acceptable, to do so. A girl who joins in the soccer class, will attract less ridicule than the boy who joins the cookery class.
In the adult world, there is kudos to be had in being a woman in a man’s world – which simply doesn’t exist in the reverse. Traditionally female roles are still seen as lesser. The perception is that women are climbing up, men climbing down.
And as I think about all this , there is one thing that keeps on coming back to my mind. Madonna, ‘What it Feels Like For A Girl.’
Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading