Saturday, July 14, 2018

Men: know your place

While it's good to see a piece on the BBC website acknowledging that it's not just women who experience everyday sexism, I can't help but wish that its author Matthew Jenkin had made the case rather better.

Some of the comments to which the stay-at-home dad has been subjected are more obviously homophobic than sexist (though no less offensive for that, of course), while - as several readers have noted - others are more probably attributable to the curious and infuriating tendency of some people to make a point of trying to shame parents in public, regardless of their gender.

Nevertheless, Jenkin does draw attention to the way that society's sexist expectations of mothers also serve to constrain fathers. All too often, men are assumed to be relatively uninterested and uninvolved in their children's upbringing and development, expected to be working breadwinners rather than unpaid caregivers.

Having taken over parental leave duties when Stanley was six months old, I subsequently quit my job and took on primary responsibility for childcare during the week. Even now, as he comes to the end of his first year of school and with me back in a formal day job, I still do the school pick-up and coordinate post-school activities four days a week. I don't really recall ever feeling judged or patronised (as has been Jenkin's experience), or at least I was able to shrug it off, and was fortunate enough to be accepted easily by the mums of Stanley's peers.

However, it's true that so many things are geared towards mums and therefore (whether intentionally/explicitly or not) make dads feel excluded. There was also an assumption that I would be desperate to meet and bond with other men in the same position. While I didn't feel remotely self-conscious about hanging around with a bunch of mums, that isn't true for all men - but drawing attention to the scarcity of stay-at-home dads isn't exactly helpful either.

Despite its weaknesses, Jenkin's article concludes by making a powerful point: "I am not for one minute claiming men are somehow the great oppressed. In many ways it is the patriarchal society that we have created coming back to bite us. Changes to employment law which allow parents to share parental leave are enabling more men to enjoy those joyous (and tough) first few months bonding with their child. But we need to recognise that the culture surrounding parenting also needs to change to encourage more fathers to take the plunge - gay or straight."

He's right: the number of couples taking advantage of the legal change, while on the increase, remains pitifully small, and that must be attributed to cultural factors (as well as things like the gulf between men's and women's earnings, which makes it harder for men to take on childcare duties on purely pragmatic and economic grounds). The everyday sexism that persistently afflicts fathers as well as mothers will only be eradicated once both are recognised simply as parents, in cultural as well as legal terms.

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