The P Word

Muddling my way through parenting

Fatherhood vs Motherhood: mind the gender gap

The title of this post could take me in a thousand different directions. All of them will expose me as an ill-informed, relatively inexperienced parent with little understanding of theory, psychology and the wealth of knowledge analysed and re-analysed by respected thinkers who have no doubt written several tomes on such topics.

With no apologies, this is no thesis-in-the-making.

Before we go any further, an important aside: single parents. I can’t even imagine what the reality of single parenthood is like, so I won’t pretend to. Ultimately, I have huge admiration for anybody who parents alone, whatever the circumstances that led you into that situation. How you manage is almost beyond me, and even on days when it seems you can’t manage alone, I hope and pray that you cling to the perseverance that has got you through so far. This post may not appear particularly relevant for you, but hopefully future entries will help support those of you who need that support more than most.

To be honest, this post may not feel particularly relevant for most mums either, but I encourage you to read on – and even share it with your other half. This is primarily written for people who get called ‘Dad’.

mum, dad and baby image

Mums and Dads - we're different!

Fact: men and women are different. Not a ground-breaking statement, I admit. But one that takes on new relevance for couples who enter into this most-joint-of-joint ventures when they decide to become parents.

While everybody’s experience of parenting is different (even within couples), it’s fair to say that the nature of fatherhood throws up many commonalities for blokes who have embarked on this adventure. But I fear that fatherhood is often neglected as the poor relation of the parenting spectrum – and not just by dads themselves.

When the highest profile male pressure group of recent years with any link to parenting is Fathers for Justice, who only get in the news for pulling off crazy publicity stunts, (whatever you think about their campaigning  or PR methods) it’s apparent that something’s not quite right. Most weeks on the radio, an articulate, passionate woman from something like Mumsnet is defending mothers or their children. Male equivalents are sadly lacking.

So, where do those key differences between the genders most affect parents?

Before & during pregnancy

It’s probably fair to say that more young women grow up dreaming of settling down and having kids than their male peers. It’s probably also a decent guestimate that the actual ‘shall we have kids?’ question is normally first put on the table by a woman. Few men have the same ‘ambition’ to become a parent. Perhaps, if our gender was a little bit more intentional about becoming parents we would be better placed to bring up more kids who we can view with genuine pride, instead of thinking ‘what have I done?’ or ‘what monster have I created?’.

And even after the deed is done and that little blue line appears on that odd stick, my own little theory is that men have another disadvantage to overcome. I have rather embarrassingly had to defend myself for nodding off during my wife’s first labour (a full 26 hours), using the feeble excuse that ‘I didn’t have the same hormones to help keep me awake’. [Stop that sniggering at the back, please.] But in reality, I just wasn’t ready for what was happening. I hadn’t prepared.

diving board

Scared about diving into parenting? I was.

But that’s fair enough (isn’t it?), because I hadn’t actually been pregnant. However miserable or traumatic pregnancy can be, mums have nine months to properly prepare for parenting. This thing they’re going to have to look after literally takes over their bodies. I’ve never been pregnant, obviously, but presumably your thoughts are also pretty much monopolised by becoming a mum. Yes, as the due date got nearer I enjoyed reading the odd Mr Men book to the bump, but it was still (if you’ll excuse the foetal pun) a little alien to me.Yes all parents are ‘thrown in at the deep end’ from day one, but I think for dads it’s often more like diving in from the high boards.

Early days

As I’ve already said elsewhere, the recent change to maternity/paternity leave rules has the potential to bring about a seismic shift in the early bonds created between fathers and their offspring. If they’re working, most dads think it’s a good result if they can get their employer to give them an unbroken two weeks off at a partly-unknown time of asking. Ask mums and babies (if they could talk) in a few years’ time, and I hope they’ll be dismissing a fortnight’s paternity leave as little more than an old-fashioned token gesture.

But how many dads make the obstacles to early bonding even bigger, by viewing those initial months as primarily mum’s territory, often with the convenient excuse of breast-feeding a handy ally? As I’ve hinted above, most dads don’t really dream of the babe-in-arms moment, and some may not even consider that nappies, night-time feeds, etc are part of the deal they signed up to. ‘I’ve got work in the morning’ may be another easy excuse, but do you think that mother and child(ren) are just lazing around the house all day patiently waiting for your return, or taking stress-free strolls around the shops?

Long-held stereotypes

Although the speed of progress in society/technology is getting ever faster (I’m not really old enough to make sensible comparisons, but it’s one of those things ‘people say’), much appears to stay the same. With all the families I’ve ever known/met, I could name on one hand the numbers of times when the dad is not the primary bread-winner. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but why should it still be the case? Equality laws and people’s attitudes are helping us get ever-nearer to actual equality in most walks of life. Stay-at-home-dads are no longer mocked as losers who can’t find ‘proper’ work. So why should ‘daddy time’ be the exception, or only called upon to relieve the pressure-cooker of maternal stress/exhaustion?

Just the other day I was accompanied by the kids on a supermarket trip. While scanning my goods, the helpful checkout assistant made an off-hand comment along the lines of: ‘having some time with the kids, eh?’ Er, yes. I know she was probably only trying to strike up conversation, and was probably a very well-meaning lady.

But inside it set me off. Of course I’m having time with the kids! It’s the weekend! My wife is having a few moments of peace and quiet at home, and I’m doing something with my children. Why should there be any surprise about a father shopping with just his kids?

The spark for my inner rage was probably that it added to a list of several other instances (normally in a retail environment) when comments have been made to me or my kids (either spoken, or communicated through knowing expressions) about the fact that I’m out and about ‘sans maman. Why should it even be considered remotely unusual, even to warrant an off-hand comment? I doubt many mums have ever heard words such as these directed at them: ‘Got some time alone with the kids today, have you?’

If you’re a man who’s challenged by this, let’s not make excuses any more (and I’m as guilty as the next man). Let’s actually do something about it. Let’s choose to prioritise being Dad above everything else. Sod the consequences (career progress, pub trips, football matches, etc) and just live the life that we’ve chosen to the full.

As I said, there are indeed differences between motherhood and fatherhood. But often we – sometime helped by the world around us – make those differences rather more defined than need be the case.

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