In a post last week, I promised this week would be about when dads step up and when mum steps aside. But, I’ve been avoiding doing it…because it’s not something that is lightly written or spoken about. Perhaps one of the most controversial and emotional issues confronting shared parenting is whether or not dad chooses to absent himself from childcare and domestics, and whether or not mum plays the ‘gatekeeper’ and denies proper access to children.
A host of research provides different types of ‘evidence’ to back up both arguments. Is it that fathers encounter barriers such as policy, work commitments or social norms (Lewis 1986; Lewis and O’Brien 1987; Burgess 2008, 2005, 1997; Collier and Sheldon 2008; Fatherhood Institute 2008)? Or was it that some fathers did not really want to change and that their secondary position was not entirely enforced (Hochschild 1995 cited in Dermott 2008: 19; Lewis 1986; Dermott 2008). Michael Kimmel, a world-renowned fatherhood researcher claims that some fathers just don’t want to do housework. My own research corroborates this. But this doesn’t necessarily make them bad fathers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t love or care about their partners.
Today I want to briefly explore how men might not step up and why mums might have to stayed stepped in. And to kick off the debate, I’m going to get personal and share my own experience.
There was one particular moment when our daughter was born that has stuck in my mind. After an emergency caesarean, baby and I were both in the hospital – me downstairs and she upstairs, both hooked up to all sorts. ‘Dad’ was the only one who could take on any active role. He saw our daughter, held her and discussed her health with the paediatrician long before I knew what was going on.
After a day or so, when I was moving about, the nurses launched us into childcare. As they left the room, the nurses muttered that maybe we should change her nappy. We looked at each other: change a nappy through incubator doors! Our first nappy change!
We’d joked about this before at our NCT classes: how do you dress a baby? So much for maternal instinct, I’d always dressed my dolls by placing them upside down on their heads. Funny though that neither NCT nor NHS nor parenting books had given guidance on how to change a nappy through incubator doors!
My partner and I both looked at each other. And then my heart sunk. He turned to me, ashen-faced: “Can you do it?” Why me? I can barely stand up, my blood pressure’s sky-high, I’ve been traumatised, my clothes don’t fit, I smell of milk, and I’ve never changed a real baby’s nappy. In the space of a couple of seconds, dad had defined his role and I had never felt so alone in my life. He had taken a firm step back and pushed me forward. I had no say in it. After all, I’m not going to argue about caring when someone really needs it, am I?
Of course, as the days went by, and weeks turned into months, and years, he was there and changed many a nappy. But he helped and supported. He did not want to be in the primary caring seat.
Next week is National Volunteers Week (1-7 June), so how about volunteering to look after the children, or cook, or go shopping, or make breakfast in bed, or let dad do it his way, or turn off your mobile and have a face-to-face chat. Don’t wait to be asked to ‘step up’ or ‘step aside’. Volunteer to take the initiative.