We live in an age of unprecedented equality between parents, but, almost three years in, I can confirm that it’s news to many people that men can be parents too.
Many of my female friends out-earn their husbands and partners. Sometimes, the early rationale for their career decisions included an expectation that the man would take on the lion’s share when it came to child-rearing. But, as we surface occasionally from the maelstrom of nippers, nappies and nipples to compare notes, we’re realising that our aspirations were at best a little naive.
The contrast was brought into stark relief for me at the weekend, when my husband returned from a trip to our local farmers’ market on Saturday afternoon with a bemused look on his face. He’d brought the toddler and baby for a couple of hours to give me a chance to sleep, conscious that the baby isn’t giving me much rest at night these days.
Between the carpark and the market, he said, so many people had said “well done” or “fair play” or “you’ve your hands full there” that he started counting. In a space of about 100m, nine different people complimented him for bringing his own children shopping.
This has never happened to me, and I usually bring the dog as well.
Yes, I’ve had sympathetic looks from other parents, and the odd person has held a door for me, but by and large there is a very strong feeling, when you’re a woman with a buggy, that you’re a nuisance. When it’s just a baby you have, and the baby is cute, you’re fine – they will gurgle at baby-friendly faces, and all will be right with the world. Throw in a stroppy toddler (let’s not even talk about the dog who suffers from PTSD from being thrown in a canal), and you’re definitively a nuisance.
In fact on my most recent solo outing with the three of them, to the beach for a walk and a picnic, a middle aged woman skipped ahead of us in a queue for hot chocolate. I’m not sure if we are actually invisible, or she just didn’t have as much patience as my two year old. Either way, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have happened to my husband.
Because, as he has learned from other people, men who parent their own children are “great to babysit”. They are “great to give her the lie-in”, “very hands-on” and “well able, hah!” Wait til they find out he knows where the washing machine is.
And we aren’t alone. Culture has not caught up with the idea that men are meant to shoulder half the parenting burden. I shared this anecdote on twitter and the responses were overwhelmingly similar. A few men (mostly with names like “wake up sheeple 24532”) told me I was being hysterical and that this has never happened to them, but all I can say is, it happened. And many, many others reported similar stories. Quite a few dads in my timeline were just as insulted as my husband that people would think their normal everyday input into their children’s lives was something to be commended. Another pointed out that the way maternity leave is set up means men are left out of child-rearing from the very beginning, which is true to a point, but rather omits the fact that parenting – especially parenting a newborn – is a round the clock job.
There’s certainly more to be done on building a culture of equal parenting in Ireland. Our take-up of paternity leave, introduced in 2016, has been very low at 40%, because it’s not paid enough. If one partner is already financially hit by the birth of a child (as most women are when maternity pay is just marginally higher than social welfare, and so many companies don’t top it up), then the other taking a pay cut even for a couple of weeks can be out of the question.
Time added to the parental leave scheme, just last week pushed through the Dáil by the Social Democrats, is to be welcomed by those who can afford to take unpaid leave, and whose employers will allow them to do it in a financially sustainable way (many companies insist on employees taking this leave in large chunks, something many people can’t budget for). But for everyone else, it’s just not a viable option.
So we end up back where we started – with women becoming the primary carer during their maternity leave, many men unable or unwilling to spend long periods of time at home to ‘learn the ropes’, and the ones who do being hailed as paragons of fatherhood.
Properly paid paternity leave that must be taken is the only real solution to this, but it cannot be introduced without making maternity leave financially more stable for many women. Other countries have staggered benefits that match salary expectations (and therefore household outgoings), and this could be a model to follow.
And you never do know where this can lead. In Spain, recent statistics have shown that paternity leave has unexpected outcomes. Five weeks of fully paid paternity leave, widely taken up, has had the effect of ensuring that men’s role in childcare is established from day one and that even years later, the men who take up paternity leave are more involved in caring for their children than those who don’t. Even more interestingly, the same men change their expectations when it comes to family size – men who spend time looking after their children want fewer of them.