Fathers in the hood

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The cutest video making the rounds on Fakebook this week is the Daddy Daughter Hair Factory. Set up by Phil Morgese and his daughter Emma, they organise hair workshops for fathers and daughters across the US and Netherlands.

In the video, Phil explains that the workshops are as much about learning a new skill – doing plaits and ponytails – as they are about bonding and providing good male role models.

“Gender roles — that’s just gonna have to go. Fatherhood’s evolving,” he says. “It’s more than just about bringing home the bacon.”

The mummy micro-managers

Increasingly, women are bringing home the bacon. This is the situation in nearly half of UK households, a trend that is expected to grow.

For mothers, this is a huge pressure, particularly in a society that has not kept up with these changes. For more on this, read my blog on the mental load.

But I do sometimes wonder if working mums are deliberately making their lives more difficult. Whether they are making a rod for their own backs.

If they are reluctant to let their husbands take on more responsibility when it comes to parenting and household jobs, because they don’t think their partners can handle it.

The book ‘When daddy did the washing’ is all about dad making a complete meal of it

In doing so, is it sometimes easier for dads to shrug their shoulders and just let us get on with it? Get on with all the juggling and wearing ourselves thin, safe in the knowledge that we probably wouldn’t accept their help if it was offered?

I have so many anecdotal stories. Stories that usually involve micromanaging, criticism and frustration on both sides.

There’s my friend who became a reluctant breadwinner when her husband was suddenly made redundant. She’d get home from work and be greeted by chaos and piles of dirty laundry… but the children were happy and cared for.

There’s the doctor who works long shifts but can’t (or won’t) step back and let her husband make even the smallest of decisions. He has to consult her on everything and is under constant scrutiny.

It’s every time we say a dad is “babysitting” his children. Or when we joke about daddy daycare.

I remember telling a friend that my ex was a stay-at-home parent and she laughed and called him a “manny”.

One of the books on my daughters’ book shelf – ‘When daddy did the washing’ – is all about dad making a complete meal of it while his wife is out doing “important things”.

He puts a red sock in with a white wash, dying everything pink in the process. The story has a happy ending as mummy loves her new pink skirt! But the underlying message is that daddy just doesn’t have a clue!

Learning to step back

It isn’t easy when you’re a high-achieving working mother, used to juggling a million different things, to step back and allow your children’s father to parent… and to do it in a way that may not meet your exacting standards.

This goes for grandparents as well. We might not want our kids getting all those treats, to be napping in the afternoon or watching too much TV, but we have to remember that they are doing us a favour!

More importantly, that our children are benefiting from time spent in their company. After all, nobody cares for your children as lovingly as devoted family members.

There is so much to be gained when we relinquish control. More time for ourselves, less stress and a lightness that comes with letting go.

Empowering fathers to father their children is good for men’s self esteem, offers better male role models for our children and brings that elusive and all-important balance to modern family life.

This has never been so important. The Modern Families Index (MFI) 2018 warns that the stress and strains of juggling work and home are causing more arguments (28%) between spouses.

A third of parents surveyed said they felt burnt out all or most of the time.

Flexible working and parental leave encourages dads to be more involved. MFI argues the creation of a properly-paid, standalone period of extended paternity leave is needed.

“Tackling gendered assumptions about who works and who cares is crucial to broadening parental choice,” it concludes.

 

Time to call time on marriage?

It’s probably not a surprise that I’m not a huge fan of marriage, given my recent acrimonious divorce, however it is well documented that men benefit more from wedlock than women.

The presence of a wife may bring benefits for men in terms of household management and healthcare, whereas women are “more likely to feel stressed”

Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, this is not the case for same-sex marriage where marriage is mutually beneficial for LGBT couples from physical and mental health perspective.

In heterosexual relationships, studies show that married men have lower rates of depression, anxiety and suicide than never-married men. Meanwhile, married women have higher rates.

Moreover, men live longer when they are married, while their wives’ longevity is impaired.

This is because the presence of a wife may bring benefits for men in terms of household management and healthcare, whereas women are “more likely to feel stressed and find their role restrictive and frustrating,” according to Dr Caterina Trevisan at the University of Padova, who also notes that when men die, their widows often bounce back.

This does beg the question, should women bother getting married? And increasingly, they are not.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics marriage rates for women have dropped from a high of 60.5 per 1,000 in 1972, to 20.9 in 2014 (I’m not sure why they don’t have more recent numbers).

Figure 1b_ Marriages rates for men and women, 1934 to 2014

There are many reasons out there for the decline in popularity of marriage, including the increasingly punitive costs involved in walking down the aisle (the current average cost of a wedding in the UK is £27k, according to hitched.co.uk).

Another driver of the decline in matrimony is women deliberately choosing not to marry.

“We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry,” explains Rebecca Traister in her book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

Where this leaves men is rather more worrying, according to The Good Men Project. Women are more likely to reach out for help when they need it and to maintain their support networks.

For men, their wife is usually their sole best friend. Moreover, men don’t tend to share with other men, certainly not on the same emotional level that women do.

“As men feel unable to meet women’s needs for economic, emotional, and social support, they feel more inadequate and distance themselves even more, often escaping into pornography, increased alcohol consumption, and compulsive work habits,” writes Dr Jed Diamond, author of The Enlightened Marriage.

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Choosing a marriage of equals

The decision not to marry is a bold one for women to take, but a decision that could result in them living longer, happier and healthier lives. But for those who do want to publicly commit to their partners, there is the option to choose a marriage of equals.

When I married my ex in 2008 I’ll admit to being carried away by the romance of it all and pushing most of my feminist ideals to one side.

However, even then I saw little point in changing what was a perfectly good name, one that I’d had all my life, and questioned why I should be “given away” by my father as if I was simply a man’s property.

Some women say they take their husband’s name because they want the same surname as their children. But if marriage is losing its appeal, perhaps children should start taking their mother’s surnames? But that’s a discussion for another day…

 

Shouldering the mental load

Since I split from my husband, my “happily married” friends seem more willing to share their frustrations about their husbands with me. I suspect they don’t feel the need to pretend their relationship is all rainbows and unicorns with someone whose marriage has failed and isn’t going to judge them.

So recently I’ve noticed these stories slipping out. Most have a similar flavour and speak to a deep, underlying dissatisfaction with the division of labour in many modern marriages.

They involve husbands not identifying (or choosing not to identify) when they need to step in and share the load… until it is too late and their wives are royally fucked off.

Husbands or partners needing to be told to entertain their children/bring in the shopping/get the dinner ready suggests these roles are still considered to be a woman’s domain. Even when both partners are working.

 

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Working mothers continue to shoulder more than their fair share of the “mental load” (described brilliantly here by French cartoonist Emma, illustrator of the above image), according to the Modern Family Index, a study commissioned by Bright Horizons Family Solutions.

And these household responsibilities only increase when it’s the woman bringing home the dough, with breadwinning mothers:

  • Three times more likely than breadwinning fathers to be keepers of their children’s schedules and responsible for them getting to activities and appointments (76% vs. 22%)
  • Three times more likely to volunteer at school (63% vs. 19%)
  • Twice as likely to make sure all family responsibilities are handled (71% vs. 38%).

It’s the little things that seem to add to women’s mental load, things that we often don’t even question doing: organising play dates and activities, packing school bags, buying gifts, organising holidays, sorting through clothes drawers. Even trimming fingernails and toenails (which is more challenging than it sounds) and regular bathing.

Much of the most valuable talent in the workplace is playing double duty as manager of family life as well

 

Even though my ex is more liberated and hands-on than many men I know in my circle, post-split I continue to feel unfairly lumbered. However, life is much easier now we have a shared care arrangement and both children are in school.

I don’t miss the daily grind of jumping straight from my home office desk into homework/meals/bedtime routine with barely a pause for breath. I did all this partly out of a sense of duty, a smidge of working mummy guilt and because once my working day was over, my ex assumed I would step in and relieve him.

After all, he’d had a busy day attending toddler groups, drinking coffee and chatting to other parents. Well that is how it felt, if I’m being brutally honest. It felt as though as the “stay-at-home parent” he had cherry-picked all the best parts of raising our little darlings, while I was left to do the grunt work… after I’d paid the bills and spent half the night breastfeeding!

Overhauling outdated stereotypes

I don’t have all the answers for how to overcome these issues. However, I have stopped trying to be superwoman and learnt how to ask for help. I pay a cleaner to come once a week, do my supermarket shopping via an app on my phone, never iron any clothes and (shock horror) sometimes send the girls off to school in the pinafore they had on the day before and shoes that haven’t been polished.

I prioritise and communicate. I’m learning a few mummy “hacks”, I cut every corner possible and empower my children to do simple chores themselves (although I am not beyond yelling at them to open their mouths whilst I frantically swish the toothbrush around before pushing them out the door to go to school).

I make fish fingers for tea, rather than something more ambitious/nutritious that my children will turn their noses up at. The school makes excellent cooked meals for their lunch so a straightforward, crowd-pleaser at dinner time is fine.

Ours unfortunately is a pioneering generation and hence, it is our marriages being put to the test. Not that this is an excuse for the dinosaurs out there. Working fathers need to step up to the plate, and parents raising boys need to teach them (through doing) that men and women are equally responsible for running a household.

Change is also needed in the workplace. The Modern Family Index blames outdated workplace cultures and stereotypes for failing to keep up with women’s professional strides. It suggests employers could do their part to ease the load.

“The fact is that for most employers, much of their most valuable talent in the workplace is playing double duty as manager of family life as well,” notes Bright Horizons CHRO Maribeth Bearfield.

“By creating environments where men are encouraged and valued for taking advantage of work/life supports as well, workplaces can start to catch up with the culture this generation of working families demands.”

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