Imagine a situation where a woman defies her husband to smuggle political dissidents out of the country, putting her own and his life at risk, but it doesn’t even occur to her to ask him to share the household chores by doing a bit of washing up. By modern standards it seems utterly bizarre, but this is what Chilean author Isabel Allende describes in her memoirs around the time of Pinochet’s 1973 coup.
Thankfully we’re now at a stage where female emancipation means not only being able to do things outside the home, but that you don’t have to get it done in time to be home to finish the ironing. But women still do the bulk of work in the home, and this is particularly true when it comes to parenting. Motherhood is widely blamed for the retro-sounding but all too modern gender pay gap, and the continued novelty value of female company directors. Employers are rightly exhorted to better accommodate caring responsibilities but things also need to change in families, so that it is not just women whose careers pay the price for parenthood.
MP David Lammy alludes to the core problem when talking about his ‘Encouraging active fatherhood’ campaign when he say women’s lives have changed dramatically in the last 20 years, but men’s have not kept pace. He is right that men’s lives do need to adapt more, but change they have. Women coming to antenatal classes and giving birth without their partners present is now the exception, not the rule. When I was born, my father considered himself a ‘modern’ man by taking a whole afternoon off work. Last year, my husband expected, and was expected, to take a fortnight’s paternity leave after our son’s birth.
Yet, following this, I found maternity leave a culture shock – and not just the deep and enduring shock of having a non-verbal but very vocal new human being driving the agenda. Despite working in a fairly equal workplace, spending my days exclusively with women was a big change. But a lovely one. The generous supply of empathy, support for different parenting choices and genuine interest in the minutiae of mothering sustained me through the darker days. Endless swapping birth stories was therapeutic (to a point) and the ‘this is what worked for me’ non-judgemental advice easy to take on board. Of course, it’s no utopia – there are catty, competitive and judgemental mums out there. But I didn’t really hang out with them.
But what is it like for the dads? Ha! I thought. Now men will know what it feels like! Most women can remember walking into a room, whether a pub, garage or board room, and realising they’re the only woman there. And a bit later on, noticing that the way things are set up seems designed to make you feel uncomfortable about that, whether it’s a lack of ladies loos or page 3 on the wall. Why shouldn’t men get a taste of the same?
Well, firstly because it’s just not nice to enjoy someone else struggling, especially if you know what it feels like yourself. But also because it’s just as important for feminism that men are winding the bobbin up at the library sing-a-long session as it is that women are setting corporate priorities in corner offices.
So what are the Pirelli calendars of the children’s centre? What’s the ‘banter’ that eats away under the thick skin stay-at-home dads must grow? The ‘got a day off, then?’ assumptions must grate. The more gruesome birth or breastfeeding stories can’t make comfortable conversation. The baby changing facilities in the women’s toilets is pretty enraging – especially to me, when I’ve just won the nappy argument with my husband only to find my victory undermined.
The next step in feminism needs to be about men, rather than women.
Image has no known copyright. It comes from the Dutch National Archives. Taken in 1961, it depicts a white man dressed smartly in business attire with a pinny over the top. He is sitting in a chair with a young baby on his knee. With one hand he is feeding the baby a bottle and with the other he is talking on the phone. He has a slightly harassed smile on his face.