Features

Stop telling men they’re useless at childcare, and maybe they’ll be better

It is repeated endlessly in popular culture, and as a stay-at-home dad I find it odd

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

Just in time for Fathers’ Day, when thousands of British men will receive cards addressed to ‘The World’s Best Dad!’, a new report from the Fatherhood Institute has come out demonstrating the statistical improbability of the claim.

The average father in the UK spends only 24 minutes looking after his children for every hour their mother spends, the lowest ratio in Europe. And given that these figures are based on self-reporting questionnaires, rather than a researcher with a stopwatch, this is almost certainly an overestimate.

The Fatherhood Institute concludes that government action is needed, in the first place by increasing the parental leave available to fathers. They argue, rightly, that the more fathers are involved in the first year of a child’s life, the more engaged they will be in the future. (If nothing else, it’s like training at altitude: after a year of coping with a crying baby, looking after toddlers is, quite literally, child’s play.)

But there is a limit to what government policy alone can achieve. Japan has the most generous leave for fathers in the developed world (a year for each child) and yet, given that only 2 per cent of Japanese fathers take any of this leave whatsoever, they are ranked lowest in the Fatherhood Institute’s survey for parenting equality overall.


A generation ago you might have assumed that British men shied away from childcare because it was considered effeminate and unmanly, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now. True, many parenting manuals aimed at a male readership generally have titles such as ‘Commando Dad’ or ‘Fathers Who Dare Win’, as if no real man ever read a book that wasn’t about the SAS. But, I don’t think this is evidence that British men think that childcare is beneath them; rather, that society tells them they’re useless at it.

In my case, it started in the maternity ward. After our son was born, my wife wasn’t able to breastfeed. There were supplies of formula milk, but they were kept beneath the nurses’ station, like under-the-counter jam during rationing, and you had to go and ask a nurse for a bottle. Whenever I did this, a nurse would say, ‘We’d better check with Mummy.’ And they’d wake her up just to ensure that Daddy had drawn the correct inferences from the baby’s crying. My wife found it irritating to be woken when she had finally got to sleep; and I found it irritating that I was considered less competent than someone coming down from a massive morphine hit. It had been a difficult birth.

I understand that nurses want to establish feeding patterns in the maternity ward, but they also established another pattern: that men should be treated as useless idiots who can’t be trusted to look after their children. This trope is repeated everywhere in popular culture, from adverts portraying fathers as feckless incompetents who can’t even take care of a KFC bucket to cartoons where the butt of every joke is the idiot dad: Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin and, most egregious of all, Daddy Pig in Peppa Pig. (Anyone who doesn’t think popular culture influences children should see how my toddler latched on to Peppa Pig’s catchphrase of ‘Silly Daddy’.)

Strangers come up to me when I’m out with my son and chuckle to him: ‘Don’t worry, Mummy will be home soon!’ How are they to know that I am a stay-at-home father, that I am the primary carer, and once, when I left my wife babysitting, I found her and the baby watching Omen II together?

What surprises me is that this attitude often comes from women. I have been taking my son to nursery, and picking him up, every day for almost a year; the other mothers have only just worked out that I’m not just standing in for my wife. The nursery staff still haven’t realised — despite it being a progressive sort of place, where girls are encouraged to play with Lego and boys with tea-sets — so they send all the emails about playdates and outings to my wife, since obviously you can’t clog up a father’s terribly important inbox with such womanly nonsense. If you think the dad is just a substitute, you’re not going to make an effort to include him: just as if you’re in an office, nobody bothers making friends with the temp.

I complained about this in an interview once, and the interviewer, to my horror, immediately accused me of being a men’s rights activist. I am not, and please do not misunderstand me: I do not feel oppressed by Daddy Pig. I just find it odd that women, who would be appalled by anyone suggesting that a woman’s place is in the home, can promulgate the idea that men are, by their nature, hopeless parents — even though that’s saying the same thing in different words.

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