“A damning indictment of society’s persistent attachment to outdated gender roles”.
This was columnist Lindsay Razaq’s reaction when her husband was praised by a waitress for interacting lovingly with their child.
According to Razaq, these ‘outdated gender roles’ afford Dads “disproportionate respect – adulation, even – for basic parenting.”
This is not quite my experience.
When my partner died suddenly in 2015, I became a single parent of two children, aged four and 17 months. I fulfilled that role for the next five years until, happily, my now wife joined the family.
My youngest was still in nappies, and neither were able to dress themselves. Cooking, cleaning, washing, feeding, bathing, tidying, brushing teeth, consoling, dropping off, picking up. I did it all. Never mind the day job.
I didn’t always have the energy for the ‘play’ part, but I must have stood in the cold and pushed them on the swings on several hundred occasions.
I’m no longer a single parent, but I think my wife would agree I do my fair share when it comes to our now three children.
Dressing and bathing have given way to swimming classes, PE kit, homework, Scouts and Brownies, for the older two at least.
I’ve never, not once, felt like I’ve received special attention or praise for being male and carrying out parental duties. Or been “revered” for my efforts, as Razaq puts it.
Only ‘pat on the back’ I need is from my kids
If I received a ‘pat on the back’ by members of the public, I must have missed it amid all the chaos of day-to-day life.
As a human being with an ego like everybody else, pats on the back are not unwelcome.
But as far as my parenting skills are concerned, the only pat on the back I hope for is for my kids to look back as adults and know that I did my best.
The idea that fathers feel the need for some sort of special credit for spending time with their kids seems alien to me.
My children didn’t ask to be put on this earth. The way I see it, being present and giving them the most comfortable start to life I possibly can isn’t a reason for praise – it’s a debt I owe them.
Importantly, I would say I’m fairly typical of fathers in the 21st century. When I look at my male friends who have children, I certainly wouldn’t say I’m anything special.
They’re all equally involved in their kids’ lives, taking days off when their child is sick, doing the school run, posting Instagram stories from softplay centres at weekends.
The mum-dad ratio at pick-up time might not be 50-50 yet, but it’s getting there and has come a long way since I was at school.
Razaq says that what mothers do day in, day out is taken for granted. Often this is the case, and here I have some sympathy.
More expected of Dads than ever
However, I’d argue they’re appreciated more now than at any time in the past. And at the same time, more is expected of Dads than ever before (quite right, by the way).
Three points. First, Dads are on the whole very much “doing their bit”. Second, they aren’t receiving any special treatment for doing so. And third, neither do they expect any.
Razaq said she’d heard several stories of Dads who couldn’t wait to get back into the office after lockdown, feeling “hard done-by” at having had to share the load.
It’s only natural that Dads (and Mums, for that matter) pined for the normality of the office after five months’ home-schooling.
But feeling “hard done-by”? I’m not sure about that at all, and I think I speak for the rest of my male social circle.
Despite the generational difference, I’m pretty sure my own father didn’t feel ‘hard done-by’ when helping out with me and my brother.
Bringing up kids can be physically and emotionally draining. But mostly, it’s a pleasure.
When I die, I won’t be remembered for anything I did at work. It’ll be the time I turned up at Sports Day (remember them?), the time I took them to Pizza Hut on a whim, the silly accents I put on to make them laugh, the years of ‘being there’ that I’ll be remembered for.
‘Gender roles’ or just getting the job done?
There is too much said about “gender roles”. If something needs done, and I have my hands full, my wife does it. If she’s busy, I do it. When I’m the higher earner, I pay for more – when my wife’s income overtakes mine, she does likewise.
It might all sound a bit simplistic, and all sorts of things get thrown at relationships – not least sleep deprivation during the early years of parenthood. But it really doesn’t have to be so complicated.
The relationships of my friends who are parents work on the same basis.
Incidentally, if I may stray into gender studies for a second, surely few things are as masculine as nurturing a child to adulthood? That’s certainly the way it’s seen in countries like Sweden, where men routinely put children before career.
But – as much as we’re not supposed to say it these days – men and women are different.
In our house, if you want to know which child has to be where at what time, or what needs replenished at the supermarket at any given time, I’m your man.
When it comes to the kids’ emotional crises on the other hand, there is no-one better than my wife. She gets through to our eldest in particular in a way I can’t always seem to.
There is nothing better about Dads. There is nothing better about Mums. We’re all just doing our best, pats on the back or not.
Calum Petrie is a Schools & Family journalist for the Press & Journal