There’s something that’s been bothering me for quite a while.
You see it in ads, in movies, in sit-coms. You see it in supermarkets and shopping centres and parks. You see it played out in the newspapers every day, and it’s simply this: we treat men in this culture as though they are incompetent and sometimes even untrustworthy when it comes to children.
For some men (read “jerks who don’t want the bother of looking after their kids”) this is a get-out-of-jail-free card (does anyone else remember that episode of The Simpsons when Homer tells Marge “But I don’t want to take care of the kids. Um, how many cigars are they allowed to have? Bart sleeps in the microwave, right? How many magic beans should i sell the baby for, three?”) but for the rest, it’s often baffling and frustrating.
Clementine Ford did an interview recently with Anne Summers, where she suggested that we needed societal change in this area — that we ought to make men not being equally involved in parenting “shameful”. Summers replied that we need to remove the idea that women are only allowed to work if they don’t have children. I think they really are linked and that both genders are missing out here.
There are still plenty of men out there, of all ages, who believe that childcare is best left to the womenfolk. But there are also plenty who don’t, and who want to play an equal role, who get treated like freaks. Why don’t we just let men get on with it?
For instance — why do we praise men for doing things that we wouldn’t even think of congratulating a woman for achieving, like taking the kids for a walk or looking after them when they’re sick? Apparently if men do these things they deserve medals. If women do them, well, so they should; and also, that mother must have done something wrong if her kid is sick. Also, you aren’t giving them Panadol are you? Did you breastfeed enough when they were babies?
This undeserved praise is patronising and counter-productive (and it worries the men too — just read this blog post by DadKapital or this article they ran recently in The Age).
Worst of all is when we treat men like perverts when it comes to children. There was that appalling case recently where it was revealed that Virgin have a policy forbidding men from sitting next to children travelling alone. And just the other day Daily Life ran a story essentially saying that treating all men as though they’re pedophiles is “justified”.
The topic comes up in all sorts of places. The Punch ran a story after Julia Gillard’s “I am offended” speech, about how she’d hit a nerve, in which writer Jessica Irvine said that treating mothers as though they’re the only ones who can take care of their children, and fathers who request flexible working arrangements for family reasons as objects of scorn and derision is just as offensive, because these things are holding equality back; Daily Life had an article on the cost of childcare that put it really well:
“While sorting out the childcare industry is vital, so too is the need to change our society’s expectations of who will deliver this care, in particular this idea that a woman is ‘supposed to be the carer’… men are still largely regarded as ‘babysitters’, who step in and step out in order to ‘help out’ around the house …This gendered division of care is a disservice to men, who are capable of caring for children just as adequately as women. It also preserves this idea that kids need their mothers on tap; beyond the period of early infancy and breastfeeding, I would argue anyone with loving regard for that child could attend to their needs.”
They ran a story in The Age not long ago calling society’s low expectations and sabotaging of men “the other glass ceiling”. I hope this idea catches on because until we have equality in parenting, we can’t have equality in the workplace. And until we have equality in both those places, we aren’t going to have it anywhere else.