Do We Need to Stop Talking About Working Mothers?

Working mom, Working mum, working moms, working mothers, work life balance
‘Working Mom’ by Ran Zwigenberg. Photo used under CC license

Whenever there’s coverage of mothers in the workplace, it’s never long before the topic of how they cope with the competing needs of their children and their job comes up. What’s wrong with this? It’s a narrative that’s only ever applied to working mothers, and rarely – if ever – working fathers.

On the BBC series Inside the House of Commons this week, one of the featured MPs was a busy mum who juggles the demands of her job with the needs of her family. As the listings described the scenario: “Lib Dem MP Jenny Willott… seeks to balance new parenthood with politics.”

I am not denying Ms. Willott’s very real struggle between being a parent and an MP (and Deputy Chief Whip), but yet again, the search for this ‘balance’ was presented as an issue only for the working mother. While we did see the involvement of her partner, where was the male MP also struggling in the same way, having family dinners in his parliament office, dropping off his children at the House of Commons nursery, or leaving his crying child with an aide so he can dash off to the house for an important vote? Maybe he doesn’t exist. Maybe society’s expectations of working mothers are different from those of working fathers.

This was yet another example that feeds into the myth that when a mother is working, childcare is her responsibility. That the need for flexibility is the preserve of the working mother, not the father. That mothers struggle to maintain a work/life balance in a way that fathers don’t.

This week there was a report about the rising costs of childcare in the UK, which is indeed a big problem for parents. Yet I kept reading how this was an issue for working mothers or mothers returning to the workplace, never about fathers.

My wife has a full time job, and I freelance as well as being home with our daughter. In any discussions I enter into about work, the cost of childcare up at the top of the list when determining the feasibility of me taking on the job. The issues around flexible hours and an understanding that I may have to be absent when my child is sick are also important for my employer to know, because I am the primary caregiver to our daughter.

Why We Need to Stop Talking About Working Mothers

I don’t understand why are we always framing any discussion about childcare, flexible working, balancing the demands of home and work, with ‘Working Mothers’. These issues are not exclusive to mothers – they are parenting issues.

As a father, I find it depressing that people think dads don’t care this much about their children, that we too don’t lament the lost hours we could be spending with them when working. But as a parent of a daughter, I find the sexism of this prevailing attitude towards women in the workplace far more depressing.

It’s an attitude that is especially toxic when there are employers that would prefer not hire a mother, because they think that it’ll be too much hassle. It’s an attitude that fathers rarely encounter.

I am not seeking to diminish the emotional stress and logistical hassle of being a working mother. Despite not being a mother, I understand it completely.

I just think we need to stop talking about working mothers, and start talking about working parents instead. These are issues that affect us all and problems for us all to deal with.

What do you think about the way working mothers are perceived? Is being a working mother different than being a working father? Please get involved by commenting below, joining the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.

Advertisements

Valentine’s Day is for Lovers and Retailers, Not Parents and Children

Valentine's Day, Valentine's Day card, Valentine's Day cards, Valentine's Day children.
(Photo by Shana, used under CC license)

Can we just agree that a little girl giving her daddy a Valentine’s card is a bit creepy.

This week playgroups, preschools, and nurseries across the globe were having their usual themed crafts, which in all likelihood involved making Valentine’s Day cards. I didn’t think much of it. I figured these cards would be given to the parent who wasn’t there, from their partner that was.

Contrary to my assumption, at the playgroups I went to, many children (well, only girls) were being encouraged by mothers to make cards for their fathers. The thought of getting a Valentine’s Day card from my daughter makes my skin crawl.

Valentine’s Day is one of two things. It is either a cynical marketing opportunity to sell themed cards, chocolates, lingerie, and even ready meals (‘Give your Valentine a night off cooking with a special Macaroni Cheese’). Or it’s a day to celebrate love with your partner, a partner to be, or just a good old fashioned secret admirer.

Valentine’s Day is a time for lovers, and a time for retailers to exploit that love. It is not a time for parents and children to express their very different love for each other.

While there is an argument against children ‘celebrating’ Valentine’s Day, because it’s asking them to grow up too soon, it’s also true the role playing adult scenarios is an important part of our children’s development. The desire for a partner, who is more than a friend, is an important concept for them to understand. It’s how they came to be after all.

I also remember getting cards as a child from secret admirers who I still have no idea about. It almost remains my purest experience of the day. Who’s heart wouldn’t be sent aflutter with a note from a secret admirer? Valentine’s Day is a day for love, but romantic love, which is to say that heady, intoxicating combination of love and desire.

“Valentine’s Day is a time for lovers”

Remember the song Somethin’ Stupid? It’s a catchy duet about someone lamenting their missed opportunity of getting a date into bed by saying Somethin’ Stupid’ (Like I Love You). If you’re younger than me, perhaps you know the Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman version. That was a fun rendition of a cute song.

However, it’s more famous for it’s frankly creepy version, which was a duet between Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy.

Have a listen.

It’s also fairly creepy when sung by Nancy Sinatra and her brother, Frank jr. Take a look.

It’s really NOT cute to have a father and daughter, or brother and sister, pretending to sing about a sexual attraction to each other. It’s gross. That’s why this song referred to as The Incest Song.

Let’s not teach our children that our love for them is the same as our love for our partners. It’s not better, not lesser. Just different. And they need to learn the difference.

What do you think about getting a Valentine’s Day card from your child? Cute? Or creepy? Please comment below, join the conversation on my Facebook page, or tweet me @manvspink.

Labour’s Paternity Leave Policy: Is it even a step in the right direction?

Stay-at-home dad, bottle feeding, paternity leave,
Feeding my daughter during her first month

A Labour government will double paternity leave for dads from two to four weeks, and increase their weekly paternity pay to £260 – over £100 more than present. No doubt this move will be tagged as anti-business by Labour’s opponents. But is it as pro-family as it seems?

I was lucky that I spent the first 6 weeks home with my daughter. I can’t imagine not having spent that time with her, and I feel for other fathers who wanted the same but weren’t able to.

While this Labour policy may seem progressive, reflecting the reality that many fathers want to be at home with their newborn too, I feel what it’s really reinforcing is that after 4 weeks a man’s place is still at work while a woman’s is at home with the baby.

There are many reasons why fathers decide to become stay-at-home dads. In our case is was a combination of me really wanting to be home with our daughter; my wife’s desire to return to work and maintain her career; and a feeling that I might be better suited to being home all the time with an insatiable grub that lacks basic conversation skills. The fact that my wife also earned more than twice as much as me was not an obvious influence, but perhaps it made our decision easier.

What I think families need more than a simple increase in paternity pay and entitlement, is support to make these type of flexible decisions that are right for them, for there is no one size fits all way of parenting any more. While for some couples the mother being home full-time is what’s wanted, others (like us) would prefer have the dad home in those early years. Many couples would like to both be working as soon as possible. The financial hit would be harder on some rather than others, so that too would affect decisions.

Far more progressive is the Shared Parental Leave system that comes into force from April, where parents can share the majority of the mother’s 52 week leave entitlement between them, in theory letting the couple decide which one of them is to become the primary carer. One of the biggest stumbling blocks with this is that many women have generous maternity packages from their employer that are far in excess of the Statutory Shared Parental Pay of £138 per week.

I remain unconvinced about Labour’s proposal, though I am sure it will lead to more fathers taking time off to be with their newborn. The IPPR, who came up with these proposals, believe take up will increase from 55% to 70%. That sounds optimistic, but I guess we’ll see should we have a Labour government come May.

I believe that the level of pay is really a small part of the reason for the low numbers taking paternity leave. For parents who had no interest in the father being home, their feelings will remain unchanged. Many men feel that their employer would look unfavourably on them taking leave, that their job cannot be interrupted, or that it will hurt their career. They too will remain feeling the same way about paternity leave.

The policy seems rather outdated next to Shared Parental Leave in that it assumes the father will return to work after 4 weeks while the mother is home with the baby. If Labour really wanted to encourage more men to become stay-at-home dads, or women to become working mothers, then I think they should really be building upon the Shared Parental Leave system, perhaps finding a way for mums and dads to share an employers parental leave system.

So is Labour really trying to be progressive? I am reminded of the free childcare/early education for three year olds. The 15 hours of free childcare per week, notionally intended to encourage at-home parents back to work is now seen as more of a rebate to middle class families. They would be paying for the childcare at nurseries anyway but now get a term time fee reduction. I have a similar feeling about these proposals, that it’s intended to be a nice little financial present for those families who would have probably used paternity leave anyway.

This feels less about a policy helping families, than a headline to help persuade disaffected supporters to vote Labour in May. But at least a few more dads will get to spend time with their newborn like I did.

 

What do you think about these paternity leave proposals? Please get involved by commenting below, joining the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.

When a Four-Year-Old Girl Thinks Science Toys Are Only For Boys, Something is Very Wrong

Some friends recently had an upsetting family trip to the Natural History Museum.

They have a bright, bold, and delightful daughter called Zoe – she amused me no end when inventively used our toys to enthusiastically stage a river raid on Noah’s Ark by Spider-Man & Hulk to rescue the animals from the clutches of supervillains Annihilus & Joker. Sitting cosily inside the marketing category of ‘Girl’ is seemingly not for her.

So at the museum shop, it was a shock to her parents when then four year old Zoe, after carefully inspecting the general science toys on display, sighed and lamented how they were only for boys.

Zoe’s mother was so upset about this that she wanted to cry. This is definitely not the way they wanted to bring their daughter up, and in fact they thought they were doing well by giving her trucks and other non-traditional girls toys. Their only conclusion was that this message must have come from outside the home.

It indicates the scale of the problem with gendered marketing. As parents, we do what we can to instil our children with positive & empowering messages and influences, to encourage them to discover what will engage & inspire them. But gendered marketing is so threaded into our everyday life – shops, TV, movies, magazines, and peers – that its effects will probably permeate through whatever defences we put up.

People like myself and others can rail against this. We may even convince the occasional retailer or manufacturer to change the way they define their products. One thing some companies are doing is introducing ‘girl’ versions of toys. You know the sort of thing, tool boxes, toy crossbows, and even science kits, that instead of being ‘normal’ colours, are pink. Some people (usually toy industry people) hail these as an ingenious development. But to me it simply reinforces the ‘pink is for girls’ mentality. They may play with the ‘perfume factory science kit’, but what happens when girls see an item that isn’t pink? They may assume it’s for boys and ignore it. What do boys take away from this? That only pink things are for girls, but this also excludes them from the likes of baby dolls and kitchen sets.

While we have this mentality, there will be countless stories where a girl decides a career isn’t for her because it’s not presented as such, or a boy may think being home with children is for mothers only. Children may privately carry on in this way of thinking their entire lives, perhaps even perpetuating it when they become adults. Who knows, maybe they’ll move into toy & children’s clothes marketing.

I actively encourage my daughter to play with toys that are not in the ‘pink aisle’, and to also wear clothes from the boy’s section too. But it’s easy for me to be an idealist. My daughter is not even three. As she gets older, and seeks out her own media, the marketeers will be able to reach her directly. The peer group pressure upon her to conform to the identity portrayed in these messages will also grow.

The retailers and manufacturers in question claim they are only feeding demand, but if as a consequence our children can grow up with the belief that science – and any tech or engineering role – is only for boys, something is very wrong. At least Zoe’s parents became aware of the the issue, and have managed to turn it around with her, by getting her a dress-up labcoat, science kits, and they even had a female chemical engineer telling Zoe how cool her job is! Many children will not be this lucky.

I hope the colour palette of childhood in retail evolves. That pink and pastels stop being the exclusive domain of our girls. That the whole spectrum is opened up for all. That brands I love such as Lego, Star Wars, and Marvel & DC stop positioning themselves as a girl free zone, and domestic & nursery toys are made to appeal to boys too. Luckily, there are entrepreneurial companies spotting the gap in the market for something beyond pink and blue.

The recent #WearYourSuperheroes Day was created by a girl in the US in support of her sister, who was teased for her love of superheroes. Whenever my daughter runs around the playground in her beloved superhero cape, I know (because they tell us) many boys and girls notice and have their already formed assumptions challenged.

Girl Wearing Cape, Female Superhero, supergirl, superhero fancy dressI dearly hope my daughter’s love of all kinds of colours, toys, and interests continues, that she doesn’t get directed exclusively down the pink aisle – and that we inspire others to join her too.

An earlier version of this post appeared here.

The obligatory ‘first day of preschool’ post

IMG_3734
My daughter and I in happier times…

Well, that was emotional.

I took my daughter to preschool earlier this morning. We’ve been explaining to her what it is for a while. How it’s like playgroup but without daddies & mummies. That a few of her friends will be there. And how daddy will take her, play for a little bit, go away for a bit, and then come back to take her home. She seemed ok with it. All went as expected. Especially the ‘go away bit’ unfortunately.

10 mins after arriving, I gently backed away as she was occupied at the play-doh table, one of her favourite activities.

I watched from the kitchen. She was happily for a while, but then I could see it developing. The play-doh squishing slowed. Her head began to glance around. The lower lip began to quiver. Then the tears began to flow. Not sad tears, but utterly inconsolable distraught tears, with the barely discernible cries of “Daddy! I want my daddy!”.

I exchanged looks with her key worker, who indicated I should hang back while she tried to placate my daughter with a story. But it was to no avail, so she brought my daughter over to me.

My daughter held me tighter than she ever has, repeating over and over through the stream of tears “Daddy! I love my daddy!”. It was a scene reminiscent of the ending of ‘The Railway Children’.

Except, in this case the ‘Daddy’ (me) then abandoned said daughter when she was distracted by the outdoor play, as it was decided this was for the best in helping her adjust, but they would call me if she got too upset and couldn’t be calmed down.

So here I am at home, with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich for emotional comfort, staring at the phone hoping it doesn’t ring.

The 2 1/2 hour preschool session, that I thought wouldn’t be long enough to get much done, now seems to be lasting an eternity.

(An expanded version of this has been published at the The Huffington Post)

In Defence of Mr. Mom (From a Stay-at-Home Dad)

'Mr. Mom' (1983) poster, Mr. Mom, stay at home dads, stay home dad, being a stay at home dad, stay at home dad blog,
‘Mr. Mom’ (1983) poster

It seems a lot of us stay-at-home dads don’t like the term ‘Mr. Mom’ being applied to us. Well, when I say us, I don’t mean me – I’m fine with it. In fact, I encourage it.

I have fond memories of Mr. Mom, and I have no reason to believe it to be significantly better or worse than its 80’s comedic peers, such as Police Academy, Bachelor Party, and Stripes.

I read a nice piece by Nicole Shanklin called ‘Modern Parenting: Mr. Mom Style‘. Her husband was a stay-at-home dad to their daughter for 2 1/2 years. Lots of fellow (blogging) dads while complimentary about the post were less so about the inclusion of ‘Mr. Mom’ in the title (check the comments). So much so that it was changed to ‘Modern Parenting: Stay @ Home Dads Rock‘, which I think is a shame.

What are the arguments against calling a stay-at-home dad ‘Mr. Mom’?

Well, fairly valid ones: Working mothers are not called ‘Ms. Dad’; being a stay-at-home dad doesn’t make you a male mother; what’s wrong with just calling us dads?

And yet… When I became a stay-at-home dad in 2012, I relished the moniker of ‘Mr. Mom’, and I still do. While stay-at-home dad is a fair description of my role, as is the shorter at-home dad, they lack the wordplay of Mr. Mom, and honestly – they simply fail to conjure up that image of Michael Keaton holding up his baby’s bottom to a hand-dryer.

Perhaps this is a clue to why I like the term. Keaton’s expression in that image exudes confidence. Many stay-at-home dads will tell you of being judged – often borne out through experience – about our ability as primary caregiver, because we are dads. That we are perceived as less able parents because we are men, that our ‘male’ methods are inferior to ‘female’ ones – which from memory is also a theme of the movie.

Parenting Mr. Mom style

In some aspects, I do parent differently from my wife. Not better or worse, just different. Is this because we are male and female? I have no idea. My daughter wears a lot of superhero t-shirts, knew more Star Wars characters at age 2 than my wife does at age [REDACTED], and will respond to food made with scotch bonnet chillies with an enthusiastic ‘More!’. Have I introduced these things to her because I am a man? I’m sure all the chilli loving fangirl mothers out there would disagree with that notion (you know who you are…).

But for me, to feel confident about my way of parenting & to introduce my daughter to things I am passionate about is fundamentally important. I don’t want to second guess myself and be consumed with self doubt about whether this is really the right or wrong thing to do – or even worse, to change my behaviour because I am worried about how others might judge me. Is drying a baby’s bum on a hand-dryer unorthodox? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do (although I’m not advocating it).

So I like to channel the Mr. Mom in that poster, the confident dad parenting his way.

Perhaps the main reason that I don’t have a problem with it is this: I’m English. We don’t use the word ‘Mom’ – it’s ‘Mum’. To us, ‘Mom’ is basically an exotic word from a foreign culture, so when someone calls me ‘Mr. Mom’ (which people do) I simply think of Michael Keaton in that poster. It’s a pop culture reference that makes me smile, and I don’t think I’m being made to feel like any less of a dad.

However, if anyone asks me if I’m ‘babysitting’? Grrrr…

Of Mums and Men: Playground Politics, Stranger Danger, Stay-At-Home-Dads, and the ‘Mum-Hub’.

Mum hub, stay at home dads, stay home dad, being a stay at home dad, stay at home dad blog,Calling myself a stay-at-home dad is a bit disingenuous. We rarely stay at home, especially when the weather is this good. Today we pay a typical mid-week, mid-morning visit to our nearby playground to meet some friends for a playdate.

We arrive before them. I ask my daughter what she’d like to go on. As she considers her answer (she’s a bit of a ponderer), a mother ushers her crying child past us. “I’ll go and see if anyone has any plasters.”

I call out to her to say I have plasters if she needs any. She enthusiastically answers yes, and she comes over with her crying daughter who has a pair of grazed knees. I tell them I hope Spider-Man ones are ok, and the mother tells her how lucky she is the nice man helped us, and that her brother will be so jealous of the plasters (he comes over and does indeed look on jealously).

With great plasters comes great responsibility.
With great plasters comes great responsibility.

I notice the girl has a snotty nose, the kind that often accompanies such bouts of crying. I offer a tissue. The mother’s eyes widen, and she tells me & her daughter how amazing I am, how great the Spider-Man plasters are, and again how lucky they are the nice man was here – because mummy forgot to bring anything.

The mother laughs when I compare my daughter’s nappy bag to a secret agents ‘go bag’, that’s always packed with necessities so we can just grab it on the way out. Plasters applied, nose wiped, the mother thanks me again and wishes us a great summer.

Warning! Stranger danger!

Moments later, I am cleaning something unsavoury from the bottom of my daughters shoe. A little girl comes up to us, intrigued about what I’m doing. Aged about 3 or 4, the girl starts asking me questions, such as what’s that picture on my daughter’s shoes “Turtles.” I reply. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

It was a nice conversation. Suddenly, her mother strides over and pulls the girl away from us without looking at me or saying anything until they stop beneath a nearby tree, where the little girl is admonished for talking to a “strange man”. The girl looks perplexed. Her mother then drags her back to a huddle of other parents in the centre of the playground – a collective I call the mum-hub.

This is a place where stay-at-home dads fear to tread

This is an elusive and distant group. I have never been invited into its confines. The other week, I spotted a mum who I had met before, who I had been chatting to at a pre-school visit we had both attended, whom I had since exchanged hellos with on the street and in the supermarket. She seemed nice, and I was looking forward to chatting to her again. I made eye contact and smiled, hoping to get at least a smile in return, and she immediately looked away. She spent the afternoon laughing enthusiastically with her fellow mum-hubbers, ignoring me even when nearby.

I have never seen any dads in the mum-hub. Not even partners. The mum-hub is usually a child-free zone too, a place of adult conversation while their children fend for themselves – laughing, playing, fighting, falling, getting stuck, getting bullied, crying. Today, there was lots of crying and distressed pre-school children that needed the attention of strangers before their parent in the hub noticed. Yet, the reaction was swift when a little girl decided to talk to me, the strange man.

None of the other mums I know – actually know as opposed to one I chatted to once – are ever in the hub either, nor was the friendly mother who I offered the Spider-Man plasters to. I can only assume they think nothing of a dad playing with his daughter.

Perhaps the mum-hub is in my imagination, but it represents those collections of mothers that are off limits to at-home dads like me. They exist in playgrounds, playgroups, and cafes.  They are cliques of (usually) at-home mums whose exclusively female daytime community is by design not accident, that prefer their women only social-parenting life. Who find it odd that a man might want to be at home with their children, perhaps even suspicious. Mothers like Loose Women’s Nadia Sawalha, who stated “I don’t really want to talk to them. I don’t want them to be there.”

I obviously find it sad that this is the case. I’m not going to confront them about it. There’s a bit of live and let live, but mainly because it’s pretty ugly in front of children.

What I can do is continue to be the engaged stay-at-home dad I am, take my daughter to the playground, and hopefully little girls will see that there is nothing weird, or anything to be afraid of, about a man accompanying his child there. I also hope all kids will see there’s nothing weird about a girl wearing Spider-Man plasters or Ninja Turtle shoes.