Daddy Swans Can Raise Their Kids Too

“There’s the mummy swan with all her babies!” exclaimed my three-year-old daughter about the swan on the canal with their cygnets. We had probably seen daddy swan earlier, picking fights with the local geese.

I’m one of the growing number of stay-at-home dads, and I’ve been home with my daughter since she was six months old. Yet despite having an at-home dad for most of her life, she still defaults to the assumption that the parent looking after their children must be the mother.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. We had just left the baby & toddler group I help to run, where there were dozens of parents and carers – but I was the only man there. On the walk home, we bumped into a few more parents we knew, all of them mothers at home with their children. That morning, I had read numerous books to my daughter, including classics such as Where The Wild Things Are, Dogger, and some Mog books – all of which, like many in our collection, feature the mother as primary carer.

This ‘norm’ carries over into other aspects of how parenting in portrayed or perceived – including nature, where there are far fewer everyday examples of nurturing fathers to cite. We tend to humanise, or give character too, the animals around us. When it comes to their parenting, the gender roles can be perceived very rigidly, whether it’s a cartoon with talking animals or us observing their behaviour in real life.

But one of the things that makes us human is our ability to transcend nature. Unlike animals we can choose to suppress our urges, not act on instincts we know are not relevant to the world we find ourselves in, and change the way we parent to suit our circumstances.

Being the dad used to be seen as being the breadwinner, or the sports guy, or the one who cooks with on the barbecue. Some of those dad cliches apply to me. But I’m also the dad who’s at home with our daughter, loves cuddling her, will happily play dolls with her, and ties a damn good ponytail.

Reflecting this changing view of fatherhood, stock photography provider Getty Images has launched a special collection to coincide with Father’s Day. The images show fathers as nurturing, caring, and attentive parents, offering a more modern idea of masculinity and fatherhood.

These stock photos will become part of the everyday noise of the online parenting world, turning up in peoples social timelines and hopefully evolving perceptions about dads among those that don’t see fathers this way yet.

It’s easy to relax into accepted norms. Sometimes we need to curate the way the world around us is presented, to reflect not only the way it is, but the way we want it to be.

So when my daughter pointed out the ‘mummy’ swan, I felt the need to introduce an element of doubt and analysis into the conversation. “How do you know it’s the mummy swan?”, I asked, “It might be the daddy?”. She pondered for a moment, then decided that this time it was indeed the daddy, while it was the mother that was off having ‘me’ time battling the geese.

This may (almost certainly) have been factually incorrect, but learning isn’t just about facts. I am a great believer that one of the key ways we learn how to be human is through stories, and this includes the narratives we witness in everyday life. We take what we learn in these tales, to build up a vision of how society works. The fluidity of gender roles in parenthood is part of that.

And perhaps I’m being unfair on the poor old male Swan? They CAN change the way they parent to suit their circumstances. Cobs (as they’re called) are known to rear their cygnets by themselves if they lose their mate, so they clearly have within them the same desire to love and nurture their children as the female. So as far as we were concerned, daddy swan was with the kids that day, and we agreed they were having a wonderful time of it too.

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Do We Need to Stop Talking About Working Mothers?

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‘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.

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.

Playgroups: A Survival Guide for Dads

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My daughter at playgroup. Other than me, a stay at home dads free zone.

“Do you all spend the whole time cackling about shoes and celebrities?”

That was an actual question I asked my wife about our antenatal group. Like most men, I hadn’t really spent much time around large groups of women, and when I had they were usually drinking lots of Pinot Grigio or watching Mamma Mia. Or both.

Well, they DIDN’T chat endlessly about Women’s Mag stuff, and they accepted me as a stay-at-home dad without batting an eyelid, comfortable to talk of cracked nipples and weaning strategies alongside the kind of stuff we all used to converse about a lot more before becoming parents.

Playgroups are an extension of these gatherings. However, when you’re the only man walking into a roomful of women & kids who know each other but not you, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed. Don’t be.

You will be told how brave you are for going to a playgroup with lots of mums. Don’t believe this for a second. You’re not being brave at all. You’re just a dad taking his child to a playgroup. Treat it as the most normal thing any parent would do, because it is. If you approach it this way others will too.

So dads – whether you’re stay-at-home full-time or on temporary leave – don’t be shy and get out there. Here’s a few pointers to help you on your way.

Baby and toddler groups survival guide

1. Smile
No one wants to hang out with grumpy Graham in the corner. If you look like you don’t want to be there, you also look like you don’t want to talk to anyone – so they won’t bother. Smile, and people will smile back.

2. Children are a great conversation opener
“How old is your child?”, “How long have they been walking?”, “What a cool outfit”, etc. It’s very easy to start a conversation with women at a playgroup, by simply sharing facts & compliments about each other’s children. This also works in bars.

3. Be the engaged parent you are
To many, it’s still a novelty (even weird) to see a dad enjoying spending time with their child. In all likelihood, the mothers you want to know will recognise the same level of engagement that their partner has, or even wish they were more like you (no, really). Either way, they’ll like you all the more for it.

4. Offer to help out
Whether picking up a dropped toy, tidying up at the end of the session, or helping to run an actual group (as I do), helping out is a great way to endear yourself by showing again what an engaged parent you are.

5. Remember peoples names
I’m terrible at this, and it does really help to build a connection by demonstrating you’re interested in them enough to recall their name. Here’s a good playgroup hack: If you’ve forgotten, ask the child’s name, DO remember this, then look down the sign in book/sheet for that name and cross reference the parent’s name.

6. Bake something
Possibly sexist (sorry), but mums at one group still mention the batch of Anzac biscuits I brought to a group once. I didn’t even bake them – my wife did. It was the first time a lot of mothers actually talked to me, and they have done ever since.

7. You will think your singing voice sounds worse then everyone else’s. Probably because it is…
Most groups end with a sing-song. Your voice is (probably) lower than the mums & kids, so your singing will stand out. Don’t worry. This isn’t choir practice. If they do notice you, it’ll be for enthusiastically singing with your child, because it makes them happy. Which is cool.

8. Not all groups of mothers are a clique…
Don’t be intimidated. Just because there’s a group of women talking intently to each other in the corner, it doesn’t mean they’re an exclusionary clique. Stop basing your idea of female social structures on Mean Girls and Heathers.

9. …but mother cliques do exist.
Just like Mean Girls and Heathers, there are still exclusionary cliques around. If you encounter one, just walk on by. Don’t even assume it’s because you’re a dad – there are plenty of mothers who also feel excluded by these packs too. Be thankful – there are far more interesting people for you to get to know.

10. If you don’t like it, move along
It took me a few groups before I found ones I liked. Remember, it’s ok not to like them. Some groups were too religious, some classes too scripted, some full of mothers that just wouldn’t talk to me. Wherever you are, there are probably a bunch of groups to choose from, so shop around. Don’t be swayed by other people’s opinion – even your partner’s. Just because they found a group or class brilliant, doesn’t mean you have to. Find what works for you and your child.

The obligatory ‘first day of preschool’ post

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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)

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‘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.