Mother's little helper
It has been six weeks since my baby daughter was born, and already I am being excluded from the parenting process. Not deliberately, but by stealth and social pressure, in a society whose message is that children are solely the business of women, and that men have little role to play in their care and upbringing. The role of fathers, at best, is to "help" our partners, the mothers, in their allotted task of caring for the children.
This message comes in a number of ways. I have conducted an informal study of the parenting pamphlets and materials, excluding those on breast feeding and maternal care, which have been given to my wife and I since our daughter was born. In all 25 of these items, there were 59 images of adults in a caring, parental role with children. Forty-three of these images were of a mother and baby, 11 were of a mother, a father and baby and five were of a father and baby. While men make up 50 percent of parents, they were represented in only 27 percent of these images.
The parenting message is directed solely at women. The K-Mart Baby's Progress Pack begins "Dear New Mother", Cascades Fruit Syrup claims it is "the best a mum can give" and the 11th edition of The Babycare Book, published in 1995, says of "your partner" that "Many new fathers can feel left out of things after a baby is bornä They might feel useless in this strange world of babies, nappies and feeding patterns unless they have been closely involved before. In these days of smaller nuclear families, fewer men have the chance to learn such things." This book has 29 images of an adult with a baby. Twenty-five of them are of a mother and baby, three are of a mother, a father and baby and only one is of a father and baby. One of the mother-with-baby images has a man in it as well, but he is a doctor!
The implication from this book is, of course, that women are not in a "strange world of babies, nappies and feeding patterns", it is all natural to them and all they can expect from men is someone to act as an "offsider", a useful assistant.
Early mothering groups
The message also comes from the institutions. Our local hospital was excellent, and encouraged future fathers to attend pre-natal classes. Now that the baby is born there are "Early Parenting Groups" run by the hospital, one would suppose, for both new parents. But not at all: "The focus is on new mothers, with both parents invited to attend an evening group offered once every 6 weeks."
This focus not only reinforces the inferior role of men in the parenting business, it enforces that position. These groups, run exclusively for women, exclude men from information about their children and child care. Information about such matters is now relayed to the fathers by the mothers who attend the group. With the information comes the power to control the parenting relationship. The women have the information, and if it is relayed at all after the class, the men are required to act as an assistant, acting on mother's instructions from the matters learned in the group, rather than taking an equal share of the responsibility. When a problem or issue arises, rather than the parents discussing the options, the obvious contact for solution is the group or the networks established. Parenting becomes a collective process for the women in the group, rather than for the parents of the child concerned.
When I asked the local child care nurse if men had come to the group, she replied that they had, but not for some time. She also said that the course was run at a time that did not suit men, as they generally had to go to work. In any other field, if a class was run that excluded 50% of the target population (remembering that they are early parenting groups), there would be reviews to determine why and to develop strategies to improve the attendance rate - but not when it comes to parenting. If it is necessary for women to have an opportunity to come together and discuss their experiences, then why isn't the same true for men? Why doesn't the community health unit run sessions at night for men and their children to attend? Poor attendance is hardly sufficient reason. If, as a society, we want equality and opportunity for men, women and children, then such groups should encourage men to take an active role in caring for their families.
Parenting information should also be separate from women's health information. A book that purports to be on "Baby Care" but that is equally devoted to women's health again identifies that women and children are synonymous. If, as a man, one does not take responsibility for one's partner's health care, then it is equally clear that there is no role in the care of the child, for they are one and the same. Baby care is not maternal care, and by grouping them together, one again effectively excludes men from decisions that may need to be made about the care of their children.
It may be argued that it is appropriate to target child care information to women as it is simply true that parenting is largely a role undertaken by women. That, however, is no answer. The majority of members of Parliament are men, but if a handbook was to be published for new parliamentarians that referred only to men, and which only mentioned women in their role of "partner to the new member" and advised how women could contribute by assisting at party functions, we would be outraged. We would be outraged because such a text would exclude those women who chose to break the conventional mould and take their place in the Parliament, and we would be outraged for the message that it sends to women and girls about their place and role in society. We should be similarly outraged about literature that fails to recognise that some men (albeit a minority) take on active caring roles for their children, and we should be outraged at the message being sent to men and boys about their role in the family.
Affirmative action for dads?
There are other limitations imposed upon us by society. My employer, a large public institution with a commitment to equal opportunity principles would allow my wife up to 12 weeks full pay (or 24 weeks at half pay) maternity leave. On the other hand, I am only entitled to five days paternity leave. In the rules for the granting of such leave, paternity leave is granted to allow a male member of staff to assist and support their partner. No provision is granted should that member of staff want to actually spend some time providing primary care to the child.
Of course, if a child is to be breastfed, then it is the role of the mother to do so, but in this day and age, we should have policies that provide flexibility and choice for all, irrespective of gender, to take an active and caring role in the parenting of children. To do so would benefit both men and women. It may free some women to return to careers, it would allow people to develop more equitable home lives and allow men to share in the experience of nurturing their children as equals, rather than as assistants. To encourage and allow men to take an active role in caring for their children will allow families to make decisions that suit them. It may be, as in many households, that the women will take on the larger part of the child rearing responsibilities as the men continue to work to earn income. That this is the traditional role is no reason to ignore or marginalise the non-traditional.
Improvements in family relationships need encouragement and that will require policy developments that encourage people to move out of their stereotypical roles. The history of "minority" movements show that it is not only activism from those involved, but a conscious target of the policy makers that allows such groups as women and people from non-English speaking backgrounds to break away from traditional roles and so develop their full personal potential. Similar policy direction is now required if men are to be allowed to take their place as partners in the family relationship, rather than as "mother's helper".
First published in the magazine XY: Men, Sex, Politics, 6(3), Spring 1996. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. ©Reprinted with permission.