Lego started to recognise the changing role of fathers in our culture. We have now Lego figurines with happy fathers pushing buggies and staying at home with the children. And it’s great, the message sent by main players on the market is heard by many families and it does have an impact on our perception of social norms. Role playing toys are powerful medium through which our children receive hints on what are the accepted ways of doing things in our society.
But do we really know what we expect from fathers these days?
I think fathers have several reasons to feel confused about their role in the family.
The thing which strikes me each time I come across it in social media, is circulation of insensitive jokes about fathers. Fathers are patronised, pictured as incompetent, silly people, who seek woman’s help in all the tasks concerning children. I recently saw a joke-chart on FB saying mummy is the one answering all sorts of questions children might have and father who is presented with the only single question: where is mummy? Other example is an image of a family bed, where father sleeps uninterrupted on ‘his half’ of the bed, while mother is awake on her side, having have to accommodate the children (and the dog and the cat) there; and obviously – doesn’t get any sleep at all. It might put a smile on someone’s tired face when after many sleepless nights. It can be viewed as a sort of acting out-frustrations joke. But in fact this enhances the false picture of fathers as those uninvolved and disinterested parents. Whereas in every single family I know, fathers take a big part in minding small babies at night (even when they have to get up the earliest and go to work).
I understand these jokes as displacement of anger and frustration onto fathers (husbands, partners). These difficult emotions are completely normal and understandable, but dealing with these feelings through partners and leaving them look incompetent and selfish is not fair.
Fathers face contradictory expectations regarding their participation in bringing up children. The question I often heard when our first child was born, was: “Is your partner helping?”. I didn’t feel word ‘helping’ was accurate description of our arrangement. It wasn’t him helping with the child, it was us bringing up the new baby together; each of us bonding with our daughter in our ways. It wasn’t me giving him access to the child for the time of ‘helping’ or him thinking: ‘I’d better help out a bit here’.
But the most vivid example of fathers being expected to get involved but in some special, father-like way is a gender segregated parenting. Parent-toddlers groups are mainly attended by mothers from obvious reason – they are still main care givers – staying at home parents, who seek for social support and company for their children; it’s mainly mother-toddlers group we are speaking about.
Nevertheless, there are stay-at-home-fathers and single fathers, who would also benefit from attending toddler groups. It is much more difficult for fathers to make an appearance in such groups. When fathers enter a toddler group it’s like they invade the space reserved for mothers. It seems to be uncomfortable for both mothers and fathers. A few times I experienced weekend meet ups, where few fathers turned up. They usually ended up half hidden, in the corner of the room, or squeezed between two mothers turned back, chatting with someone else. Latter on, those fathers, who made it to the meeting was labelled as ‘brave’. There was also a suggestion, that fathers should have their own, fathers’ meeting set up.
Why is it brave to attend a meeting, which should be a joint pleasure – an occasion to see a child interacting with other children? Why isn’t it ‘normal’ to meet and talk about parenting (or something else, for that matter), in a mixed – mothers and fathers group?
The reason might be our deeply rooted traditional way of thinking about parenting. It is not necessarily helpful these days, but it’s there, as an artefact of the old order.
On the other hand, it preserves the importance of mothers’ role and gives them power to lead and dictate the conditions in the world of bringing up children.
All parties: children, mothers and fathers are benefiting from shifting power relations and more engagement of fathers and mothers in family life. Change isn’t easy and some fathers might need more encouragement in taking up the roles which traditionally belonged to women, and mothers might need to find ways to be more open to change too.
What Fathers definitely don’t need is a prejudice attitude that comes from the past and is often unconscious, that pushes them to the sidelines. This isn’t good for fathers or mothers, but most importantly it isn’t good for our children.