As parents and partners, we like to feel that we do a good job of supporting our other halves. But do mums and dads really value the role the other has? It's certainly a hot and popular parenting topic – one that is always likely to produce arguments around the table, during which words can cut deep (and frequently do), leaving conversational welts to be picked over evening after tired evening, weekend after exhausting weekend.
Why is this? Put simply, as a gender, most men don’t value the work mums do as a parent – and we don’t think you worship the role we (generally) play as the breadwinner much either. Of course, we don’t tell you that – occasionally we will buy you flowers, or take you out for dinner, suggest a weekend away (without the kids, obviously) – and hope that will make up for our emotional shortfall, but it is only ever a fleeting win, because guess what, unless it’s a really long weekend, those kids will still be there when we get home.
We don’t value your contribution, because not only do we hardly see it, we certainly don’t live it or understand it, and in those fleeting moments that we do experience it, we try to fix it, and 'mansplain' to you how you could do it better: “maybe if you tried it this way, did more of that, less of this, or she likes it when I buy her this or say it like that.” Cue eye rolling and frustration from the wife.
And in a roundabout way, we come to the crux of it – we don’t live this parenting role, because society, or more pertinently, the prevailing labour laws, don’t make it possible for the vast majority of dads.
EQUAL FROM THE START
When my first child was born in Dubai, I had 10 days of paternity leave, and only because the boss who wrote the policy did so prior to his first child arriving and wanted to benefit from some extra holiday. Second time around, I had the standard three days that dads get in Abu Dhabi, but because our new daughter Tabitha was born on a Saturday, that equated to just Sunday and Monday with my family.
Sweden (obviously) has the most generous paternity leave framework going with 90 days of compulsory leave at up to 80 percent of your salary, which can then be topped up with however many days you want out of your wife’s 480 days of 80-percent-paid leave. Like in so many areas, the Scandis know what they are doing.
Research from the US has shown that men who take paternity leave are more hands-on with parenting as the child grows older, as well as taking a more active role in household chores, increasing their wife’s happiness levels. In addition, their children have more gender-balanced views on the world.
The Swedish National Institute of Public Health even found that men who take paternity leave live longer than those who don’t. Above that, though, a decent amount of paternity leave tells society that men – and fathers – are important. That the bonding with the baby isn’t just essential for the mother. What’s more, the patterns that form during the first few months of parenthood (when it’s usually the mother shouldering the burden of night feeds, and the emotional labour of remembering/knowing everything that their child needs), usually become permanent models for our behaviour as a couple.
Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist and consultant psychologist at LightHouse Arabia, says:
“If we reduce dads simply to daddy day care, only good for earning the family income and being rather inept at looking after children, we belittle their role in our children’s lives and perpetuate the idea that dads don’t matter.”
My dad has always worked from home. Forget money, forget holidays, the one thing that I was always certain of is that my Dad was there – we would hang out, we would draw, take the dog for a walk. He’s not the greatest cook, but he would make tomatoes and cucumbers so interesting, cutting shapes into them and putting them together like jigsaws.
Other kids had mums who would drop them off at school in a Range Rover (we had a sturdy Volvo, my brother now owns one and I used to – so I’m not judging – again, gotta love those Swedes), but they would only see their dads at weekends (when not playing golf ).
I crave order, and I crave balance. I rarely achieve either, but I try, and in this respect, I recognise how lucky I am. I work in a job that remunerates me fairly, and which allows me to be home by 5.30pm each day with minimal interruption on my free time. I am also fortunate that my work values family life, above almost everything else. “We all have each other’s back” my CEO tells us, as he walks the floor of the office, serving up guidance and anecdotes and words of encouragement.
I can be flexible with work when there is a children’s appointment with school, or a play or performance, because I can confidently tell my department head the reason, rather than make up a more ‘neutral’ excuse, or I can work from home as I did when my wife was in the latter stages of pregnancy and thought the baby’s arrival was imminent. This is rare, and I am lucky. Most men can be stuck between a rock and a hard place – not wanting to disappoint their families or get into trouble at the office.
I can do all of this and more because my employer puts family first. I am still learning to embrace this myself – I missed my eldest’s first nursery concert because I didn’t ask. It didn’t seem right – but I won’t make that mistake again. Not only will my daughter be delighted to see her dad in the audience, but it is a visible demonstration to my wife that I am putting the family first, and that doing so is not only the duty of the mother.
“Many new fathers are uncertain about what actual fatherhood will mean and require for them” says Helen Williams, a counsellor at MindfulME. “To be cast into the role of main breadwinner without the space and time to ease into new routines means that heightened expectations, changes in their couple’s relationship, the impacts of sleeplessness and the addition of many new chores are taken for granted, while all the attention is focused on the mother-child relationship. This can lead to postnatal depression for the father and this is often greatly overlooked, causing huge stress in the relationship.”
PARENTING FROM THE SIDE-LINE
I suspect for many men it begins in pregnancy. Feeling left out. Not knowing what to do to make the morning sickness go away, being unable to predict or deal with the hormonal mood swings, watching in wonder as your wife gets bigger, growing a baby that is going to change everything – no matter how determined you are to the contrary.
So many men are unwittingly pushed out or away by their wives from the beginning, because it’s easier for them to make up a bottle or pack the changing bag than explain what to do. We’ve all been that dad at the receiving end of the words ‘That’s not how you do it!”, watching them flying out of wife’s mouth before she realises it. And lots of dads will subconsciously resolve not to offer again.
As a society we need to take the father’s parenting role more seriously. To be more inclusive. Like so many stereotypes the ‘useless dad’ trope is both unhelpful (to the target), and based on some level of truth, but we can change attitudes and perceptions, one nappy at a time, one nightfeed at a time. It is easier said than done though.
"I can completely empathise with the dad who takes the long way home from work, because in those five extra minutes of solitude, no-one demands anything from him."
It’s tough to be a working dad. It’s tough to share our fears, our worries – because, let’s face it our wives have enough on their plates. Woe betide us if we are tired, because, well “we don’t know the half of it”. It’s true, we don’t know the half of it, because we live barely a fraction of it, we don’t ask the right questions, but equally perhaps you aren’t forthcoming in making us empathise and understand.
A friend of mine is the daughter of a Naval Officer. Upon returning to England after a tour of duty spent as a submarine commander, the crew were told to take a back seat, and observe for their first few days at home. “Your wife has been doing a good enough job without you for the past six months – don’t think you can swoop in and do it better”.
The point is well made. Look, listen, observe, learn, then do. As male employees, employers, and members of society, we have a responsibility to ensure that in the office being a good dad is seen as important as winning the next big client, or clinching the deal that will make the quarter. We need to normalise parenting, for the good of both working mums and dads, for it to be okay to say we’re taking our kid to the dentist and will be a bit late. For those in power to realise the importance of those first few months of a new baby’s life, both for bonding and supporting each other as a family, but also for dads to navigate this new dynamic, to help them find their place. I know that I am a parent, but I am still desperately seeking the dad that I want to be – and sometimes I just need a little help in finding him.
Nick Farmer and his family: Wife Helen, author of The Mothership DXB blog, and daughters Phoebe and Tabitha.
THE PSYCHOLOGIST SAYS…
“Men often feel deskilled and undervalued and this can have a detrimental impact – not just on their relationship with their children, but also on their relationsihp with their partner – which in turn affects the family dynamic. Dads often talk about feeling unsure of what to do when they have a new baby and ridiculed or criticised when they try to help. Then they collude with the ‘Daddy Daycare’ stereotype, withdraw from their children, and perpetuate it once again. And this is more often than not, the opposite of what they would like. They would like to bond with their children and support their wives. Dads will often report feeling quite invisible after a new baby arrives and that they would like people to ask them how they are doing. They are also going through a huge adjustment following the arrival of a child and will have their own feelings about that and to be involved.”
— Dr Rose Logan – clinical and consultant psychologist, LightHouse Arabia
THE COUNSELLOR SAYS…
“We can help men deal with the pressures of fatherhood by taking their parenting role seriously as well as their breadwinning role, especially in the early weeks. By casting awareness on the emotional pressures, fear, vulnerabilities and anxieties of becoming a new father as well as the joys, we can enable men to unabashedly seek support from family and friends and reach out for professional help and guidance if they need it.”
— Helen Williams, counsellor, Mindful ME
THE WIFE SAYS…
“While many working mums face a similar dilemma, it seems more socially acceptable for them to talk about it. To talk about feeling torn, or eing upset that they’re missing out, not knowing where their place is or how to help... we hear so much about the importance of women getting emotional support after giving birth, but what about the men? There’s still an expectation of keeping a stiff upper lip, of being the strong onewhile the new mum sits in leggings and a nursing bra, weeping over breastfeeding, or lack of sleep, or just anything because it’s all too much. And in the middle of all this, he goes back to work. Quickly. Too fast. There needs to be more compassion and communication between new parents, and more support from the workplace, or families will fracture.”
— Helen Farmer, founder of parenting blog The Mothership