A recent British Equal Opportunities Commission survey found that four out of five working men would be happy to swap their jobs for the role of main child carer. Fair enough, and clearly a step in the right direction, but — and I hate to break the news, guys — there’s a catch, and it’s halo shaped.
What these putative ”house- husbands” (surely one of the worst words in the world, ever) must realise is that the day they reach for the wipes and the changing mat is the day they ascend to sainthood. Full- blown, copper-bottomed, unquestionable marvellousness. And I know whereof I speak. I’ve been there and I’ve got the T-shirt, even if I’ve had to stop wearing it because it’s covered in snot and cereal.
I stayed at home with all three of our children when they were babies, primarily because, as I work from there, it was by far the most convenient thing to do, but also because it didn’t strike either of us as being any kind of a big deal. Other people, however, didn’t agree. And when I say other people, I mean women. And when I say women, I mean mothers. Those who did exactly the same thing as I was doing, and probably without a second thought about the fact that they were doing so, regarded my familial ministrations as an act of Mandela-esque fortitude.
”Aren’t you good?” became the stock response, to which I would reply: ”Yes, I’m very good. In fact, I’m wonderful.”
There’s not much you can say to being told how great you are for doing something that you yourself take more or less for granted. The assumption of my saintly goodness often seemed to be based on the premise that I was child-rearing in lieu of some dazzlingly vibrant career, rather than because it was the role nature had confined me to. That, in obvious contrast to the average mum, I was risking all by taking a break from thrusting and hustling and all the other exciting things that Real Men with Proper Jobs get up to. The truth, in fact, was that, as a writer, I didn’t have to put my career to one side to do the parent thing, I just had to twist it into slightly different shapes.
Occasionally, while debating over the phone with some editor or other the merits of the heavy sarcasm inherent in my opening paragraph, I would feel a slight unease at the other end of the conversation over the high-pitched voice in the background, repeatedly piping, ”I’ve pooed, Daddy, and it’s smelly”, but, conversely, interviews with ”real people” tended to flow more naturally, with the obvious presence of small children rendering me less a journalist and more a ”human being”. Even after I’d explained to people that I wasn’t making the vast sacrifice they assumed and that it’s possible to pen a scathing critique of laissez-faire free-market capitalism while bouncing a yelling tot upon the knee — that, if anything, it makes the piece a tad sharper — there still seemed to be the assumption that I, as a man, was giving up some basic freedom.
The company of children was deemed all right for women, but not really good enough for a man. I must find it a terrible strain not being blokey and macho and high achieving and stuff. In truth, I’d take the company of kids over adults any day.
”You must find it hard, though,” mothers would say and, were I paranoid, I’d assume the subtext was ”since you’re making such a bad job of it”, but this wasn’t the case. I was plainly making a reasonable job of it, and wasn’t that fantastic of me?
While I might have half expected to be greeted with a degree of puzzle-ment or some suspicion, all that happened was that I was told how brilliant I was by someone else who went through precisely the same parental exertions but did so without being in possession of a penis, and was therefore merely doing the least that could be expected.
By now, I imagine some of you are wondering what on earth I’m complaining about. Yes, it is quite pleasant being told how great you are all the time, just as long as you don’t make the mistake of taking any notice of it. My point is that if women want men to take more of an active hand in the raising of children, and I’m sure they do, then they ought to start treating the relatively few who do the same way as they treat all the other mums they meet.
Raising kids may well be the most important/difficult/fantastic job you can do (frequently all at once), but it doesn’t become any more so because you’ve got stubble. If you’re a mum it’s like breathing, it’s just what you do, and the same should be true of dads. And I’ll have to leave it there because my halo needs a polish. — Ã‚