A sexist culture of low expectations is limiting our ideas of fatherhood (The Guardian)

Blame it on my own daddy issues or the sound of the Daily Mail counting down my biological clock, but I have to admit I have a soft spot when it comes to dads. Be it a cringeworthy Facebook comment from a friend’s proud father or the mere sight of a man playing peekaboo with a giggling baby on a train, my heart instinctively melts for a man carrying out the bare minimum of his parenting duties, while I largely take for granted the many millions of mothers doing the same.

The problem is, of course, that this reaction is not so much about me as it is about societal gender norms and resulting expectations of what a family and its constituent parts should look like. These are the standards that see dads looking after their own children described as “babysitting” while mums are met with raised eyebrows for daring to venture outside for an evening.

They’re the cliches of subservient housewives and reliable breadwinners, the foundations for a society that says the best citizens are raised by heterosexual, anodyne parents who spend the entirety of their offspring’s childhood asking each other how their day has been.

And they’re the stereotypes that I fear research released this week by Oxford University could be used all too easily to reinforce.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, uses data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to analyse the influence of fathers on the behaviour of their children at various points in their lives. Ultimately, say the researchers, the children of fathers who are confident and secure in their parenting role and who form an early, strong bond with their offspring are less likely to experience behavioural problems in later life.

So far, so agreeable: good fathering, in short, has a positive impact on the children benefiting from it. A focus on the role of fathers is also refreshing amid decades of research and conjecture culminating in a creative range of ways to criticise women for the raising of their children. On top of which, at a time of a widely acknowledged masculinity crisis, reassurances about the positive effects of men’s emotional availability should be welcomed.

These findings, though, are framed in terms that are all too familiar, and frustratingly convenient for a sexist status quo. The conclusions, for example, are said to “suggest that it is psychological and emotional aspects of paternal involvement in a child’s infancy that are most powerful in influencing later child behaviour and not the amount of time that fathers are engaged in childcare or domestic tasks in the household”.

Men are offered their pick of a false dichotomy between emotional involvement and practical responsibility; if the children are unwashed and thirsty, it’s just because you were too emotionally invested in them.

Perhaps most pertinently, it’s difficult to imagine a woman being afforded the luxury of an “either/or” when it comes to loving and caring for children versus feeding, watering and cleaning them – all duties seen as integral to the role of a mother.

The researchers do suggest that “involved fathers may influence children indirectly by being a source of instrumental and emotional support to mothers who provide more of the direct care for children”, something that seems a particularly strong argument for the equal distribution of domestic tasks – but the lines falsely drawn between emotional parenting and domestic work precludes this conclusion from being easily reached.

The relationship of women to families and the domestic sphere they inhabit is a crucial battleground in the feminist fight, and one that will be won only by interrogating the roles of both mothers and fathers accordingly. But this necessarily requires questioning the stereotypes attached to men too.

While a conversation about the role of fathers is long overdue, the idea that a strong, “confident” male figure is crucial in the development of happy and well-behaved children is hardly new; indeed it invokes age-old stereotypes about wise old patriarchs and off-the-rails teenagers who would have been all right if it hadn’t for the absence of a strong male role model.

With 1.8 million single mothers in the UK, it seems time to look past a storybook male breadwinner for the answers.

For all the discussions of objectivity and neutrality associated with scientific research, it remains the product of the society in which it exists. Families come in many shapes and sizes in 2016, but traditional gender roles endure. Mothers deserve better than the restrictive yet overwhelming expectations they are laden with; fathers deserve better than the patronising one-dimensional image of them as cavemen unable to grapple with domestic life.

Most important, their children deserve better than a society so reliant on tired and oppressive gender norms that operate to everyone’s detriment.

Originally published on The Guardian

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