More men are raising children on their own. Some women don't like itby Tony Gordon / November 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Three years ago, I became a single (male) parent and the primary carer of my children who were then three-and-a-half and five years old. This was because of the departure of my former wife from the family home, followed by a legal battle which ended in court. Custody was awarded to me. I am lucky to have flexible work arrangements, and having shared actively in their care from birth I did not find the practical arrangements at all difficult. What has been difficult to deal with is the sexism I have encountered as a man in a woman’s world.
I constantly run up against the assumption that women are the best carers of children, that only they have the patience, the practical intelligence, gentleness and empathy which are essential in raising children. I discovered that just as there remains a substantial group of men who believe that women are not really competent in “male” jobs-and who resent it when they are-a substantial number of women both resent it and feel threatened when they see men take on the main child-rearing role. I have stumbled upon a whole culture found in children’s books, in school circulars, in the different treatment by (mainly) women teachers and mothers of boys and girls, and in much of the school gate chatter. I call this culture “mummery.” It lies at the core of female sexism, the counterpart of male “chauvinism.”
In political circles, it is always assumed that the single parent is a mother struggling with childcare and work, despite the fact that 10 per cent of single parents in Britain are now men. In a statement about the work of the Child Support Agency, Harriet Harman recently said she would ensure that the CSA chased absent fathers to make a contribution to child maintenance. Quite right. But what about absent mothers, who are equally or even more likely (according to one lawyer) to avoid financial responsibility? Will they also be pursued?
Breakdown of marriage is invariably portrayed as the father baling out-but there are many instances, and their occurrence is bound to increase, when it is the mother who departs, leaving the children with the father. In a recent issue of Prospect (April 1997) Suzanne Franks, discussing the effect on children of having a working mother (not father), opened her article thus: “Forget fathers. There is no term ‘working father,’ for men still are their work. And conversely, a man with no work is not really a man-and increasingly less desirable as a father. No, this is a woman’s problem.” The tone is smart, brisk, matter of fact, practical common sense. Had a male journalist written the equivalent about women, Franks and other female journalists would have been apoplectic with indignation. Is a woman with a job not really a woman? Is a woman without an income “less desirable” as a mother?
One manifestation of “mummery” is the assumption in children’s books that the main carer is and should be the mother. We might expect this in old books. Af-ter all, there are no female characters flying Spitfires in the Biggles books and no males baking scones in Enid Blyton (although George-or Georgina-in The Famous Five is an interesting char-acter, foil to timid, frilly Anne). But throughout the enormous array of wonderful modern children’s books I have never encountered a literary representation of the single father (and his children). Women rightly complain about books which stereotype occupational roles, but I have yet to hear a woman object to this bias in the area of child-rearing. Moreover, most school circulars, newsletters and announcements in assembly still assume that the main carer is and should be the mother. Even though this is generally the case, why should language continue to entrench it? Do women not object when it is assumed (in books or life) that certain jobs are for men only?
Another aspect of mummery concerns the way boys and girls are disciplined at school. My children attend an excellent infant school. Disciplinary policy is sound. There are positive rewards for good behaviour; any pushing, kicking, punching or bullying is dealt with quickly and firmly. The culprits are deprived of their playtime and have to stand next to the teacher on playground duty. Sometimes they are sent to the head teacher. They do not like it and the treatment generally works.
It is almost always the boys who are sent to the head teacher because they are more likely to do the punching and shoving. But as I observed my daughter and her girlfriends at play, and listened to their chatter, I realised how vicious girls could be, to each other and to the boys. Their capacity to wind up the boys and get them into trouble took my breath away. I was taken aback by the extent to which six-year-old and seven-year-old girls can exclude other girls, be spiteful and mean, and inflict intense bursts of emotional pain (and perhaps long-term harm?) on their peers. These exclusions and torments can last a lot longer than the playground punch or shove, yet behaviour of this kind is seldom punished in the same way. Rarely (if ever) is a culprit sent to the head teacher for such an offence.
When I raised this informally with the teachers, most seemed a bit edgy. They argued that it was difficult to spot cause and culprit, that such instances were not as serious as a playground punch and soon passed. Only one teacher agreed, and said candidly that her daughters were especially bad in that respect. They said things to each other or their friends which were meant to hurt very deeply-and did.
I often notice a similar practice in mothers dealing with sons and daughters. They are firm with boys when they kick, but merely tut-tut their daughters when they intentionally hurt their friends or siblings in word or deed: “Now then, Charity, that’s not a nice thing to say.” Of course emotional pain is much harder to spot and to deal with than a punch, but that is no excuse for not trying to treat it with the same seriousness and urgency as physical pain.
This difference in treatment is reinforced by another phenomenon. Women commonly complain about the aggressive competitiveness of sport and the way it infiltrates into so many other areas of life. Yet they seem to do little to curb or counteract its influence-on boys especially. I am constantly surprised at how few mothers consciously encourage their boys’ exposure to other interests such as cookery or the arts, and how content many women seem to be to socialise boys to be boys and girls to be girls.
Could it be that many women feel profoundly threatened by the logic of equality and the way it undermines their realm of power around the hearth? Could it be that while the women’s movement has been keen to open up traditionally male domains to greater female participation, conventional womanhood is rather less keen to have traditionally female domains opened up to male participation?
Could it be that decent, ordinary mothers fear that their boys will turn out to be “pansies,” or that their girls will join the boiler suit brigade? Do they want their boys to succeed and their girls to be attractive? Could it be that women do not really want the “new man,” just as many men are uneasy with the power-dressed “new woman”? Is it possible that in the broad culture of woman- hood there remains a deep psycho-sexual preference for “old man,” for the sharp antinomies of Tarzan and Jane, and that this is expressed in how they bring up their children?
Perhaps, too, for some more affluent middle-class women, the household is a preferred area of work and self-expression. After all, one way of hanging on to an advantage is to declare it off-bounds to others. And why not? If you did not need to go out to work, would you? With a partner generating a decent stream of income, think of what you could do. In addition to more flexible and less stressful child-rearing, you could spend lots of time in the garden in the summer, meet friends for coffee, do regular aerobics, shop in up-market delis, pay the occasional visit to the local Turkish baths with your pals and still enjoy the cultural and intellectual offerings of the nearest large city.
Women have long complained about the limitations of male conversation. They have a point. But judging from my experience at the school gate women’s conversations are generally no better than male discussions about spark plugs and the World Cup. There are the endless “so-she-says-and-I-says” conversations, complaints about shop assistants and the permanent hum of low-level bitching. These are not dialogues. Taken in turn, one after the other, they form a chain of indignant monologues in which the speaker usually portrays herself as victim.
Moreover, just as women maintain that men do not treat them as equals when they enter male- dominated occupations, I have discovered that women find it hard to treat me with the kind of uncomplicated equality which they justly expect for themselves. Perhaps they are wary because I fought for and won custody of my children, as if in some sense the court’s decision was a criticism of women in general. I do not know; maybe I am over-sensitive. But conversations often pause and shift subtly-as women notice when they walk into an all-male office or shop floor. Women claim that they feel the need to excel when they enter hitherto male-dominated settings. I found myself becoming very conscious of being carefully observed, and was therefore determined to be, and seen to be, an excellent parent by all the conventional criteria. My children are clean, their clothes neat, their shoes polished and their manners as good as can be expected. They are never late for school and we seldom forget recorders or PE gear. I help out at the school when I can, sometimes with the computers or in the library, or assisting with face-painting at the school fair. I encourage my children to invite their friends home to play after school and at weekends, and to have them to stay for lunch or dinner. We are now continually asked to take Johnny to school or to collect Jenny. I have made a point of being as self-sufficient as possible by not seeking help or support, probably to my cost. But I can see now why women do the same when they enter the male world.
I should add that I have always had iron-clad support from close friends, both male and female. Some mothers, whether single or married, working or home-based, immediately treated me as an equal. Over time, I found that others lost some of their reserve and awkwardness, and we now talk more as friends and equals-as primary carers. But this took a long time in some cases (as women often describe their experiences at work), and did not extend to all of them. A rump of reserve remains. Why? Is there a sense of threat that a man has entered a predominantly female world? Is it a sense of sexual propriety? Is it because women prefer male-free space (no less than men appear to prefer female-free spaces) and the bulk of daytime parenting activities have normally provided this? Whatever the reasons, it is clear that many women do not find it easy to accept men on equal terms.
I grew up with the assumption that women were the natural carers, that they had the special skills and temperament for it. My experience of parenthood-of both the conventional kind and then as a single male parent-has made me revise that view dramatically. As time goes by I find myself complaining about the absent female parent in the same way that I have often heard single mothers talk about the absent male parent. After visiting their mother, the children often return exhausted (having been allowed to stay up half the night); it takes me almost a week to get them back to normal. Or, having stayed up all hours, they fall asleep in the car on the journey home and do not settle for ages at bedtime, which leaves them shattered for school the next day. Regularly, they return with a bag of dirty washing for me to deal with. Key items of clothing or a specially loved toy are often forgotten or mislaid.
The ability to be a good parent is no more an attribute of gender than is driving a car. Some people are good at it, some aren’t. Some prefer to do a lot of it, some don’t. The skills are not gender-specific but common to us all. All the technical aspects can be learned. As women have moved into worlds traditionally dominated by men-especially in commerce and the professions-they have commonly adopted the same attitudes as men. In these jobs and roles many women also seem to lose the unconscious understanding which is crucial for interpreting what children are doing, saying and feeling. It is hardly surprising that this should be so.
Conversely, the unfolding experience of being a single male parent has uncovered capacities which I never knew were there-of patience, play, intui-tion, encouragement, demonstrative affection. Of course it is still the case that few men choose to take on the main parenting role, whether single or not. More’s the pity. Many who might, simply cannot take it on because their work patterns do not allow it. Others cannot afford to. But most prefer not to. Much the same was said of women in relation to the traditional male occupations. But, these conside-rations apart, men don’t know what they are missing. If indeed (as the BT advert says) we can change the way we work, then perhaps greater flexibility will enable more men to become active parents. For all the tedium of ironing late at night, of preparing school sandwiches, of sorting out squabbles over felt-tipped pens, there is an immense joy and creative challenge in seeing children grow up happily and get about the world.
If social and family roles are to become less gender-based, then the more men who get involved as active parents-whether single or not-the better. Women have benefited greatly from the freedom, the choices and opportunities which have accompanied advances in equality. An increasing number choose not to become-or to remain-a parent. The necessary consequence of this is that more men should take on the role. But watch out, brothers! For just as many of you will be reluctant to do so, those who do will encounter resistance from a female culture with its own deeply rooted forms of sexism.