For all the talk of equal parenting in the modern world, childcare still has a distinctly maternal feel to it. While gender equality is an assumed part of twenty first century life, when it comes to child-rearing, we may not be quite as enlightened as we'd like to think.
Too many dads exclude themselves from a range of parenting duties. And even for fathers who eagerly embrace the role, the odds appear to be stacked against them, with token paternity leave and an entire childcare industry manifestly aimed squarely at just one parent.
This lack of parenting parity can be extremely damaging. For mums, shouldering massive parental responsibility can be the source of deep resentment, while for dads the very same inequality can mean the desperate disappointment of unfulfilled fatherly ambitions. The time has come to make sure that dad's role is no longer an open question.
The demands of parenting in the modern world have altered dramatically within a generation. Many couples today find that both parents must now work, while extended families are rarely found round the corner to offer help. Yet, the parenting unit has been slow to adapt. Too often, fathers remain stuck in traditionally aloof, limited roles, when in fact all hands are required on deck.
The responsibility to change this damaging discord begins at home.
It is no secret that fathers often find themselves tied to the umbilical cord of the office during the waking hours of their child's early days. But when they do get home, things are often no better. And it is especially at night where the parenting imbalance is perhaps most pronounced.
Sleep deprivation has become the curse of modern childcare, with parents mistakenly assuming that exhaustion is the norm. This is particularly so for fatigued mums, for whom feeding is commonly their exclusive domain. After all, what can breast-less dads really contribute? And in any case, with mum on maternity leave and dad getting up early for work, many parents figure it's probably for the best.
There is even a growing trend for parents to sleep in separate rooms for fear that hard-working dad's beauty sleep will be interrupted. However, these seemingly convenient arrangements are thoroughly unsustainable, especially if mum plans to eventually return to the workplace. The inevitable result is an exhausted mother unable to perform optimally at work or at home and a father ill-equipped to offer a helping hand.
But the problem rests not only with lazy fathers, who undoubtedly do exist. There are of course plenty of dads who don't want to be an accessory parent, even in the small hours of the night. They crave greater involvement and would happily prepare a night-time bottle or bring their baby to mum for a feed.
Quite often, though, this is outweighed by the fear of upsetting the feeding routine. The sanctity of this mother-child bonding experience has been drilled into them. Their exclusion from feeding may also be fuelled by reluctant mums unwilling to give up the reins. And all too easily, this night-time arrangement becomes the template for a wide menu of parental tasks. After all, if dad doesn't have an equal responsibility at night, when he is guaranteed to be at home, how can he be expected to contribute his fair share at other times?
In reality, mums can't have a monopoly on parenting and still expect their partner to be fully involved. Mothers and fathers alike need practical, personal help and support to create a parenting equilibrium that works for them at all hours of day and especially at night.
Of course, if we really want fathers to thrive, the change needed is not solely individual. A significant societal shift is also required to rectify the unbalanced parenting assumptions which are taken for granted. When was the last time you saw an advertising campaign for baby products which featured men as anything more than decoration to the real graft of female-driven parenting? And how many times have you ever seen baby changing facilities in the men's bathroom?
As for dads who regularly collect their kids from daycare, how can they feel anything other than the odd one out? The barely disguised message for fathers is clear. They aren't expected to be involved in the nitty-gritty of everyday childcare.
Governments of course must do their bit. The most obvious reform would be more generous paternity leave. In Quebec, where paternity leave was recently increased, fathers found that the experience of being a stay-at-home dad compelled them to take on extra parenting duties after they returned to work.
And there are other reforms which governments can introduce, with too many infant development services and official parenting programs often designed without fathers in mind.
Others, too, must also shoulder responsibility to generate real change. Employers rarely exhibit the same flexibility towards fathers as they do towards mothers. If bosses were to routinely offer dads the same opportunity for flexible hours as they often do for mums, it would surely have a profound impact in making care-giving a social norm for dads.
The consequences of a reduced role for fathers hardly needs spelling out. It can be devastating for couples, a constant point of tension which inevitably chips away at their relationship. And as for the most important people of all, the children themselves, they too are left short-changed. A significant body of research shows that a fully involved father is likely to boost his child's development. Yet, research also reveals that the time that dads typically spend with their babies is increasing only very slowly and is mainly confined to 'traditional' fatherly tasks such as playing and diaper-changing.
The scope of fatherly responsibility must be drastically increased. The solution is a bottom-up process. If parents don't demand equanimity, then there is little reason for governments and employers to put the tools in place which would make it a reality. Sweden offers an extraordinary 480 days of joint post-natal leave. The government offers bonuses to those couples who split the time equally between parents. And yet, only 12 percent do so.
The bottom line is that parents must take responsibility and guard against mum taking on the lion's share of childcare duties, even during the night, when the division of labour is most commonly skewed. Labels such as 'modern dad' and 'superdad' are often used to express surprise at fathers hungry for involvement in every facet of their child's upbringing. Yet this should be the standard rather than the exception. Failure to empower fathers at all hours of day and night spells a damaging lost opportunity for entire families.
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