Monday, July 27, 2009

Patronising fathers squeezes them out

It’s only a box of reusable nappies, but inside is something that, for me, paints a damning picture about society’s attitude toward fatherhood.

The nappies themselves are fairly straightforward, an outer layer and a cloth inner, which can be folded into an attractive fan shape, much like a display towel in a fancy hotel. Except the hotel towel isn’t expected to “trap liquid poo”. Unless Keith Richards is staying there.

Nonetheless, the instruction booklet is extensive and details just about everything mothers need to know about this particular product. Yes, what mothers need to know. No mention of fathers, or even the gender neutral “parents”. And here lies the problem.

I have been a father for three weeks now, but even before Charlotte came along, I had noticed how every book we read on pregnancy laid out the minimal role the father was supposed to play. Each pregnancy book contains a small section full of patronising advice for fathers. Let me summarise the key points in these books, to save any fathers from reading them:

1. Rein in your animalistic nature and don’t demand sex from your wife until at least six weeks after birth (although nobody advises frequent masturbation as a coping mechanism). Don’t sulk about it.

2. Boobs are now used at mealtime, not playtime. Deal with it.

3. Don’t go in a huff if your wife pays more attention to the baby than you.

4. If your wife is crying due to exhaustion/post-natal depression, don’t just turn up the TV to drown her out. Talk to her or something. Don’t tell her to “dry her eyes” and then go in a huff.

5. If you do make the mistake of trying to change a nappy and screw it up – which you will, because you are a man – don’t go in a huff when your wife shouts at you.

And there you have it. Apparently men are little more than big babies who have to realise they are now being supplanted by a small baby.

Then, as we started to buy baby products, it became clear that everything was geared toward how the mother was going to use the item. After all, a man couldn’t possibly tear himself away from his football/beer/porn mag habit to figure out how to use a steriliser, could he?

Now that Charlotte is here, the same attitudes have come into play from pretty much everyone we know. The assumption is that the father did little more than fire off some sperm nine months ago, probably in a drunken stupor after returning from the pub. Now he is sleeping happily through the night while the harassed mother, ravaged by the trauma of birth, struggles bleary-eyed with a screaming infant and considers throwing herself out the window.

Now, I’m sorry, but I am not that kind of father, and – given half a chance – I expect most men would not be either. I know other men who are as involved as I am: getting up in the night to bring the baby in for breastfeeds (sorry girls, but I can’t produce milk from my hairy ginger nipples, much as I would like to), changing nappies, rocking her when she’s upset, feeding expressed milk, making sure the mother is sleeping, and so on.

The message from friends comes both directly and indirectly: pretty much every single commiseration, gift and word of encouragement is directed exclusively toward the mother. Any kind of comment from the father about the stress or difficulties of the first weeks is treated like a man-flu whine (this is something I have been playing up on by joking about the scab on my hand from Natalie pinching me during labour). I am absolutely sure there are people who will treat this blog entry in much the same way. For these people, let me make it clear: I am in no way attempting to compare the experience of the father to the mother, who is recovering from serious physical and emotional trauma. But fathers are part of the equation all the same.

My point is pretty simple. How can we expect men to be more involved if every single message and cue from society is telling them that their early role is entirely peripheral? If we want fathers to do their bit for their infants, then we have to stop patronising them. As hard as it may be to believe, men can be responsible, emotional, loving and empathetic creatures. Treat them like adults, and you may just be surprised by the response you get.

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