Dads need to know their worth as a parent
Too many fathers are made to play second fiddle to mothers in an unhelpful yet reinforced stereotype of parenting
If images of parenting within nuclear families are anything to go by, the respective roles of a mother and father are fairly established. Think of traditional families from television or movies and the roles are always the same. The mother is the ‘lead parent’. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the children’s clothing and shoe sizes, she knows when immunisations are due, is aware of all of their idiosyncrasies and generally comes across as the proficient parent.
In contrast, the father takes his lead from her and is happy to take a back seat in parenting. He’s good for assembling their toys and decorating their rooms. And he’s probably the disciplinarian of the two. But he lacks the confidence and ability of the mother and can appear clueless in her absence when it comes to even the basics of parenting. Furthermore, he’s largely content in that role; happy to have minimal input into parenting decisions and relinquishing some of his parental prerogative in the process.
This image is incredibly archaic. Although it’s managed to be somewhat enduring in shaping modern parenting and in images of modern fatherhood. A Philadelphia commercial was banned for gender stereotyping inept dads and even the dad in Peppa Pig is shown as a buffoon in contrast to his competent wife.
Dads today are undoubtedly more involved than the dads of yesteryear. But compared to mums, there is still an imbalance where many dads aren’t considered equal partners in parenting. And sadly, they don’t see themselves as equal partners either. It’s doubly unhelpful for same-sex couples where two fathers can wrongly be seen as a pair of second-tier parents.
Despite the progress made in the extent to which modern dads are involved with their children, for many, they still effectively play second fiddle to the mum. They lack the confidence to play their position as a father as effectively as a mum fulfils her role. Thus, they relegate themselves as a parent.
The narrative that leads to this starts long before a child is born. Firstly, there’s the social conditioning we’re all subject to that tells us we should be subscribing to an expected maternal and paternal role.
When my wife was pregnant, I knew it was time to assume the role of Daddy. With every day that our due date approached, I could feel that. But when my son was actually here and in my arms as a newborn, that’s when I really felt like a dad. Whereas for my wife, she was a mother long before.
As a man, I can’t fathom the bond my wife had with our son before he was born. He was growing inside her and that’s a connection I can’t assimilate. Moreover, like many women, her maternal instinct existed long before she even became pregnant. On that basis, her preparedness as a parent came long before mine.
That isn’t something we need to lament. Indeed, it’s something we should accept and support given the mental, emotional and physical experience that pregnancy can present for women. Nevertheless, that ‘lead-in’ time of feeling maternal essentially means dads are often playing catch-up in portraying themselves as a parent in equal standing. Even before birth, many dads are experiencing inequality in who the lead parent is and understandably so.
Then there’s parental leave. In the UK, parental leave can now be shared between parents. That’s in contrast to the default paltry two-week paternity leave and up to a year off on maternity leave. Yet unfortunately, many couples still decline to take this up, instead sticking with the status quo. It means many mums take the lead as during working hours, they’re likely to be alone and the responsibility of their child will fall to them.
That can mean twelve months of immersing yourself into the role of being a parent. It’s an extended period where you can get to know the baby’s patterns and likes and dislikes. To initiate and maintain routines. To organise the baby’s clothes and the baby bag. To recognise the nuances in crying. To identify favourite toys. Mothers can’t be blamed for taking the lead when this is their reality while on maternity leave. Of course, all of that information can all be shared with the dad but it’s not the same as experiencing it yourself and it can leave you feeling like the lesser parent.
While I would consider myself an involved dad, I felt this. I didn’t know which compartment in the baby bag had the muslins. I would often have to ask my wife where things were and I felt I should have been able to locate things with the same ease that she did. It was bad enough that I effectively felt like an absent dad during working hours but now it was apparent. I was being deskilled as a parent and I wasn’t leading on anything. My wife exclusively breastfed, a decision that we shared and that I supported and respected, so I couldn’t even feed my son unless we pumped. And when we started weaning, again, it was something that my wife established and maintained largely when I was at work.
All of this was compounded by my lack of confidence as a dad. Could I look after him while my wife was out? Would I know what to do if my wife wasn’t present? Could I confidently take him out alone?
But at some point, something just hit me that I was a dad and therefore I had to know. I had to learn. I couldn’t shirk away from anything, even if that meant taking myself out of my comfort zone. And I had to assert myself as an equal parent.
I started taking my son out without my wife, not only to give her some respite but also in playing catch-up for the time I didn’t have while she was on maternity leave. Now he’s a toddler, we even go for brunch together while my wife gets a break and I do the nursery run en route to and from work.
Once he was solids, I would feed my son breakfast before I left for work. Bathtimes and bedtimes typically became my domain and I sleep trained him. I had to refute the notion that I would be the ‘second in charge’ parent. I would be equal; an image my wife and I want our son to see and one that helps to ensure our parenting doesn’t reinforce unhelpful stereotypes or an unequal division of parenting labour.
Parenting isn’t just a list of discrete tasks that parents share before putting their feet up. There’s enough involved in parenting for both of us to feel equally involved. But it isn’t possible if dads aren’t able to find their confidence as a parent.
The lack of confidence is something many dads feel. Sidelined from parenting, they lack the confidence to to be equal to their partner. Admittedly, some dads embrace that, content with the lack of involvement and happy to let their partners take the lead. Meanwhile, some dads are marginalised by mums who perpetuate the traditional roles and don’t allow dads to find their feet or their confidence. I’ve seen mothers talk down to fathers when it comes to discussing their child, as if their opinion or decision lacks less weight. Unfortunately, both scenarios leave many dads playing a lesser role as a parent.
Being a parent should be a gender neutral role but too many dads are denying themselves the opportunity to be equal parents. The idea that dads shouldn’t have parity in parenting with mums is an archaic one. More parents need to recognise the value of being a dad as equal to that of being a mum.