A new vision of man has emerged since lockdown, one with a baby under one arm, bottle in the other, scanning the day’s schedule of activities to shoulder the mental load while at the same time handling the metaphorical Sisyphaen boulder that is the overflowing family washing basket.
Well, things were certainly looking that way during the first lockdown last year when the Office for National Statistics reported a 58% increase in childcare by men. Anecdotally we at the website I run, The Book of Man, were hearing from dads and men’s organisations that one of the consolations of a tragic year was a reassessment of what was valuable in life, and that against a backdrop of mass death, wasn’t living and engaging with your immediate family the priority?
The shift towards working from home, which looks like one of the changes to our lives which will remain at least to some degree or another now that technology has proved it is possible, and even desirable, in terms of making flexible working fit each individual. Fatherhood undoubtedly will be a key consideration for men in this; however, the issue is that society’s conception of fatherhood is flawed.
One of the funny/not funny moments in the handling of the pandemic came when the government released, and then hastily withdrew, an ad for ‘Stay Home. Save Lives’ which depicted women ironing, mopping and home-schooling while the only man shown was sitting on the sofa. It was an interesting insight into the patriarchy in action: not an evil cabal, but a thick (in every sense) wall of old attitudes that for women must be exhausting to scramble over again and again.
But was the ad also unnervingly accurate? Later in 2020 the ONS reported that the apparent novelty had waned and women were taking up much of the slack at home – during the first lockdown women were still spending 55% more time on unpaid childcare, which increased to 99% more time by October. Pertinently, women were also doing more housework in this time, 44% more rising to 64% over time. Because here’s the thing: cultural motherhood ‘ideals’ involve taking care of domestic duties, as well as the actual childcare. Whereas fatherhood ideals are about the kickabouts, family outings, movie nights – the fun glory stuff, not the nitty gritty. We like to take care of Sunday lunches not the daily lunch grind of pressing variations of toast shapes into tight kiddie mouths.
As I examine in my new book You Are Not The Man You Are Supposed To Be (Bloomsbury Continuum) there needs to be a reassessment of masculinity which encompasses a different kind of approach to fatherhood. One where the gender lines are not so trad, not so heteronormative, with gender roles from the 1950s still lingering. One of the positive aspects of recent years is that men are finally questioning gender expectations in the way that women have for a long time; and mental health discussion has been the doorway to questioning masculinity. Male suicide has been the stimulus to changing the way men live and act, and a key part is encouraging men to be more involved at home, and not be ashamed of it, in a world which expects them to be work hard, play hard Alphas. In turn this would free women up for their own career progression.
This has been a long-time coming, and even if we haven’t changed parental behaviour entirely in lockdown, the process has surely sped up. The flexible working revolution is happening, and men want to be involved as well. For the dads, more time spent with the children is a big part of that; the challenge, then, is to give ‘fatherhood’ the full ‘motherhood’ overhaul, mental load and all. Surely most dads can see now, we’re all in it together…
You Are Not the Man You Are Supposed to Be by Martin Robinson (Bloomsbury Continuum, out 18th February 2021) is available at Bloomsbury.com and at all good bookshops.