We were on the tram, me and two little boys. It was a Saturday evening in June and the three of us were returning from a football match.
One child was my son, now seven years old, the other his schoolfriend.
Two matronly women noticed the three of us and clicked their tongues approvingly. “You’re a good dad,” one said with a friendly smile, “taking two kids to the footy all by yourself.”
It felt good to get affirmation from strangers about my ability to take small children into public places and have them come out the other side alive. But pride at the public acknowledgement didn’t last long: what if I was a woman? I could have five kids on the tram and no one would bat an eyelid.
A few weeks later I was reading an article on the Huffington Post website about the ”new breed” of engaged fathers, in which the author claimed that “fathers [who] have a screen shot of their kids on their iPhone or desktop … [or] change diapers or babysit while Mom goes out to see a movie or have dinner with her girlfriends” were a sign of just how far things have come in parenting equality.
Really? That’s all I have to do to be a good father? Put a picture of my son on my phone? Well, tick. Babysit my own child? Tick again. How good am I?
Like the tram incident, the initial thrill at meeting this altogether modest standard was soon replaced by a feeling that perhaps fathers everywhere are drowning in a sea of these small pyrrhic victories, living in a world in which every day they are confronted by messages telling them they are not really capable of nurturing and raising children.
It was heartening, therefore, to read that academics like Sydney University’s Professor Charles Areni are attempting to start a debate on the glass ceiling men hit when they aspire to be competent, engaged parents, by equally sharing the load, or going it alone in raising a child.
This idea was pursued in a recent article in the online, progressive Christian magazine Relevant.
“If a man is somewhat engaged with his children and makes some attempt to be present and active in their lives, he is considered a good father,” Peter Chin wrote, ”[but] when someone tells you, or implies, that you can’t do something well, that’s not a cause for celebration. Men should not feel emancipated because everyone believes they are only mildly competent as caregivers. That’s an insult.”
A friend posted the article on Facebook, igniting a vigorous discussion among fathers in my circle who have all experienced a culture around childbirth and parenting that assumes the mother will always be the primary caregiver and the father will only ever be a bit player.
The stories flowed: the maternity ward tour where men were ridiculed because they would “rather be watching footy”; the call to the baby sleep clinic when the dad was asked “doesn’t your wife speak English?”; the stay-at-home father who takes his daughter out in the pram and is asked “Mummy’s got the day off, has she?”; the website that says the parents’ group is “for new mothers”.
My friend’s partner Stewart read all the parenting books before his partner gave birth to their daughter. He stays at home to help raise her, and is as committed a father as I have seen.
”I see many of my peers not understanding where they fit in to their new families,” he wrote. “I was told many times that I would be ‘wanting to get out of the house’ and that it will ‘be such a relief when you get to go back to work’.”
As white, middle-class men, it seems ridiculous to talk about being marginalised. “Man up”, I can hear a thousand frazzled mums scream. “Don’t blame the system because you’re not committed.”
But it’s not as simple as that. Some women would benefit from examining how they often inadvertently shut out their partners from decision-making, while at the same time decrying their lack of engagement.
As one of the first fathers in my group of friends, I remember feeling totally lost and bewildered when my son was born, and having no one to talk to about it. Stewart put it well: I didn’t know where I fitted in.
My son’s mother and I separated not long after his first birthday and are in a successful co-parenting arrangement. The break-up is still a source of great sadness. I wish I had had the strength and confidence to forge a truly equal role for myself as a parent within that relationship.
That said, becoming a single father has been the best thing that could have happened to me in terms of forcing me to become the parent I wanted to be. Like myself seven years ago, I see friends who are starting to have babies but seem similarly unsure about their role but unable to talk about it, for whatever reason.
I want to say to them: don’t believe the television shows that depict all fathers as variations of Homer Simpson; don’t believe the midwives who assume you’re going to run a million miles from a dirty nappy; don’t believe the women on the tram who think a man in charge of more than one child in public is a cause for celebration; don’t believe your mates who try and tell you family life is robbing you of your youth and freedom.
Many people will try to imprison you in a cage of low expectation. It’s tempting to get in there and stay there, but no one wins that way: not us, not our partners, and certainly not our children.
Ben Hart is a public affairs professional.