Gender roles have been slowly changing since the time that women got the vote. Female roles have evolved dramatically over the last 50 years, seeing women being able to reach the top in all professions, and outperform boys on all educational assessments. However women are still yet to emerge from their gender role cocoon to spread their wings and sadly, the men are still on the chomping green leaf stage having made themselves sick with gorging on cupcakes, slices of salami and the like. Whilst women over the last 50 years have been grappling with identity, work-life balance, how they need to adjust/adapt to survive their new role environments, the early men were burying their heads in the sand, adopting the “we can carry on as if nothing has changed” attitude, such that modern men are now needing to play catch-up. Now that women have proved themselves in the workplace, male change is required to follow, and it is men now that need to face the internal struggles and adaptations to keep apace of the new world order.
There has of course been significant change. A father’s duty in the past was to provide financially for the family: the roof over the head, the food on the table. He was the “respected” head of the household, often feared and emotionally distant from his family, using his financial power to dominate. You only have to watch films from the last century to see the difference between fathers of the past and those of the present (try Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and the Sound of Music to name a few). Go even further back and you get versions of Cinderella where Cinderella’s father does not die (as in the Disney version), but is complicit in her enslavement. The funny thing about this is, that Cinderella’s father is never described as being a “wicked” father, that adjective is reserved for the stepmother, as fathers in those days naturally abdicated family matters to their wives and seemingly do not need to get involved even when their child is sleeping in the fireplace and cooking their tea.
My father was a more progressive father than many of his generation. He talked to me about science and encouraged me to write (terrible) poetry as a child, he painted with me, he drew cartoon characters using icing on my birthday cakes, he took me to all my playdates, birthday parties and hospital appointments (as my mother could not drive), he was always home for dinner, he always came on holidays and took pleasure in taking me to my University interviews. That said, there was never any discussion with my mother about whose career was going to be compromised for the children, he didn’t change nappies, he rarely cooked, he didn’t do the laundry, he hardly ever did a school run, he never attended a sports day, he could probably never have named more than one or two of my friends or teachers and there were years in our childhood when he was working abroad. These latter are things that my husband does not have a hope in hell of getting away with. These latter have now become commonplace for modern day fathers.
As women have begun to win at work in significant numbers, so the financial dependence on men within the family and the power this yielded has fallen away. Given that young women are matching their husbands on income, they have begun to question why: they should be the ones to sacrifice their careers, they should be the ones to manage the household, they should be the one to care for their elderly in-laws? Given that there is no legitimate answer to these questions, they have been more able to expect and demand their partners to do more.
Unfortunately, this has led to an identity crisis of sorts for men. For some men of my generation, this pressure to change has come as rather a shock. Brought up by pipe-and-slippers dad and pinny and Sunday roast mum, they had been schooled to believe that their identity and self-worth lay in their career. Their white-haired male bosses with “stay-at-home wives” are even more entrenched in this ideology reinforcing their old-fashioned views. Fearing for their esteem-defining careers, they work ever longer hours citing its’ good is for “the family”. They fear being mocked by their peers for a less prestigious career and being deemed a loser and sexually unattractive by women. They resent their wives’ close relationship with their children and seek to re-assert themselves into the family by authoritarian parenting and old-fashioned discipline. They experience their wives requests to be more involved in the family as “nagging”.
Thankfully, more and more men are rejecting this model of family life and male norm. As a new parent my husband popped in to our neighbour’s fancy dress party with Big Sis in a Baby Bjorn, not bothering with the fancy dress theme. One party guest commented “Hey, great fancy dress idea to come as Suburban Dad” – not realising that the baby was real, this was not fancy dress and that Banker just WAS a suburban dad. So pervasive now is the image of a proud new father walking around with a baby strapped to his chest that it is no longer of comedy value, merely the norm. A baby is worn much as a campaign rosette; a badge of honour and ideology for any man. From Michael McIntyre’s fatherhood repertoire to Jamie Oliver’s family meals in minutes, the remote and respected father figure/ salary-man has definitely been toppled and has hopefully been banished to history. Further, images of desirable male role-models travelling en famille with sexy women on their arms (I’m thinking Pitt and Beckham) are knocking-on-the-head the notion of disrespect for loving and engaged fathers, and contrary to popular belief, I’m pretty sure that the strong and beautiful women of the future will be seeking men happy to roll up their sleeves to change a nappy, not someone for whom to fetch a whisky and the paper for.
I am totally encouraged by the fact that many young men these days have little or no expectation of the traditional gender roles, they wax lyrical about the right spicing for chicken, are forever bursting into tears on Britain’s Got Talent and actively want to be involved with their children. This is thankful as the majority of young women have places to go and careers they aim to achieve. The only stumbling block that I can see is in the corporate world; still run by old male traditionalists who have not yet scanned what is on the horizon – a future workforce pushing for change in work-life balance.
In my children’s eyes, my husband and I are interchangeable parents. He is just as capable as me (although, I still like to think I am a little bit better) of soothing an ailment, of bathing and reading stories, of checking spellings, of watching a school play, of cooking the dinner (although he likes to think he is better at this than me) and doing the laundry. He is just as capable of making my children laugh and understanding their problems, and of asking how they are. I can sleep easy that if I should die, they will be well looked after emotionally, and not left to sweep the fireplace.
To engaged fathers everywhere:
HAPPY FATHERS’ DAY.