Last year, I took seven months off work to raise my daughter. Apparently, I’m one of the 2% of Dads who take such extended paternity leave here in the UK, and the first within my organisation to do so.
I had a marvellous time. A brutal, exhausting, often tedious, yet marvellous time.
I thought a lot about parenting archetypes – and what my daughter needed – in this time. I felt frustrated by representations of Dads and Mums. There seemed to be clear rules and principles around who Dad is, what Dad provides and what Dad does. Our culture seemed to demarcate and promote certain roles: Dad as Protector, Entertainer, Wizard, Clown; Mum as Caregiver, Nurturer, Sage.
The trouble is that these roles give Dad essentially a part-time job. Fun Dad and Crazy Dad only need to come out a few times a day. Mum seems to get the full-time job. Tender, nurturing love and care are the bread and butter of parenting, but they seem anchored on Mum. Heck, we even have a verb for this: to mother.
It can feel as if culturally, women own parenthood, or at least, the essence of parenthood – nurture, care, love. And that’s a shame, because it means men can feel marginalised from the most rewarding aspects of parenthood, and indeed, of life itself: loving and caring for a child.
When Charlotte was younger, and I was still at work, I very much played the role of the Entertainer. I’d come back from work and spend an hour or two being lively and wacky, singing and playing games. Meanwhile, my partner would rest quietly, and recover her body and mind from spending the day with a baby.
But when I started paternity leave, I took on new roles. I was a Dad in a Mum’s world. I couldn’t just be Protective Dad, Crazy Dad or Clown Dad (though I must say I do excel in the latter role.) I did all the things which historically we tend to associate with Mums: hugs and kisses, soothing, cooking, cleaning, styling + fashion, logistics, intimacy, tenderness, consideration, foresight… I was a lean, mean, parenting machine, goddammit!
Meanwhile, I sensed my partner playing more of the traditionally male role: focusing more on entertaining and wowing our daughter in the limited time she saw her each day, while I quietly collapsed on the sofa in the evenings.
To a point, we’d reversed traditional roles. To a point, it seemed that the parenting archetypes which had frustrated me were just another cultural construct, just another inhibiting, reductive way of making sense of the world.
It all raises a lot of questions, doesn’t it?
Does all this make me a ‘modern’ dad? Does it make me a good father? Has it been better for me, for my daughter, for my relationship with my partner? Or does it just mean that I’m a big softie who’s privileged enough to take seven months off work? Does any impact of parental leave on my career play out differently for me as it might do for women?
And, crucially, might we start talking more to parents, as a unified, reasonably homogenous group, rather than to the separate forces of Mum and Dad, with distinct roles and boundaries? Sure, ‘parents’ isn’t nearly as evocative or emotive a word as ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’, but it does capture the idea that, you know, we’re equal.
I wish we were more like Scandinavia in this country, where shared leave is par for the course. I wish it wasn’t a remarkable, noteworthy thing for Dads to take meaningful time off to raise children. I wish it was natural, normal, typical. I wish, to paraphrase Justin Trudeau, that my taking time off work to raise my daughter was met with a shrug, not raised eyebrows… After all, it’s 2016.