At the ripe old age of 51, I was thrust into the role of a full-time dad to my 2yo daughter Charlie when her mum suddenly moved away.
I couldn’t be more amazed at the little dweeb that I’m now the example to. I am also aware, thanks to viewing the world from Charlie’s perspective, that we are striving to make gains in gender equality, not only in the workplace but also in society. Hopefully, if Charlie becomes a mum one day, instead of rigid roles, parenthood by then, will provide men and women with a space to explore themselves, as it has done for me as a sole parent.
Charlie, is growing up in a time and place where she has full control over her reproductive rights, can marry her partner regardless of their gender, be – another female Prime Minister and most importantly- to me, even be a professional AFL footballer (as long as she plays for Essendon that is).
My daughter should be able to achieve all of this without the first question being asked “How will you manage this with a family’ – this is not something that high-achieving men are ever asked.
We’ve always heard about amazing single mother’s and the sacrifices and successes they have raising their kids. Why then at the age of 51, did I suddenly wonder if I was the only Unicorn in the village?
What led me down the path of becoming a writer, speaker and an advocate for equality? After all, I became a first-time dad to Charlie at 49yo, and that definitely changed everything for the better after a misspent youth as a bachelor.
What changed my perspective and made me feel like I was the only Unicorn in the village?
It started off with simple playground visits –outings that we regularly enjoyed.
As a first-time nervous dad with absolutely no idea of what I was doing, these outings were planned like a well- oiled black ops field trip and the baggage resembled that of a World War I field hospital, I know there is lot of head nodding in agreement, we’ve all seen “that” parent.
I would pack into an all-terrain pram, that was obviously designed and built to enable high speed running (even though I’m definitely not!), that cost more than the car I drove, enough organic, U-beaut baby food to sustain us for 3 days (all packed with freezer blocks in a Hi-Tec, NASA certified cool bag), plus various “superfood”, Paleo, sugar free snack options in case an impromptu tasting platter was more suitable for bubs? Plus, enough water, hand sanitiser, sterile wipes and various first aid accessories to survive any wild animal attack, insect, spider or venomous snake bite or even the sudden onset of Ebola. Add to that, approximately 17 nappies, three complete changes of colour coordinated, cute as could be outfits, all suitable and necessary for any variation in UV index, temperature, climate or worst of all, a misaligned, defective or simply overflowing nappy!!
The one issue that we did have however, was that of simple logistics – NO CHANGE TABLES in the men’s toilets, at a park! Apparently, men don’t take toddlers to the park? Have I not read the “training toddlers to only fill a nappy at home” section of some manual that other dads had?
This meant that I would have to take my chances on a blanket under a tree (weather permitting), or balancing a squirming, faecally challenged infant on my lap like some daring circus juggler, or in the boot of my car … much to the misfortune of passing spectators that would witness the final destination of the mashed vegetables, teething husks and a variety of unidentified food scraps from the floor that Charlie had somehow managed to beat the dog to!
On one such occasion, some “wonderful” ladies, “suggested” I should be changing Charlie in the male toilets on the change tables provided for just such an occasion? The funny thing was, the “considerate” ladies made me realise, there ARE change tables in the women’s toilets but NOT the men’s.
At least the powers that be had the foresight to retrofit syringe disposals in the men’s toilets. This made me wonder, are men more likely to be drug users than fathers? Do dad’s not take their kids to the park? Or is changing a nappy simply women’s work? Could it be I’m the only Unicorn in the village?
While on one of these excursions I – being a doting dad with the stealth like ability of a David Attenborough wildlife cameraman, was snapping photos of my baby girl in the natural habitat of the chid, the playground ( I am her number 1 fan – after all) when a very disgruntled woman stormed over and demanded as to why I was taking photos of ‘the child’….. the look on her face when I informed her that she was actually MINE… LOL!!!!! Apparently, I AM the only Unicorn in the village.
Numerous times Charlie and I casually ventured into the parent’s room only to be asked why we were there (I naively thought it would be obvious) because apparently, a Unicorn makes it difficult for “real” parents to breastfeed, who knew?
Are there some secretive rituals being performed in a parent’s room that dads have not been suitably licenced, certified and registered with the correct agency to be part of? Maybe I am the only Unicorn in the village?
There was one time however, as I walked into the parent’s room at our local shopping centre that I garnered more than the usual quizzical, suspicious glances. It wasn’t until I’d pushed the button to slide the door closed that I realised I didn’t actually bring Charlie to the shops with me that day! I beat a hasty, embarrassed retreat trying not to make eye contact as I exited.
Aren’t I simply a parent? Surely no more or no less than any other parent? We’ve removed the gendered terms from so many areas in our modern PC world, we now have Police Person, Chair Person, Fire Person and titles such as Male Nurse are long gone and the list goes on.
Yet we still have offensive terms such as “Deadbeat Dad” instead of “Deadbeat Parent” when the proportion of mothers saying no child support was paid was about the same whether they were payees or payers (12% and 13% respectively). However, the proportion of fathers saying nothing was paid was much higher when they were payees rather than payers (21% and 2% respectively), to be fair though, mothers’ more consistent reports may indicate greater accuracy compared with fathers.
Finally, with the constant issue of Charlie’s nappies and the lack of change tables behind us (and the issue of incontinence nappies for me starting to loom large with my advancing years), things would get easier as we rushed towards milestones such as loosing teeth (probably both of us?), riding a bike, starting school. All well within the realm of a mere male masquerading as a parent.
I used to love taking Charlie along to her 3yo ballet class on a Tuesday morning, there’s nothing cuter than a gaggle of tiny ballerinas all decked out in in their dance kit, hair pulled tight into a ballet bun.
Now don’t get me wrong I love a compliment as much as anyone (actually, probably more, truth be told) and did the compliments come thick and fast, “so good to see a dad here with his daughter”, “who does her bun? It’s perfect!” (thank goodness for YouTube tutorials), she’s so lucky to have you, even proudly being considered an honorary mum, “one of the girls”.
Frankly, we men should find it patronising to be praised so highly for accomplishing everyday parenting tasks, let’s just calm down already about dads doing normal stuff with their kids. If we keep making routine acts of fatherhood such a huge deal, boys will never learn that this bottle-making, baby-wearing, ponytail-creating level of fatherhood isn’t superhuman. It’s what’s expected of them.
However, after a while some of the questions and comments made me wonder, like, don’t you work? Where is her mum, how do you manage? Don’t you think little girls need their mums? Who picked out that beautiful outfit? Even, what will you do when Charlie reaches puberty?
I could never imagine asking these questions to a mum, could I be that much of an oddity? Aren’t I simply a parent? Could it be I’m the only Unicorn in village?
As with all little ballerinas, the hours of jetés, pliés and other fancy French ballet words for jumping about with your mates, culminated in the end of year concert. If you had told this big, tough, 52yo ex-bouncer that one day he would be backstage at his 3yo daughter’s ballet concert, struggling to contain his nerves and completely failing to hold back his tears of pride, I would have laughed at you (possibly even given you slap as I threw you out of the pub!). But there I was, with one job as a priority and that was to support my daughter, my sudden case of emotional incontinence would have to wait. Apart from Charlie’s birth, this was the most emotionally charged event I had ever been a part of (and I had once won a wheelbarrow full of chocolate!).
So, next year, Charlie filled with enthusiasm and me armed with a pocket full of tissues to cry into, continued our foray into the magical (tear stained for dad) world of performing arts excellence that is 4yo ballet classes and somehow, finally I felt like I was just one of the parents until……
We excitedly received all the information regarding the end of year concert, the info was full of “mothers” this and “mothers” that, no biggy I thought, I’m used to changing mother to father after reading to Charlie each night at bedtime. Fathers continue to be second-class citizens in the world of their children. Books, magazines, and morning television shows are filled with information about and for mothers and mothering. How many comparable ones have you seen about fathers?
Trying to find children’s books or nursery rhymes with a father as the primary caregiver or anything other than a disciplinarian or a hero coming to save some poor damsel in distress was virtually impossible so I’m used to editing on the fly, substituting mum for dad often ruining any rhyming in the process for anyone not as adept as Dr. Seuss. But this time, there it was in black and white at the bottom of the page – “AND THERE ARE NO MALES ALLOWED IN THE BACKSTAGE AREA”
This obviously can’t be right I thought to myself, I’m Charlie’s parent, the only parent she has in her life. So, at the pre-concert information meeting I took the opportunity to let them know that there’s a Unicorn in the village, apparently the only one ever discovered in this village? Even after clarifying that this unfortunate situation wasn’t created by the Unicorn and more importantly, that it wasn’t about the Unicorn, it was about Charlie being the only child backstage without a parent to share her excitement with, the only child not to have a parent to help her prepare if the ballet school didn’t change their position.
Much to my delight all of my fellow “Dance Mums” voiced their support for Charlie and I to be treated just as any of the other kids and their parents and threatened a boycott if they didn’t revise this discriminatory rule. The ballet school asked me some of the very same questions employers had over the years;
Can her mum do it? Does Charlie have an auntie or a nanna to do it? Could you arrange for someone Charlie knows to look after her? I had one answer to all of their questions, I’m a single parent, Charlie’s only available parent and I am 100% responsible for her needs (about 87% capable on a good day). How can the gender of a parent be an issue as we were about to finally have marriage equality in this country?
Thankfully, after someone??? Contacted the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission plus the wonderful Susie O’Brien from the Herald Sun newspaper, who did a full page story on our plight, which then made both national and international news programs, the ballet school had a well-reasoned and sudden change of heart.
At the concert, Charlie was given the same opportunity as all the other performers to have a parent by her side, and except for a massive case of nerves (mine), which ended in uncontrollable sobbing backstage (also me), I eventually managed to control myself thanks to the hugs I was getting from complete strangers, it was another great night (even if Charlie did tease me about the tears- again!)
Turns out I’m not the only Unicorn the village, the latest ABS census shows almost 1 in 5 single parent households are now fathers, almost 1 in 4 stay at home parents are now fathers. These stay at home fathers have increased from 68,500 in 2008 to over 80,000 in 2011. The percentage may be still be relatively small at 5% of all families however, these statistics suggest a fascinating shift that more families are opting to do away with outdated societal expectations. The census also shows single mother and single father households increasing at the rate of 9% & 14% every 5 years respectively. Eventually, if this trend continues single mums will be in the minority.
So why aren’t change tables in male toilets?
So why isn’t fatherhood spoken of in the same glowing terms as motherhood?
Overall, father love appears to be as heavily implicated as mother love in offspring’s psychological wellbeing and health, as well as in an array of psychological and behavioural problems. Children with involved, caring fathers also have better educational outcomes. The influence of a father’s involvement extends into adolescence and young adulthood.
Numerous studies find that an active and nurturing style of fathering is associated with better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and academic achievement among adolescents (www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/fatherhood/fatherhood.pdf).
So why isn’t paternity leave the rule instead of the exception? So why do less than 5% of fathers take the full amount of paternity leave available to them?
To achieve gender equality both in the workplace and the home, it is essential for men to have an equal chance to be there with their newborn babies.
Numerous studies have found that fathers taking parental leave not only help close the wage gap and increases participation in unpaid household duties by up to 250% but also helps men form long-term bonds with their children. Extending a father’s leave to 1 month or more tends to make men more assertive in parenting, rather than deferring to mothers. Fathers on extended leave do more housework, and savour time spent with their infants more.
Individual entitlement to parental leave for fathers clearly provides a framework for encouraging men’s assumption of full responsibility for the care of children. This is a vital step in equality for women, not only in the workplace but in general.
In my travels speaking to fathers who want to become more actively involved in their children’s lives they often hit barriers such as I’ve experienced, from employers, the media, and even their wives, who may feel threatened by a child calling for “Daddy” instead of “Mummy.”
A noted sociologist, Dr. David Popenoe, is one of the pioneers of the relatively young field of research into fathers and fatherhood. “Fathers are far more than just ‘second adults’ in the home,” he says. “Involved fathers bring positive benefits to their children that no other person is as likely to bring. Fathers have a direct impact on the well-being of their children.
Just doing whatever your wife tells you is still leaving responsibilities to her, the whole attitude of “helping” with the kids makes fathers an assistant, not an accomplished, capable parent. Becoming a sole parent made me a better father and an example of what Charlie should expect from a partner, as it forced me to step forward and take responsibility for dealing with situations that in the past, I probably would have just left for my wife to handle or to tell me what to do.
Gender inequity is structural and systemic. It affects both women and men, it’s not only about the jobs we hold, but it’s also about cultural expectations and assumptions about family values. Today, the workplace and family are all in transition, yet most of our social norms were established in a bygone time. Ultimately, it is unrealistic to expect one part of our lives to change without completely disrupting the others. If Charlie is really going to break through all the glass ceilings, we’ll also need to let go of the incompetent dad stigma.
Dads, I love you all, but I’m not falling all over myself because you acted like a parent. We’re capable. We’re intelligent. We’re great at it. We play a crucial role, particularly in the cognitive, behavioural, and general health and well-being areas of a child’s life. We’re the example for our children and we should be doing it all the damn time.
The only way women, the only way my daughter Charlie will achieve true equality in the workplace, and elsewhere, is when men are held equally responsible for raising the next generation.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article, I am always eager to discuss my experiences with others, please feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or log onto my web page www.michaelray.com.au and go to the Contact Me page, and leave a message.
THANK YOU FROM CHARLIE AND I
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