I sat down behind an old lady in a synagogue last Wednesday afternoon. She turned around, recognised me, and said “Have you abandoned your children?”
I thought this was odd, but I decided she probably meant no harm and replied, with a non-threatening chuckle to emphasise that I had taken no offence, “No, they’re with their father.”
For some reason I said their father rather than my husband, even though he is both. He had taken the girls home at 4pm to give them dinner, bathe them and put them to bed, giving me the final few hours of Yom Kippur to spend in prayer without having to worry. A pleasant situation for me, not something so interesting I thought I would write a blog post about.
The lady, who I think is probably in her late 60s or early 70s, laughed as well and responded “Well some would think that amounts to the same thing!”
That threw me a bit. Yes, some men don’t make good fathers, some women don’t make good mothers, there are a lot of roles a lot of people don’t necessarily fit. A strange assumption to make about my children’s father.
“Not in my family.” I said, and I thought of all the fathers I know. My husband. My own father. My father-in-law. The fathers I know in the circle of friends I’ve made since becoming a parent. The fathers I observe in the playground, on the bus, in cafes. Not one of those men take an approach to parenting that looks anything like abandonment.
Also in my circle of ‘parent friends’ are single mums. Of my childhood friends, several had divorced parents with varying levels of contact with their fathers. Many of my extended family members have been touched by divorce and again, that has resulted in a variety of different paternal relationships, and I am not saying that all fathers in my experience are paragons of good parenting. In fact, I am hugely angered by society’s double standard that any small parenting responsibility undertaken by a father is met with disproportionate praise, compared to the extreme scrutiny and harsh judgement mothers encounter for every little slip-up, every decision made (like the really fun one of being a stay-at-home mum versus going to work…surprise! There’s no right answer. You lose every time).
But this double standard is the other side — or maybe even the same side — of the same coin which the old lady in synagogue was using. The ingrained societal belief that men are incapable of performing basic childcare or household chores. Look no further than your local card vendor for a card on Father’s Day for evidence of this. Dad can’t cook, dad can’t clean, he doesn’t even know where the washing machine is; don’t let dad dress them or they’ll look like wizards trying to dress as Muggles; it’s great when dad’s in charge of dinner because we just get chips and mum still has to do the washing up….you know the kind of thing I mean. It’s all part of society’s toxic masculinity and I’m sick of it.
And a lot of people I know are sick of it, and society is changing. I encounter more and more dads who work part-time to share childcare responsibilities, or even take significant time off work when the mother goes back to work after maternity leave (because childcare costs are colossal), and when I go out and about in my local area in the day time, mid-week, I see a lot of dads with buggies or baby carriers or small children. They don’t do it to be congratulated or win dad of the year, they do it because they love their children. This is my reality. This is a lot of people’s reality. But clearly, it’s not enough.