A couple of weeks ago – yes, I’m a bit late and, yes, I’m still angry enough to write about it – The Sunday Times published an article entitled Test Your Dad Skills. In it, a male journalist called Ben Machell gives a rundown of the various abilities required to “pull off” life as a father of two.
Now, as most of you well know, I’m no superdad. And I’m always willing to learn how to do it better from other people. So, I started reading. But with caution.
What exactly were these mysterious fathering skills worthy of a multi-page article in a national newspaper? What would Ben add to the long list of mental, physical and emotional capabilities any parent needs to survive?
Apparently ‘handle a sleepover’ was one, as was ‘make pasta and pesto’ and ’look good in a papoose’. The latter, in particular, is a key consideration for any new dad. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure it was my first question during antenatal classes with Laura before our first son Dylan arrived.
Similarly, ‘how to read a bedtime story’ – another of the mighty challenges Ben addressed. Useful stuff. I’ve always wondered why, night after night, Dylan and Nathan are so disappointed when I recite the book’s title, open the pages and then leave their bedroom without further word.
In truth, the article was not about being a dad at all. Well, not in any real sense anyway. It was an opportunity for Ben, presumably at his editor’s behest, to present himself as some sort of inept buffoon, blindly (and, admittedly, comically) bluffing his way through the day-to-day challenges of fatherhood.
Simple things were presented as a curious mix of impossible and unnatural for a tiny male brain to compute, let alone measure up on when compared to our vastly superior wives and girlfriends. Because, you know, really us dads are just subbing in for the ladies. The people who are meant to quit work and raise kids while we go to work and bring home the bacon.
Anyone who knows Laura also knows she’s brilliant – professionally, personally and as a mother to the boys. Likewise my own mum is a wonderful, capable and successful woman. But what the hell? Who on earth sanctioned this ridiculous downplaying of men’s ability to fulfil that most innately human of tasks: namely raise a child?
It’s like a bad joke – but it’s not.
This is certainly not a rant against feminism. The likes of MeToo and Time’s Up are so right and so important. But this article didn’t do anything for their message of gender equality and mutual respect. It didn’t redress the balance or promote a progressive, modern agenda. It skewed things off wildly in the other direction.
I mean, imagine the (entirely appropriate) outcry were a newspaper to publish an article in which a female journalist returning to work after maternity leave was presented as some kind of office clown, desperately trying to reply to emails, use the coffee machine and locate the toilets.
Maybe I’ve completely misinterpreted their reasons behind this piece – in which case, apologies, my bad. But for me, it strikes a nerve. Like millions of parents, I work really hard to balance professional and family life – and do both of them half decently (mostly). Seeing that effort belittled by some idiot with a baby carrier in a national newspaper is really annoying.
Equality, as I see it, is about helping every parent balance their work and home lives as best they can (if they choose to). It’s not a competition. Women don’t have to succeed or be happy and fulfilled at men’s expense, nor vice versa. And we all (well, unless we’re Donald Trump) want a fair, compassionate, meritocratic future for our kids.
Man or woman, mum or dad, clichéd, bullshit articles like this send us all crashing back in time.