THE BLOG

Both Sexes Are to Blame for Unequal Parenting

21/05/2013 17:34 BST | Updated 21/07/2013 10:12 BST

All around us, we are fed the idea that parenting is a woman's job. Mums alone have a special bond with their babies and children that fathers just seem to lack.

In some cases the link made is brazen: shelf-load of magazines about parenting that carry only mum focussed strap lines: Practical Parenting, The Magazine for Today's Mums; Gurgle, The Magazine for Modern Mums.

The posters in our local library for Mums and Tots clubs. The fundraising campaign by cancer charity CLIC Sargent called 'The Great Mums Get Together'. The Tesco exclusive 'Mums Choice' club, where women get discounts on baby clothes and equipment.

North London's Alexandra Palace was alive last week with Mums Show Live, an exhibition dedicated to mums: "The new and only show for mums of wonderful, brilliant, infuriating, school-aged children."

The show appeared to be so blind to men taking responsibility for childcare that "dads come free!", as long as they were brought along by another paying adult - presumably a mum.

But sometimes the exclusion of men from parenting can be more subtle: the baby change in the women's loo; the parents parking spaces at supermarkets showing a figure in a skirt with baby; a plethora of parenting charities, organisations and websites which are aimed at squarely at women, mentioning men only as supporters or helpers (and very often hinderers).

It's no wonder we've all convinced ourselves that women make naturally better parents.

As one mother put it to me: "You have to admit, women are naturally better at childcare." Or as another put it to my wife: "We love our babies more than men do, they just have to accept that."

This drip-drip-drip of the special mother-baby relationship allows us all to assume childcare is none of men's business. And what better excuse do fathers need to avoid the hard slog (while at the same time missing out on the good bits) of looking after children?

Like so much guff spouted by parenting books, parenting organisations and by parents themselves, this innate special bond between women and children just doesn't exist.

Social researchers have shown for decades that women don't by some biological hocus-pocus instinctively know better than men how to care for babies and children.

They've shown that it doesn't matter what gender you are when looking after kids. The child does equally well as long as the adults involved in its care are attentive, caring and responsive.

Men are just as naturally good (or poor for that matter) at childcare as women are.

In fact, men and women are just as likely to bond with their babies, as long as they're involved with them from the very earliest stages. Some men do fail to bond with their babies, but so also do some women.

Women simply get more time and practice at babycare, and that's mistaken as some natural instinct that men don't have.

Right from the maternity ward, mums get the opportunity to learn her own magic tricks to keep her baby happy, while men are often excluded by midwives and even turfed out because visiting time is over.

Women's self-learned tricks are then mistaken for natural ability. Suddenly, the baby seems to settle better with the mother, so she always takes the baby when it needs comfort.

And if mum is naturally better at getting the baby off to sleep, what's the point in dad even trying?

Indeed, what's the point in him getting up in the night, or even sleeping in the same room and having his sleep disturbed by the baby?

All of this leads to a lasting inequality between mums and dads, where childcare is just what women do, while going to work and earning a crust becomes dad's key role in life.

None of which gives gender equality in parenting a fighting chance. And nor does it do anything to improve women's opportunities in the workplace.

And worse, it can actually lead to some pretty guilty feelings among the significant number of mothers for whom baby care just doesn't seem to come naturally. The failure to live up to the expectation that mothers naturally know what to do, and naturally bond with their babies, is one of the key drivers of post-natal depression among women.

There's also an issue about choice.

I hear all the time that the woman has chosen to stay at home and look after the children, while the man has chosen to go to work. Given all these overt and subtle pressures, I wonder whether these are really free choices at all.

Couldn't they just as easily be the product of social norms, a gender difference wedged in by a mistaken but frequently reinforced belief that women are just naturally better at that kind of thing? (And isn't it just a little strange how few men freely make the choice to be primary childcarer?)

The only solution is for men to actively take up the mantle of childcare, right from the very earliest days of our children's life.

We've got to be willing to learn some of these baby magic tricks for ourselves. And that necessarily means women taking a step back, and allowing men to learn on the job just like they had to.

It'll be tough at first, but the more often we allow and encourage men to learn for themselves, the more hands on we will become. It'll start to feel natural for us too.

And the more actively involved fathers we see around us, the more men will be willing to give hands-on and equal fatherhood a go.

Maybe then parenting shows, websites, magazines and organisations might start aiming their messages at fathers, as well as mothers.

Maybe then the vicious cycle of parenting inequality really will be broken.