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Feminism and Fatherhood - the Morecambe and Wise of Parenting?

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I used to be suspicious of Feminists, until I realised I was one. You see, it's almost impossible to be a woman and not be feminist - after all, who would willingly give up the element of choice in their lives, to be told what they should do and how they should do it? This is basically the gift feminism has given us - the ability to choose the course of our own lives in the wider social and political context of society (personal constraints not withstanding...) Of course, in the West women -people in general - enjoy greater freedoms politically and socially than in other places in the world. Yet many women still do not define themselves as feminist, and in some cases, see feminism as a threat.

When I saw this article recently, I also saw red. While I agree with much of what the author, Amy Gray, says about parenting being part of a wider, more fulfilling role in life, I do not accept her premise that feminism and motherhood are weird sisters. She feels looked down upon by feminists, she feels embarrassed to admit she is a mother as a result. I say that both the judging and the judged are missing the point here, and while we are wasting time arguing amongst ourselves about whether women should be Erin Brockovich or Ma Walton, we are unable to see the bigger picture.

This article by Barbara and Shannon Kelley, authors of Undecided: How to ditch the endless quest for perfect and find the career - and life - that's right for you, talks about the ridiculousness of the common American idea you either opt 'in' to a career or 'out' into motherhood (note the negativity associated with motherhood). 'I've opted in, out and everything in between,' says Barbara, who grasps the reality of motherhood by both horns - women work, women play, women care for their children and often pick up what the Kelley's term the 'second shift', taking responsibility for the domestic realm even if they have done a full day's work the same as their partner. You make your choices based on the information available to you at the time - based on what you need to do. There is no opting in or out here, just the rich and very real tapestry of life with a few kids thrown in for good measure.

While opting in or out may not be an accurate description of the format of many mother's lives, my own partner was quick to point out that this description seems to suit the choices given to men perfectly. In the UK, where women still earn significantly less than men, paternity leave is still limited and often poorly paid or not at all, and the professions that men go into - banking, architecture, medicine - are high octane, 'more than full time' careers; that makes it both socially and practically difficult for men to take the role of lead parent. While women enjoy up to a year off work with some pay, plus a large proportion of workplaces open to the idea of part time and flexible hours for mothers, men - fathers - are still expected to be thankful for their two weeks paid leave and the odd 'duvet day' during teething.

This, unfortunately, is the legacy of feminism. While women have been extended choices when it comes to motherhood men have had theirs rescinded. Despite the introduction of extended paternity allowance for men, many fathers feel unable to ask their employer for this right through fear they will not be taken seriously. Many men are worried in the current financial climate that, should they show anything except full commitment to their workplace, even to the detriment of their family, they might be up for the chop next time redundancies come round. And the ultimate irony of extended paternity leave is that it is directly linked to choices made by the mother. Men are not eligible for it unless their partner has received the higher rate of maternity pay, and is willing to give up part of their own maternity leave. Many families at the lower end of the economic spectrum simply wouldn't qualify for it at all, and other men, who might want to have one-on-one time with their children, feel pressure to stay in full time employment either by the demands of their work place or their wives.

Fatherhood and feminism have thus become the Morcambe and Wise of parenting - a weathered pair of old jokers, caricatures of themselves. The attitude of feminists towards men can apparently be summed up by a 'fish on a bicycle' e-card, while men who want to be hands on fathers have been left trapped by the idea that they are either full time career men or full time family men. Unlike with women in the UK, there appears to be very little male middle ground.

In the original Daily Life article that sparked this post, the author suggests that mothers 'take off their capes', that turning motherhood into some mythical, feminine witchery devalues the role of men. I'd go further, I'd say mothers, share your capes. Parenting is hard, stressful and time consuming. It's also incredibly rewarding and takes many special skills, special qualities that are innate in all of us, male or female, but often only brought to the surface by the love of a child. And it also requires help from others, parents or not, who are willing to support you emotionally and practically. Until we have respect for parenting across the board, until society accepts the essential role men have to play in raising children, we won't have any movement on the rights of men who want to be more hands on in the home.

Amy Gray writes 'If feminism has a new front that it hasn't fully pioneered and supported, it is in the family home,' and I totally agree. Until we can find a sense of balance between fatherhood and feminism, the equilibrium many couples crave will remain out of reach.