I was drinking tea in a Cafe in London this week when I observed what I think is probably the most radical act of equality I have ever seen. Sitting amidst the mummies and their children, I observed a young Asian man, no more than about eighteen, arrive with a tiny baby. The baby was crying loudly and clearly needed feeding and as I watched the young man struggling with the bib and the bottle, I became suddenly aware of an absolute air of tension in the cafe. I switched my attention and observed that collectively the mothers in the cafe were staring, (one open mouthed) at the young man. As the baby locked on and he gazed into the baby's eyes, stimulating love, attachment and the development of mirror neurons, gradually, each mother became once again aware of herself and turned back to what she was doing.
Like a herd realising the danger had passed, each woman became again an individual, though I continued to observe as each mother cast glances to check that the baby was safe in its father's arms. One woman close by still could not resist offering to give the man a hand, he smiled and declined and went back to his charge.
I drank my tea and thought about the way in which these women, faced with a scene which clearly challenged their personal experience, struggled with their collective biology in competition with their upbringing as modern young women. Whether he was conscious or not of what he had done, I silently applauded the young man for his courage and determination to be the dad he wanted to be. His choice, to provide for his child the care that he could give, in public and against so much of what we are still not alive to in our drive for equal rights. The right to make choices about who we are and how we live and work and care for the children that we bring into the world.
Equality is so often regarded as being about women's choices and women's needs and yet, in the western world, so much of what women choose to do and choose to be is still scrutinised, not least by women themselves and especially by those who are concerned with equality. Being old enough to remember the onset of second wave feminism, it seems to me that the original beliefs about women's liberation have become lost in a drive to consider concepts of fluid expressions of gender instead of liberation from gendered constraints in our identity. Those early calls for men into childcare and liberation of both men and women from gendered strait jacket roles seem to me to have disappeared, replaced instead with concepts of how we choose to dress, or think or feel about ourselves as men and women. It would appear from this scene however, that those fundamental roles, so long ascribed to men and women on the basis of biological determinism, seem to run like a river under the narrative that we can be anything and anyone we choose to be.
If we can be anything that we choose to be then that scene in the cafe this week would not have happened because those women would not have noticed a baby with its father crying to be fed. Instead, like deer grazing on the plain, the sound of the baby caused invisible signals to ricochet around the room, triggering a collective anxiety that could not be quelled until each individual woman was satisfied that the baby was safe.
I wondered how many of these mothers wanted to go back to work and how many felt that being able to do so is proof of equality in action. And whether their collective biological responses, are something we need to talk about more so that gender roles can be shared and men and women are more free to make choices about who they are in the world and the family.
For me that young man's actions were more radical than any I have witnessed in all of the years that I have been working in the field of equalities. I applaud him and his courage. May his brothers follow and show us that sharing the care, (even when challenging popular conceptions about what babies and young children need), is as necessary a step to equality as opening the doors to the boardroom for women.