“Men whose partners don’t work are increasingly facing a damaging but unspoken prejudice that assumes they have had children with women who are stupid, lazy and unattractive”, a leading child development expert has warned.
Meanwhile, Cherie Blair has called on men to stop facilitating their partners to stay at home full or part time to look after their children, and to encourage them to return to work to help “boost the economy”.
Yet many men struggle with combining a career and family life, in the face of research suggesting that children whose dads go out to work have worse life chances, and evidence indicating many people believe men without children work harder than fathers in the office.
All news stories from the last 6 weeks. None, of course, originally about men at all.
It struck me today, reading Zoe Williams’ response to this weekend’s Telegraph article on “motherism”, quite how strange our national debate about children is. For all the tedious homage to the “hard working family”, any onlooker could only conclude that they are, in fact, exclusively a woman’s issue. Working mothers are to blame for the ills of society. Stay at home mothers are hampering economic recovery. Working mothers don’t pull their weight in the office. Stay at home mothers are lazy and failing to fulfil their potential.
I wish I could share the conviction of the members of Mothers At Home Matter, a campaign group whose cause is clear enough. But I have no ideological standpoint on whether young children ought to be with their mums, or dads, or in (decent) childcare. Rightly or wrongly, I think that given security and love and cuddles and attention, children are primed to thrive wherever they find themselves, and that families tend to make the best, albeit often difficult, decisions for themselves and their children, based on the circumstances of their lives.
This isn’t a post about whether mothers should work or not. It’s more a query as to why mention of fathers is largely absent from the debate. Aside, even, from the fact that a man who has children is still, for the purposes of the workplace, just a man, not suddenly a “working father”, why do all discussions seem to start from the presumption that women unilaterally decide how their families will function?
Women’s choices are fair game for commentators and politicians alike, it seems. Yet couples make entirely rational, pragmatic decisions about how to balance their financial and other requirements, and they generally make them together. It’s as offensive to men as it is to women to go along with a narrative that they have no input and no influence on such fundamentals are where and how their children are cared for.
I can’t imagine a situation where a man would be openly criticised or patronised for having a partner who was a stay at home mother; yet women who don’t work outside the home must of necessity be supported by someone. Does that make him a poor deluded fool, who toils long hours to support his wife’s latte habit? An alpha male, who likes the idea of a trophy mate to complement the car? A control freak, who doesn’t want his woman to have any form of independence? Or just, as all the men in that position I know, a bloke who’s reached the conclusion with his other half that that’s what works for them?
I know that I’m arguing from an idealistic view of relationships, and that it doesn’t work like that for everyone. The thing is, though, that most of the negative comments about mothers’ decision to work or not do exactly the same thing. I know, too, that for all the talk of scrimping and making sacrifices (and I’m not thinking of missed foreign holidays or foregone music lessons), being able to afford to survive on a single wage is a luxury beyond many, even though so many women expressly say how much they wish they could spend at least the early years of their children’s lives at home.
I just wonder where the debate would go if it included men. If, in exchange for some of the guilt and opprobrium heaped on mothers, we could have an acknowledgement that families’ decisions around childcare are generally rational…and that addressing the problems which take away any real choice from so many (cost of living, house prices, childcare, employment insecurity) is not, after all, a woman’s issue at all.