Every Friday I take some or all of my kids to a playgroup at the local church hall. It is run by a group of wonderful women, all retirees, and they charge a paltry £1 per family. Since I bring more children than most to the group, I always feel like I am gaming the system or abusing their goodwill. But no, they say, it’s a straight £1 no matter how many kids you bring. For that I also get a cup of tea plus juice and biscuits for the kids.
The group is advertised as a ‘Mother and Child Playgroup’. But I’m a father.
I am resigned to being the only man at such groups. Occasionally I’ll see a granddad sitting in the corner, looking bored while his wife, the grandma, does the actual care-giving. But never do I see another Dad. Clearly in our particular neighbourhood, part time work and ‘lead parenting’ is still the female obligation. It is extremely rare to meet another actual father at these gatherings.
So rare in fact, that the other women, both the senior ‘hosts’ and the other mothers, cannot help but remark on the fact that I am there at all. I get showered with praise for ‘coping’ with the children (who, like most pre-schoolers, are more than capable of entertaining themselves in a room that is full of toys) and otherwise congratulated for playing the part.
I love the attention… but ultimately it’s incredibly patronising and sexist. I get these comments only because I am a man in a traditionally female setting.
For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t think this ‘sexism’ (if that’s what we are going to call it) oppresses me in any way. It does not prevent me from doing what I please in the way that actual misogyny stunts the lives of women.
However, the mindset is instructive. I receive excessive praise for performing very basic childcare duties, on a single day during the week. I see women at the same group doing the same thing and their actions go entirely unremarked upon.
As a culture (perhaps, as a species) we have internalised the idea that men are somehow not cut-out for care-giving. This is the mindset that pushes men back to work while their partners stay at home or slow their career trajectory through part-time working.
But the idea itself is utter nonsense. I am just as capable of wiping a snotty nose, changing a nappy/diaper, as well as giving cuddles, reading stories, inspiring play, and mediating arguments, fights, and tantrums. A father can replicate a mother’s ‘instinct’ for what the kid needs, if only he is given enough time to get to know his children. If doing that makes him feel awkward or out-of-place then he needs to get over himself and his destructive, archaic idea of masculinity.
Perpetuating the myth that care-giving men are somehow remarkable is actually just another way of keeping women ‘in their place’.
Up until now I confess I have gleefully lapped up the praise given to me when I show up at some playgroup with my kids. Who doesn’t like being praised?! But perhaps I need to be a little more circumspect, and emphasise that I am doing no more or less than the scores of mothers in the room.