In the last week, my son has spoken to a grand total of six adult men; one of whom was his own father. By contrast, he has spent his week in the company of, at the very least, 50 women. Putting the tricky technicalities of gender definition aside for just a moment, the world of childcare is, all-too-often, an absolute no man’s land.
You may think, “Well if all you ever do is sit around in cafes and hang out with your other friends on maternity leave, what do you expect?” Firstly, I take issue with this idea that somehow cafes are clogged up by women with children. Women have as much right to exist in public space as anyone else, and when you spend up to 20 hours of your day awake, in close proximity to an entirely dependent, utterly vulnerable infant it can be extremely easy to lose your shit if all you do is bounce around the same four porridge-splattered walls. You need to get out, you need extra calories (you have, after all, just created an entire human life with your body) and you need to be around people. Also, I don’t think is does society any harm whatsoever to expose child-free, freelance, shift-working, retired, lonely or laptop-enslaved people to real life children. How else do we create a society other than bashing people of different life experiences into each other? If that means you have to shift your iPhone over by a few centimetres so I can feed my child, if that means a baby wants you to play peekaboo over the salt, if that means you have the opportunity to open the door to someone pushing a buggy or talk to a toddler about the contents of their pockets, then lucky you.
But I digress. The fact is that the world of small babies, toddlers and children is still, even in a big British city, in 2019, largely homosocial and female-heavy. Every maternity unit, midwife team, sensory class, playgroup, nursery, play centre and child-friendly cafe I’ve visited in the last two years has been overwhelmingly populated by women. In this last week, The Week of Six Adult Men as I call it, I’ve been to two playgroups, a city farm, for a walk in the woods, to three different people’s flats for tea, to a sling library, to a singing class, to two cafes and to a children’s centre. In all that time I probably saw, perhaps, 10 fathers? Of whom two spoke to my son. The other four men were all my friends, none of them fathers.
The gender divide is so wildly out of kilter around children that I’ve become almost woman-blind. I barely see us. Put me in a church hall on a Monday morning or at a weigh-in clinic with a team of health visitors on a Wednesday afternoon and I will pick out the five or six men like a hawk scanning hay fields for mice. Yes, that is a good analogy because, frankly, I am hungry for men. All my life I’ve studied, socialised and worked alongside men, enjoyed male company and craved the contrast of the male experience. Hey, some of my best friends are men. So, to walk into yet another warm and playmat-covered room and realise that there isn’t a single man there makes me want to throw a basket of plastic fruit at the wall. Not because I’m desperate to talk to someone about, I don’t know, the benefits of bicycle disc brakes (or whatever it is I assume male people talk about) but because, surely, it is important for young children to grow up around men. Especially as half of them will probably turn out to be men one day. Just as it is incredibly important for children to grow up around people of different ethnicities, who speak different languages, have different beliefs and with different abilities. It makes my teeth creak when I think about how normal and acceptable it still is in this country for most men to be away from their children for 12 hours a day, every Monday to Friday. That cannot be healthy, either for them or their offspring. It’s certainly not what any father I know would choose. So why do we put up with it?
In my local area I have found two classes run by men (a gardening club and a toddler dance class). Adult men with deep voices, different facial hair, different bodies and a different manner to me. My son adores them, both. When I go to playgroups more heavily populated with men I notice my son pulling at their glasses, climbing on their knees, offering them toys. Do I notice this more because I have a son? Do I notice it more because of the way those few men are treated (as a special and exciting minority to be praised for the smallest things while the rest of us carry on un-thanked, day in, day out)? Do I notice it more because I’ve always worked in more gender-neutral offices and so the lack of men seems abnormal? Do I notice it because it makes me wish my own male partner could be there? Perhaps. But do I believe that the secret to unlacing the chains of patriarchy for everyone – men, women and children – could start with more men being more involved in bringing up their children? Absolutely I do.