Yesterday, it lashed rain for most of the day so I was condemned to the local soft-play centre for a few hours with our one to run off some energy (her) and try to hide behind the Sunday papers (me). No sooner had I opened a supplement to partake in some mildly bitter lifestyle envy, when the first of three parents landed in with a brood, shortly followed by the other two.
It quickly transpired they all knew each other and their collision was a random surprise. The chat about their children took off as they were waved off; each of them taking it in turn to spring up momentarily to warn one of their off-spring to refrain from inflicting pain on another.
Each politely and engagingly inquired how each other’s children were doing. They spoke about the challenges of getting them to focus on doing their homework. Confidence levels between girls and boys were sized up with two registering worry that their girls exhibit greater reluctance to assert themselves in contrast to their boys. After-school programme options at their respective schools were listed and enthusiastically reconciled with the interests and talents of the little folk attending.
It was a familiar scene no doubt cascaded across the nation on a hostile Sunday morning; when one parent is relieved of getting up while the other shepherds their children out of the house to leave it in peace. Unremarkable in many ways.
It shouldn’t be remarkable that these parents were in fact fathers, but I’m rarely in their company so it was both a novelty and an affirmation of what we already know about the centrality of fathers in contemporary child-rearing. I wasn’t watching them while wearing rose-tinted glasses. We know the economic imbalances that characterise the roles and responsibilities in the home and workplace of women and men with children. It’s fair to generalise that the brunt of financial loss and decision-making gain is borne by women. That’s a given. But that doesn’t negate from the evolution of child-rearing as a joint task compared with our parents’ generation. In the main.
Women shouldn’t have to perpetually gender check themselves when relaying their own parental experiences; but men don’t need to be stay-at-home-dads to scratch their heads over many of the same anxieties that have women exchanging furrowed-brows. It may not be the cultural norm for men to take to the keyboard to tease these things out; but in taking to the keyboard many of us are not doing so as single parents. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. That’s not to suggest the existence of domestic utopia, but just an acknowledgement of child-rearing as a predominantly shared crusade.
For all the overlaps in the chat from yesterday’s ear-wigged on men with the worries of women, it’s impossible to imagine fathers being characterised in over-generalised terms in the same way mothers tend to be. There are probably competing answers to that from every academic discipline imaginable. But it doesn’t make it any easier to square with family life as it is. In the main.