How Fathers Day is key in the battle for gender equality (yes, really)

We can stop pretending now, right?

It’s been a month so, confession time… who handed over a present for their dad/ father of their children a few weeks ago, that was a bit crap? Who, at the last minute, cajoled the kids into sitting down to scrawl daddy a card? Or perhaps you didn’t bother at all?

Trust me when I say that those scenarios are suggested without judgement as I too have spent the last four years cultivating a tendancy to casually chuck Father’s Day in the bargain bin, alongside the cut price roses and past their best pumpkins left over from those other fictional celebrations, Valentines Day and Halloween.

In the meantime I annually revel in the outpouring of adoration that accompanies Mother’s Day. I point to the fact that Mother’s Day is in the Bible as evidence of its superiority in a world where card and gift manufacturers compete to invent reasons to get us consuming (Black Friday, anyone??!)

But what if Dads, as parents, deserve to be celebrated too? And what if our reluctance to do a proper job of celebrating Father’s Day is a symptom of our failure to take dads seriously on every other day of the year?

It was after reading a piece by Steph Douglas about Father’s Day gifts that I started to question my own habit of thinking dads should be happy with whatever they get. She ventures to suggest that perhaps what dads want is actually pretty similar to what mums want – something to read, something to drink, something to eat, some alone time to do all three, and some socks to keep our feet warm while we do it.

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Steph Douglas – she talks sense does that one…

So what’s with the resistance; the resentment of them spending a few hours uninterrupted; what’s with the voice in our heads that says fathers don’t deserve this?

Could it be possible that, against our better intentions, against the feeling behind frustrated outbursts that They are HIS children! He is not BABY-SITTING!, and against our wishes for greater equality in the home as well as in the workplace, we are actually complicit in the continuation of the gendered norms we claim to want to dismiss?

Every time a BBC reporter asks a female tennis player how she juggles a tournament such as Wimbledon with motherhood, as happened to Victoria Azarenka, the assumption seems to be that her husband/ partner, the child’s father, must have something more important to do than look after his own child. The attitude is there is no way that he might be there in a supporting role – that her career might have taken priority – and oh how we bristle.

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Oh yes BBC, I see what you mean. The father of Victoria Azarenka’s child look completely inept. I mean look how he’s cuddling that baby and smiling

The spikiness is indicative of a wave of newly impassioned feminism that is sweeping popular thinking. We wonder incessantly why it seems such a stretch for a 36 year old woman to have what a 36 year old man doesn’t think twice about – a house, kids, and a kick-ass career – but maybe we are forgetting something.

Maybe the key to true gender equality lies in not only dismantling the entrenched gendered-norms that hold back women, but in challenging the toxic masculinity norms that suffocate men?

In some ways I understand our reluctance to give Father’s Day anything more than a sideways glance. In the jokes about dads being a bit crap, and our expressions of surprise or faux concern that the children are with dad while mum works, perhaps there is an element of us jealously guarding the only territory we have ever been bestowed.

While women occupy just 32% of the seats in Parliament; while it remains that female CEOs of FTSE 100 businesses are outnumbered by white men called John (not ignoring that the issue of gender diversity is even more problematic when taking race into account – 10000 words for another time…) perhaps the truth is that we don’t want to concede that men are just as good at being parents until we scrape together some ground that says we are just as good as them everywhere else.

The irony is that we are protecting society’s habit of elevating the mother to be the “better” parent when in fact this is exactly the “status” that holds us back. Because all gendered norms are toxic.

The damage done by the societal message given to boys – that to be a man you have to go out to work, provide for your family, never admit to vulnerability, and bury every emotion except anger – is as great as the harm done to women by the narrative around the sanctity of motherhood (amongst others).

And the only way we change this is if we all move towards the middle.

Even families where men and women want to fulfil traditional gendered norms. They are not precluded from this because it is in our minds that the greatest shift needs to happen. Mothers and fathers have to explain their choices with a simple This is what works for us, rather than buying into a narrative about what women, and men, mothers and fathers should do.

But of course this movement towards “someone has to look after the children” has to also happen in practical places – workplaces, businesses and homes.

So far in this country men have been reluctant to ask for flexible working while the newer Shared Parental Leave has also failed to gain much traction. Really this should not surprise us. Men have witnessed (and been complicit in) the treatment of the women who have paved that way before them. The eye-rolls, the questions about commitment, and the assumptions about productivity: men have seen this happen to their female contemporaries countless times, so why wouldn’t they be afraid?

And perhaps women also need to concede a little of their “territory” – the territory that almost automatically places them as primary care-givers when a family breaks down (I acknowledge this is an epic over-simplification – it’s just something we should consider if we’re serious about gender equality); the territory that assumes women will want twelve months maternity leave but does not ring-fence extended paternity leave for men (in Scandinavian countries with almost total uptake of extended paternity leave, this time is not transferable – if the father does not use it, the time is lost); the territory that finds many of my friends not wanting their menfolk to take on their share of the household duties because they don’t do it properly.

And while I don’t for a second imagine that thinking ahead to next year’s Father’s Day and planning a thoughtful gift is going to have much impact in the face of a ten thousand years of gender inequality, perhaps giving up that particular piece of turf would be a good place to start.