Mums, listen up: I'm a working dad and I've got parenting sussed
Women always complain about men and parenting. But Hugo Rifkind reckons that he and his baby vomit-streaked mates are doing their fair share
'I hope you realise," I said to my wife, as we discussed this article, "that it's not a complaint about you." "Of course I do," she said. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Good," I said. "Because it isn't.
It's a complaint about all women."
And then we both had to go to work. But I sensed she had more to say.
Look, let's not get off on the wrong foot. I am not anti-women. I am pro-women, and fiercely. Good old women. I have endless respect, particularly, for women who combine a career with parenthood, skillfully juggling both. Not for a moment would I suggest that it is always easy. I know it is not. Because I do it too. I just don't moan about it.
Take this morning. I was up at 5.30am, with a hangover. First somebody needed a dummy, then somebody needed a pee, then somebody had done a poo. Then somebody was sick on the living room carpet. And none of these people, I should point out, were me.
Some mornings, this sort of thing is my problem; sometimes, it's the wife's. No complaints about the wife. I have a good wife. I hope this is coming across. But I am becoming increasingly aware that society is not treating us equally.
Or, to put it another way, when she gets up many hours before going to work to deal with our children's poos and pees and frankly unreasonable moonlit demands for Cheerios, she is a brave and selfless warrior for feminism. Whereas when I do, I'm just somebody who, if he didn't, would be an a***hole.
Which is fine. Look, it's not like I want a badge. I'm just saying. Over in the United States right now, there's a debate raging about men and their changing role in the home.
First, Anne-Marie Slaughter (a lawyer and political scientist who used to work for the State Department) wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled 'Why Women Still Can't Have It All', in which she pointed out that it's very difficult for women to balance their careers and home lives.
Second, Ken Gordon (a journalist) wrote an article in The New York Times pointing out that dads do a bit around the house, too, and also find it somewhat tricky. And third, just the other day, Slaughter wrote another article in which she basically said, "Gosh! Yes! I suppose that's true! How very fascinating!"
Christ. What's wrong with these people? Aren't they getting enough sleep? Well, I mean, no, probably not, because none of us are. But, seriously, can we not just . . . not? Obviously, if you have a job, then raising children at the same time makes you quite tired.
This is not a profundity, nor a surprising state of affairs. For decades, society has been insidiously encouraging women to think it is both. Now, we have a generation of men – of whom I am one – who are co-parenting, or as near as. And you know what? It isn't that big a deal. It just isn't. Not unless you want it to be.
Yes, I'm usually exhausted. But this whole culture of self-flagellating women, wondering if they can have careers and be parents at the same time? I don't get it. I've never got it. When Allison Pearson declared, years ago, 'I Don't Know How She Does It', I was irritated by the gender-specific pronoun, even though I didn't even yet have kids. "She probably", I thought to myself, "does it by compromising a bit. Like I probably will." I mean, it's not rocket science, is it? And nobody ever bothers to ask how men do it. Even men don't ask how men do it. Men just do it.
Are there differences? Sure, maybe. I'm prepared to concede that. Very possibly women do feel a distinct and terrible yearning pain about time spent away from their kids that men, as a result of being men, can't possibly hope to comprehend. It offends me slightly, that notion (don't I also miss my kids when I'm not with them? Who am I supposed to be, here, Homer Simpson?), but never having been a woman I'm not really qualified to shoot it down. But honestly, the fuss.
There's that bit in Pearson's book that everybody talks about, where the mum hacks up a shop-bought cake, to pretend she cooked it for a school fête. Women are supposed to howl with recognition at that. Men? Men think you're all nuts. Haven't we all been up since 5.30am? And we're supposed to have the energy to care who baked a f***ing cake? There are variations, sure, but most of the men I know who have kids co-parent pretty equally. Or, at least, they think they do.
In my household, I'm not sure I necessarily pull my weight in matters organisational, such as doctors' appointments and the steady supply of clean socks. In terms of actual face-to-face parenting time, though, I'm up there at a safe 45pc of the whole.
And even that is an estimate based on a whole host of prejudices, anyway, because for some reason society draws this fierce distinction between time spent doing things like sticking glittery stars on bits of paper (proper parenting) and time spent doing things like climbing up and down from the attic to look for half a car seat (weird stuff that dads do).
And I do, by the way, mean society. My wife knows I pull my weight. (High five, wife.) Most of my male friends' other halves are much the same. In the home, I don't think we vomit-streaked dads are at all under-appreciated.
But it's a new dynamic, this, and it hasn't yet quite crossed into the public sphere. In fact, dads are wholly miscast in the public sphere, and it has taken this American debate for me to realise why. It's because of women. It's because of how they talk about parenting, and the expectation that this is how we ought to talk about parenting, too.
It doesn't fit. Not at all. Yes, like anybody, I'm concerned about my work-life balance. But that's a practical concern. It's not about my identity. Am I a father or a professional first? Who gives a damn? I feel no urge to identify as one or the other. The notion of whether or not I can "have it all" makes almost no sense to me at all.
Have what all? Why is it supposed to be all about me? The very idea is completely at odds with the spirit of cheerfully bewildered self-sacrifice with which every father I know approaches parenthood.
It's early days, yet. My kids are small, and maybe all this gets more complicated once they're older. And yes, I know it's easier for men anyway, because our careers don't take that maternity-leave nosedive. But still. I'm tired enough already.
Increasingly, I resent the way that our whole culture of speaking about parenthood – shaped by women, long before the likes of me got interested – seems to want to throw deep existential problems at me, when the only problems I think I have are banal and practical ones.
I don't want to be like you. Frankly, I think you might benefit from being more like me. We dads, we've got this sussed. And actually, I've changed my mind. Yes. I do want a badge.
I have a good wife. I hope this comes across. But I'm becoming aware that society is not treating us equally.