Wednesday 16 October 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Don't tell us we're bad dads unless you have a solution'

The family-friendly launch of the Government's First5 initiative was more right-on bull with little relation to real life, writes Brendan O'Connor

Family Matters: Ministers Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Katherine Zappone, Simon Harris and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meet 15-month-old Eira Visoka and four-month-old Cara Molloy at the launch of First5 last week. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Family Matters: Ministers Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Katherine Zappone, Simon Harris and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meet 15-month-old Eira Visoka and four-month-old Cara Molloy at the launch of First5 last week. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

They love launching things, don't they? Simon Harris, the darling of the women and the twitterers, around holding a baby. Swoon. Could only have been more #adorable if he was bare-chested. Simon Harris, not the baby. Katherine Zappone thrilled with herself as always, making history, or I suppose we should call it herstory. Leo turned up, of course. There was no downside to the launch of First5 so they all wanted to be there. Because no one disagrees with families, do they? You can't knock that. Everyone agrees with families just like everyone agrees with charidee.

And so this is the first cross-department 10-year plan to support families and make life easier for the children and the poor working parents and it's all about making life more familyish, and work/life balance and get the fathers more involved and get them out of poverty and ambitious plan and dawn of a new era and hot dinners for all and take my picture, with the baby, and smiley smiley, because it's all glowing and we love families, and everyone has a family, don't they, in some shape or form, so the research guys say we should be talking about families a lot, broad appeal, don't you know, and bulls**t bulls**t bulls**t. And the Taoiseach needs to speak now because he has to go to attend to important matters of State because there is a girl coming in shortly to mock-take over the office of the Taoiseach for the day and that'll get on the news, and the Taoiseach will be all nice and smiley and bashful with her, and we love girls, brave girls, brave girls everywhere, yes, yes, that's the message. And the message is the thing.

And the Taoiseach says mock profound things like: "The first five years of a child's life only happen once, but the impact of their experiences during this period can last a lifetime." And tens of thousands of parents of children with special needs might have thought for a second: ''Oh great, are they going to give our children the urgent help they need in that little window of early intervention to learn to walk and talk and go to the toilet and be independent some day?'' And the parents of thousands of children with no homes, who live in hotels and go to school in shame, thought: ''Oh great, are they going to give our kids back their childhood?''

But no. Those are the existing problems. We do not deal with existing problems. This is about the future: new plans, new launches, daring new initiatives. Don't be spoiling the new launch by asking about existing problems. We can't fix them. We're a bigger-picture operation in this Government. We are broad strokes-kind of guys and gals. We are about big visions for the future. Ten-year plans to get the daddies involved and cute things like baby boxes and book bags. And five-year plans to cut your taxes and let's all think about the future because the present doesn't matter anymore. It's in the past and the past is done, and nothing can be done about it. Stop obsessing over the nitty-gritty details of now, look over here at the shiny future instead.

The big take-away from First5 showed a Government obsessed with the culture wars of liberal ideology. Men will get seven weeks off to be at home with the babbies because it's sexism otherwise and "the evidence shows that when fathers take a more significant and meaningful share in the parenting of their children, the individual family benefits, and so does wider society".

So hang your heads in shame all those men who go out to work and take no significant and meaningful share in the parenting of their children. Look at how your little babbies have turned out because you didn't spend that seven weeks at home with them. Stone Age, we are. Leaving the new mothers at home, stereotyped on their own, with the babies..

Of course, you thought you were taking a significant and meaningful role, but you were wrong. You thought you were a better generation of parents, that you were even too involved with your kids. You thought because you spent the weekend bringing the kids around to parks and activities instead of drinking and playing golf that you were a more modern man, a better father. You thought that because you loved them more than life itself, because they changed your whole world and your whole outlook, that you were a good father, meaningfully involved in as much as you could be.

But you were wrong.

Of course, this earth-shattering move to seven weeks off at €250 a week won't make a damn bit of difference to most working men. Most working men will not be able to survive for seven weeks on €1,750. Seven weeks could involve two mortgage payments. If the mother is already off work, and especially if the man is the primary breadwinner, then some hope of him deciding to come home and do attachment parenting for seven weeks. In the cloud cuckoo land of hippie California or wherever these politicians live, it sounds like a great idea. But most people can't afford it. Many of these families are already struggling with maternity leave loss of earnings. And who's going to tell the boss in a small company, or even a big one, that you're heading home for seven weeks to bond with baby so the company needs to find someone to come in and do your job. It's not right that these should be concerns, but in the real world ,they are.

I'm not making light of fatherhood and the need for fathers to make a significant and meaningful share of the parenting. I'm not suggesting for a minute it is all a woman's work in those early days. And neither should anyone diminish the role of working fathers in those early days as they cram in work and everything else to support the primary carer and the new baby. I'm not saying either that men don't miss out hugely on so many magical things in those early days, and indeed for all of their children's childhood. And women do too.

We all know there is something broken here, when parents are queuing outside the creche at seven in the morning to drop the kids off, and back in the evening, both parent and child exhausted, to bring them home and put them to bed. We know there is something broken when our children feel like an inconvenience in the school holidays and a problem to be managed. We know there is something broken when we have to brush them off in the evening because we still have our heads stuck in devices catching up with work. We know that we and they are missing out on so much precious time, and that it will be all gone in the blink of an eye.

But don't present us with bulls**t launches and tell us this is changing society and fixing the problem. It'll take deep thinking and creative solutions to fix things, not daft stunts and photo ops and simplistic, trendy, ideology-driven diktats that take no account of the real world.

Don't insult decent hard-working fathers everywhere by telling us we are not involved enough unless you have a real solution to offer us.

Shane Dunphy wrote a piece for last week giving a cautious welcome to First5. He did recall, however, that in 2013 "the then-Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald launched Right From the Start, a report by the Expert Advisory Group on Early Years Strategy. That proposed a 10-year programme that would increase investment in early years' services, extend paid parental leave, strengthen child and family support, enhance governance of the industry and enhance the quality of experience for children, including their physical and emotional health."

He ended his piece: "Sound familiar?"

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