“You’ll never get women to agree to that,” said a young mother to whom I was explaining my ideals about equal parenting. “Women will never give up control of their own children.”
That was in 1999. The following year – long after I had given up hope that it might ever happen – I met the woman with whom I would eventually bring up two daughters, from birth to full-time schooling and beyond, as fully equal parents.
Our partnership fulfilled all the hopes and plans which that young mother had dismissed as unthinkable. In my new family, the mother and I divided everything evenly – from childcare and cooking and shopping to working and earning money.
I spent as much time as she did looking after our babies alone. She worked part-time as a teacher. My work as a journalist and writer had to be fitted around my family duties – so I was often working late at night or very early in the morning, Sundays and Bank Holidays included.
We were lucky to have adaptable work, but we also had to make sacrifices. Our mutual agreement that we would look after our own children and not hand them over to nannies, creches or nurseries cost us a bundle in income and savings; and we got down alarmingly close to the financial bone over the eight years it took to see both of our daughters into primary school.
But I look back over that period as the happiest of my life and, when I die, I expect to remember that mutual endeavour as my proudest achievement. We agreed a plan for parenthood that we both believed to be in the best interests of our children, our family and our marriage and we carried it out and made it work together.
Boy, was it ever a long time coming! I was in my late fifties when our babies were born and was, therefore, changing nappies and pushing buggies in my sixties. Yet something similar to the picture of equal parenthood that my wife and I brought into being had first developed in my mind as an ideal in my twenties. The snag was, I never found a woman who thought the same way.
Even as long ago as 1971, I had known for sure that I wanted to be a father but dreaded the prospect of being chained in a conventional marriage like the one I had watched my parents suffer and endure. I always wanted to be an active, fully-involved parent and to miss as little as possible of my children’s infancies. The women had other ideas.
In that year, 1971, I talked several times about having a baby with a girlfriend who enjoyed being pregnant but already had her hands full as the single mother of one little daughter. The possibility that she and I might live together was never on the cards, but I offered to take a leading role in looking after our baby, who could live primarily with me.
“I couldn’t trust you,” she said. “You’d probably get drunk and stoned out of your head and let the baby starve or knock over the paraffin heater and you’d both burn to death.”
This was a laughably unreal fantasy. Of the two of us, she was by far the more devoted stoner, by far the less reliable and trustworthy character – and, what’s more, I didn’t even own a paraffin heater. I can only think she concocted that self-serving fiction as a means of evading a proposition that disturbed her own notions of motherhood and fatherhood.
A few years later, I met a woman who was exceptionally keen to have a baby with me but determined to steer me away from my unconventional ideas of parenthood. If we were going to have a baby, I suggested we might go on living separately in our own flats and she might drop off the baby at my place on her way to work and pick it up in the evening.
“All my friends who are mothers say this is a completely unworkable picture of childcare,” she insisted. I reluctantly gave in.
I couldn’t see any other prospect that I might ever be a father. That woman and I then had a marriage in the 1980s that she largely contrived to suit her own ideals and which, to my despair, more or less emulated our parents’ nightmare model. I earned all the money (frequently on long working stints abroad away from my family) while she stayed home looking after our son. I had to subsidise this set-up even though it became everything I had wanted to avoid.
Whenever I was at home, I did my best to be an active, involved father – playing with my son in our garden and in the park, cleaning his school shoes, accompanying him to and from school, making his packed lunch, helping with homework, bath-time, story-reading and so on.
Not many other men were conducting themselves along those lines at that time in rural Suffolk. I heard that my relationship with my son was viewed as “weird” by the mothers at the school gate who frequently guessed, I was told, that I “really wanted to be a mother”. For a man to be a father on his own terms was not permissible.
My later experiences helping to bring up my daughters do suggest that active, committed fathers can find things easier today but, in many essential ways, not nearly enough has changed.
In an article in this space two weeks ago, I discussed some remarks by the American family commentator, Anne-Marie Slaughter, where she wondered if women, in general, truly want men to be equal in domestic life but might, instead, often prefer to retain sovereignty themselves.
That same doubt applies, in my view, to parenthood. It’s open to question, in my mind, whether women, as a whole, are persuaded of their civic duty to cede full rights of equality to fathers.
These questions arise not merely from my own personal experiences but, more generally, from the continuing and remarkable absence of activity from women’s leaders and women’s groups over the inequalities of fathers in family law. Surely it must be obvious to such fair-minded citizens and lovers of equality that the routine separation by the courts of fathers from their children is the single most insupportable abuse of human rights in our own age? Surely it must be obvious that women cannot be fully equal in the wider society and at work if they are also expected to be the parents who take care of children most of the time? Unless men are fully equal as parents, it will always remain impossible for women to be fully equal in the world.
A very few feminists have adamantly adopted this point of view – including, in America, Karen DeCrow, former President of the National Organization for Women and Cathy Young, who herself wrote DeCrow’s obituary in The Atlantic. But why doesn’t Harriet Harman get it? Why isn’t Mumsnet constantly up in arms demanding reform of the family laws for fathers, in the interests of mothers? Why isn’t the WI proselytizing this cause?
Could the answer be that, as the young mother told me all those years ago, “Women will never give up control of their own children.”