Men are Parents Too

Another shocking headline graced the pages of the Daily Telegraph this week, albeit apparently only temporarily before removal. ‘Mother of 3 poised to lead the BBC’ it shrieked, a sentence curiously reminiscent of the way Dorothy Hodgkin’s Nobel Prize was celebrated 50 years ago. Back then the Daily Telegraph announced “British woman wins Nobel Prize – £18,750 prize to mother of three“. But that was 1964 and you might have thought things had moved on a little since then. Apparently not. The Observer at the time was little better, writing in very much the same vein “affable-looking housewife Mrs Hodgkin” had won the prize “for a thoroughly unhousewifely skill: the structure of crystals of great chemical interest“. Surely they wouldn’t be so crass now?

Laura Bates argues (as it happens, in the Guardian) that the ‘fertility’ of a woman such as Rona Fairhead, the subject of the current storm, should not appear in the text at all. In some respects I agree with her position. As things stand this is indeed an appallingly sexist way of proceeding because, as she points out, no man would be described in a comparable way when news of their appointment to some senior role was described. But where I differ from her is in thinking, not that women’s family status should not be mentioned but that men’s should be. Men are parents too. Indeed many of them are deeply caring parents who put huge amounts of time and effort into childcare and housework. Not all men, by any means, and the evidence is strong that on average women do a disproportionate amount of both types of ‘chores’ even when their partners make a valuable contribution. Nevertheless, men do and of course should, contribute. If we sweep the fact that work-life balance matters to both sexes under the carpet we aren’t doing anyone any favours, especially the next generation.

Children are too often seen as the mother’s ‘problem’. Be it in headlines, in job interviews or in everyday conversation, this assumption is in general made. Actually giving birth may be down to the hard work of the mother alone, with the partner able to offer little more than encouraging words, or possibly a whiff of gas, during that labour (in all senses of the word). But by a few weeks after the birth there is little that the father can’t do other than breastfeeding, and with modern pumps that is much less of an issue than at any time in the past. So, let us never forget it takes two to make a baby (I’ll leave out the quandary of when three are involved) and it should take two to bring them up. We should therefore make a point of reminding the world that men have children too, even if, as yet, the reality is too often that they aren’t around enough to do their fair share of the fetching, carrying, chauffeuring, homework, mopping noses and all the other thousands of tasks that modern parenthood entails.

If we sanitise all articles about people of both sexes so that parenthood is taboo, we deny our young the chance to work out how they might want to balance their own lives. Young girls want to know whether it is possible for them to aspire to be senior professionals in whatever field and have children. Young men should be thinking about this too. Maybe we should push the media to have more stories about high-powered men who are dab hands at nappy-changing and the school run rather than berate them for mentioning the fact that a senior woman has given birth at some point. After all, unless they actually interview the woman and find out whether or not she had a professional live-in nanny and a string of other domestics from two weeks after the birth, the mere fact she is the mother of X children isn’t in fact very informative. It just looks as if it is because we make assumptions that being a mother necessarily means doing the mothering.

I say let’s have equality of parental descriptions in these stories of senior management in whatever field; but let’s also remind our own children that men work around the home (or at least they should) and can play their role in parenting way beyond the moment of insemination. In my happier dreams I imagine that the changing law about how parental leave can be shared will make a genuine transformation (in the UK at least) in how families tackle parenting from the first few weeks after a birth onward. That would be one way of liberating both members of the couple, and with luck will lead to well-balanced children for the next generation. But let’s not forbid the mention of children from success stories in the media in the meantime.

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14 Responses to Men are Parents Too

  1. A non-parent says:

    I’m not sure I agree with you here; isn’t the message that we want to send that you can aspire to have whatever career you want regardless of your personal life? Isn’t that the point behind making sure people have adequate (or hell, even better) work life balance?

    I don’t want kids. Never have done, and pretty sure I never will. This puts me in a very fortunate position, I know, in terms of managing work, but I don’t really want to read articles that explain a senior professors family life. I want that to be irrelevant, for those with kids to be able to enjoy them without worrying about career structures, and for those of us who don’t have families not to feel like we’re failing.

  2. GMP says:

    I am with the non-parent above. Why does anyone’s reproductive status have to be highlighted when discussing their professional achievements?

    I remember a few years ago, I was interviewed for a student news letter. It started with “a wife, a mother, and a professor.” I was really ticked off. Why was it important to the students at all that I was a wife and a mother? Women are always defined through their relationship with others, and the most prominent relationships seem to require no particular achievement other than having working reproductive organs — note how being a professor is apparently tertiary to having been able to marry and procreate.

    I am a scientist, damn it.

  3. piscator says:

    nice post. I think the hiding of personal details about senior people is slightly de-humanising – It is people who become senior scientists, journalists, politicians etc not faceless automata, and it makes it more human to know that the top people in the field also have interests outside science and have dealt with soiled nappies and crying babies. Also I think that when starting off in science it is too easy to think that all the top people are there because they came from Mars, are preternaturally smart and are just somehow different. The easier it is to identify with them and see them as another human with their own abilities and their own foibles, the easier it is to think `well if they managed it so can I’

  4. GMP says:

    There is never a shortage of humanizing articles on high-achieving women. I would not mind at all these women appearing less human and more superhuman, as we do that for men all the time. Any attempt at humanization of high-achieving men is done superficially, and just makes him seem even grander for the involvement. Also note how women are always “mother of [however many]”, while men “spend time with their children.” The former brings up an image of an exhausted apron-clad woman and several small crying children hanging off of her, while the latter brings up a stereotypical allergy-medication commercial, with the dad and school-aged children running happily through the meadows.

  5. rpg says:

    While I am *so* going to start adding “father of three” to my Guardian post bylines, there is one thing that gives me pause.

    Having lots of children is a bit of an ego trip for a man, whereas for a woman it’s more, “gosh, I have to work so hard”.

    Why such an attitude persists, and what can be done about it, is left as an exercise for the reader.

  6. I think these comments are tending to react to the situation as is, not the ideal world I’m advocating. For instance, in the case of rpg’s comment, if men in general worked hard at their family life, having children would no longer be an ‘ego trip’ and both parents would fit the ‘gosh I have to work so hard’ camp. Until we get past almost a Madonna-fetish i.e. labelling women who have children as necessarily ‘good’: mothers who do everything all by themselves. Likewise stereotyping men as having nothing to do with the children regardless of any truth in the matter means we have a problem. Culturally we have a problem and certainly in the ways we depict women and create images for the young.

    An article about a professional should undoubtedly focus on their professional achievements. But that’s not to say aspects of their personal life cannot find their way in – in the case of both men and women. I believe the negativity around talking about children in these articles arises because of the asymmetry between the sexes. But individuals should be able to say ‘nothing about my family’ and/or introduce other personal aspects if they so desire: their love of scuba diving or cats if that’s what they want. And for those who are happily childless, if articles didn’t have a Madonna-fetish that should help too.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    I had managed to wean myself off commenting on Athene’s blog posts, but cannot resist on this occasion because it discusses a topic I feel particularly strongly about. Whether or not personal details such as family life are discussed in an article should, of course, be context dependent: if someone has overcome remarkable personal challenges and is happy to discuss them, then it should certainly feature in any biographical article; if, on the other hand, an article is a profile for the business pages discussing the appointment of a new CEO and their suitability to the job, it shouldn’t. Unless an article is specifically about the difficulties of juggling caring responsibilities and a career, and is making the statistical point about the unfair reality that these responsibilities fall disproportionately on women in today’s society, there really is no reason to end up raising the issue more with women subjects than men.

    As scientists, I think we do a broad favour to our discipline by talking about our lives outside the discipline as well as the science we are doing when presenting our work to the broader audience. I mentioned the excitement of my son’s first day at secondary school during a radio interview earlier in the week, not because it had any particular relevance to the astronomy we were discussing, but because presenting a human face of science is surely a good thing when it comes to engaging and encouraging the next generation to think that science might be for them too. And if along the way it contributed in some small way to the message that it is healthy for working fathers to be as big a part of family life as working mothers, that surely can’t be a bad thing, either.

  8. Hi, Athene.

    Finally got round to following up on your tweet earlier today. Visited your blog only to find that Prof. M got here earlier and has already said everything I wanted to say (…and a heck of a lot more cogently than I could have managed).

    You, Mike, and me all in agreement. What are the odds?!

  9. Colin G. Finlay says:

    Here is an interesting viewpoint from Dame Carol Black, doubtless known to you as Principal of Newnham College.

    I hope this post does not cause offence.

    • Thanks for drawing my attention to this article, which I hadn’t seen, but it seems to conflate several arguments. It has been said about various professions (and in particular sub-specialities) that when there are more women in them they become less influential and also that pay decreases. I think that is a slightly different issue from ‘walking with one’s feet’ and finding long hours unattractive. Yet this article seems to mix up arguments about loss of power and women dropping out. I wrote previously about issues within the medical profession, following a talk I heard at Newnham by Baronees Deech, hosted in fact by Carol Black. Like that talk and the report Deech wrote, Carol Black in the Telegraph does not seem to mention conditions other than long hours as something that might be amiss. I feel they are missing other cultural issues.

  10. MatGB says:

    In my happier dreams I imagine that the changing law about how parental leave can be shared will make a genuine transformation (in the UK at least) in how families tackle parenting from the first few weeks after a birth onward. That would be one way of liberating both members of the couple, and with luck will lead to well-balanced children for the next generation.

    That was certainly part of the intent with the original policy idea, it was slightly, well, strange to watch it go through the policy review process and get picked up by leading politicians who completely reversed the priorities and either completely ignored or weren’t even aware of the gender pay gap stuff that was the main inspiration for the proposal.

    On the flip side, leading politicians, at least do get coverage of family life regardless of gender—Cameron’s struggles with their heavily disabled son, Clegg taking time out for paternity leave and getting the kids to design his annual christmas cards, Miliband being *shock horror* an unmarried father living with his partner happily (a shocking and horrific state of affairs now rectified, and I really hope it was genuinely because they wanted to actually marry and not to get the tabloids to just shut up about it).

    But, it’s virtually always just the party leaders that get that attention, if male, whereas female politicians always get it, even going so far as talking about her having done something when it was actually him—specifically, Duncan Hames took his new(ish) baby through the division lobbies to vote, the first time a baby had beenc arried through, apparently, but some media outlets decided it couldn’t have been him that did it, it must have been Jo Swinson (the mother) instead, I have zero clue why they did this. It was only very recently I found out, for example, that Gove’s kids are at the same school as Cameron’s—didn’t know the Education Secretary had kids at all, you’d have thought of all the politicians that would be the one where it’s most likely to be mentioned?

    I mostly agree, I don’t think we’re going to get the media to stop banging on about X being a mother, so let’s encourage them to also mention Y is a father and talk about their family life a bit more—my new boss has a son the same age as my daughter, we spent the first ten minutes of our skype meeting yesterday comparing notes on them starting new school, etc. Dads do talk to each other about what it’s like to be a parent, but the media don’t seem to pay attention to it much.

  11. Caroline says:

    I agree that women are associated with parenting in a way that men never are, and this also applies to those who have decided not to have a family. Women are described as childless and routinely asked when they intend to have children in a way that men never seem to be.

  12. Ruth says:

    Just to say that I really appreciated this blog. My own two children have a father who shares their care with me, and always has. He thinks it is natural that he should help care if I need to be away with work, as I do for him. But, for him having children was a non-issue professionally. For me it was received by some almost as a sign that I wasn’t taking my work as seriously as some hoped. I would not let this stop me, but I think we still have a strange world which assumes that maternity means losing your brain, or forces a choice between nurture and competence. I had perfectly intelligent conference calls with senior colleagues in other countries while breast feeding – although I expect some of them would have been horrified if they had seen what was happening on the other end of the conversation. I can answer emails while cooking, and do. I drive away to do something interesting knowing my children are safe with the man I chose to be their dad, and whose approach has earned my love and respect ever since. It just annoys me that I seem to need to demonstrate credentials again and again, while his fairness in caring for our boys with me is seen as exceptional by other women. I will be glad when it is normal, but I am pleased our sons have seen his attitude and mine, I hope it helps them,

  13. Curt Rice says:

    Good thoughts and discussion here. To add to the debate, there are simulations of CV evaluations that suggest men are actually rewarded in their careers for parenthood while women are punished. I wrote about one such study in a couple of blog posts, including “The fatherhood bonus: Have a child and advance your career” at

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