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.