We do our kids a disservice when we marginalize the role fathers play in their lives
A few months ago, I went to see the stand-up comic, Papa CJ, perform his show, Naked. He walked on to the stage, carrying a few props. Among them was a teeny-tiny blue onesie that he hung up on a stand behind him as he began his routine. But it was only towards the end of the show that the audience learnt its significance. This was what Papa CJ’s son had been wearing when he last saw him. Since then, many long years had passed but he hadn’t seen his son because of a bitter divorce and a custody battle that left him frozen out of his child’s life.
There were a few moist eyes in the audience by then, especially when he confessed that he had a fantasy that a stranger would knock on his door one day, ask him if he was Papa CJ, and then ask if it was okay if he just called him ‘Papa’.
I was reminded of this show last week when I read Maneka Gandhi’s comments on paternity leave. The Union minister for women and child development announced: “Paternity leave will be considered only if, once the woman goes back to work after 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing their sick leave for a month to take care of the child…I will be happy to give it but for a man, it will be just a holiday, he won’t do anything.”
Now, I have no personal knowledge of the circumstances of Papa CJ’s divorce and the rights and wrongs of his custody battle, but having witnessed his pain as he recounted being denied access to his son, it was clear that here was one father who would have given anything for the privilege of changing his child’s diaper one more time. And in that, he stands in for millions of Indian fathers who would love to play a more hands-on role in the rearing of their children, but are unable to do so because one parent has to be in full-time work to keep the home fires burning.
These kinds of men do the best they can. They try and come back early each evening to give their wives a little rest. They take over night feeds. They rock the baby to sleep in the early hours of the morning. They put together a quick pasta or pulao for dinner if the baby has bad colic and just won’t settle down. And they long for the weekends when they can spend quality time with their kids, breathing in their special baby smell as they douse them with talcum powder post bathtime.
Are there some Dads who shirk childcare responsibilities even when they have all the time in the world? Am sure there are. But for every Dad who prefers watching football to playing ball with his kid, there is another who spends hours reading stories to his child, giving in to every demand of, “Just one more, Dad!”
Fathers like these would like nothing more than a period of paternity leave when they could legitimately take some time off work to bond with their babies, and give their sleep-deprived wives some respite in the endless duties of childcare. But stereotypes like the ones that Maneka Gandhi referenced in her statement prevent them from doing just that.
This casual dismissal of the important roles fathers play – and more importantly, want to play – in a child’s life is symptomatic of a culture in which it has become fashionable to slag off men to prove your feminist credentials.
Consider this. Would Maneka Gandhi have been allowed to get away with it if she had made such a sweeping statement about women? Or, more to the point, would a male minister get away with being so dismissive about women? Let’s say that a male minister said that women should not be allowed credit cards because they are reckless shoppers and would run into debt. Would we let that go as easily as we have the suggestion that all men would treat paternity leave like a paid vacation?
Of course not. There would be widespread outrage, political parties would condemn the statement, social media would go into meltdown, there would be demands for an apology. In short, all hell would break loose.
But sexism doesn’t cease to be sexism just because the targets are men rather than women. And dismissing all men as ‘feckless fathers’ who don’t have any interest in looking after their children reeks of rank sexism.
Yes, there are plenty of men who feel pretty useless around a baby when he/she is being breastfed and in diapers. But who said that paternity leave was only meant for when the child is an infant? Child-rearing doesn’t stop once the kids have started walking and talking. If anything, it can get even more strenuous.
It’s not enough to bathe and feed children. It is just as important to teach them life skills like swimming or cycling. Or indeed, provide them a living example of a world in which men and women are equal participants, equal partners even, in the task of raising a family.
So, instead of reinforcing the stereotype that looking after babies is a woman’s job, how about encouraging men to get more involved in the rearing of their children? And if you are going to do that, then incentivizing them with a period of paid paternity leave is a good start.