Long reads

The paternity leave manifesto

For a man, taking the responsibility for bringing up his children often means denying his role in society.

To tell the truth, I really did not want to end up writing a text on what it’s like to be a father on parental “leave”; I considered my decision to undertake paternity leave as purely personal. Looking back from the perspective of a content, full-time Dad, the decision seems perfectly self-evident now and it took some effort to remind me that it was not always so and that other parents, both men and women, might be facing similar inner barriers. That what I viewed as personal is actually political, or, to put it in a better way, it must become political in order to become truly personal. And so this text will alternate between personal and political, and will sometimes be both at the same time.

Patrocracy?

When a man decides to go on paternity leave in this day and age, he becomes not just a “full-time Dad” but also the opposite of the traditional view of a father figure in our culture. He even, in the eyes of many men and women, calls his very masculinity into question. For others it is an act of emancipation and feminism, part of the attack on the patriarchy. The traditional father, seen as the “head of the family”, is a patriarchal figure indeed; in ancient Rome, the pater familias was the only family member with any legal standing and the burden of his authority was borne not just by women, but also his children.

This paternal model of ruling as an absolute monarch was considered the ideal until the twentieth century, and it is little wonder that it incited the murderous desires of Oedipal structure.

I still think “patriarchy” is an ill-chosen word when discussing inequality between men and women. First, it is inextricably tied to the institution of the traditional, hierarchized family, an institution that has become largely extinct. But another reason is that it does not portray being a father in a very good light. I maintain that we should, along with the American feminist bell hooks, talk about “sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”. Hooks states that the term “patriarchy” invokes a misleading impression of one-sided rule of men over women, when the real issue is sexism being the ideological system that preaches male superiority. As this system is being realized and perpetuated by both men and women, both men and women should also be freed from this ideology and its practical consequences.

This perspective may well raise a lot of resistance and bad blood even among feminists: it blurs the black-and-white contours of the gender conflict and seeks to address complex inner discrepancies as opposed to simple antagonisms. However, the unpleasant fact of it often being women who perpetuate the ideology of sexism can hardly be denied: even if it is just because in the vast majority of cases it is women who bear the burdens of raising children during their most formative years. If those women were not carrying the ideology of sexism within themselves, they could hardly pass it on to their children. While there is no doubt that the perpetuation of sexist inequality on the societal scale is a well-oiled machine that is almost impossible to avoid, it is also true that its mechanism usually starts ticking within the family circle.

My own successes

The fundamental issue men have with feminism (apart from the rather nit-witted fear from the new, which is on the same level as the unshakeable conviction there is only one “real” way to make potato salad, aka the way Mom did it) is that they feel threatened. They view feminism as women trying to steal something that was always firmly in the male domain and, furthermore, force men into a position they regard as demeaning.

The thought of equally participating in childcare represents duties that both frighten and humiliate many a man.

But the question is whether we are not approaching this completely from the wrong standpoint; whether childcare is considered a duty, when it may be viewed as a privilege.

After all, it is literally an irreplaceable experience. One finds out even more about himself than he might have actually wanted: for example, one sees how he was brought up and automatically feels right at home applying the same methods; methods he always considered completely disastrous. And there is a lot more to learn about human psyche, the learning process and the workings of emotions.  But there’s even more still. I fondly remember all those little victories that meant so much to me. Getting a child to sleep for the first time, spending a whole weekend on my own with the child for the first time, or managing to lull both the kids to sleep… Yes, getting the children to sleep was, at least as far as I’m concerned, one of the biggest challenges, something that overshadows all the others that really were not much smaller at all. Falls, first illnesses, dressing up the tiny, fragile newborn with my clumsy oversized hands, tying a scarf properly in order to carry the baby (that one took a long time), spending several hours with an infant hungry for milk, arbitrating the disputes over the ownership of toys…

All those truly epochal successes filled me with an unhealthy amount of pride. But right next to that, there was always uncertainty springing from further tasks that awaited, and still await, me. For the whole time, I was all too aware of my own deficiencies. For one, I could not breast-feed, lacking the organ I always considered the last resort of harassed mothers everywhere. Dandling the child until my knees started to give way and exuding the soothing “shee, shee” until my mouth ran dry and replaced it with considerably less comforting rasps definitely was no substitute.

Those who can and those can’t

Eventually, I realized that most of these situations could be handled even without breasts. And, conversely, that possessing breasts does not automatically mean being able to handle any situation. Proclivity towards childcare is based on individuality, not sex or gender, and it can be built upon with practice. The social conventions still makes sure that girls are the ones being better prepared for the role of a parent; despite lacking personal experience, I can imagine that a pram and a doll are considerably more instructive than running around the park with a replica of a Colt 1911. But even this runs both ways: when I was being drafted for the army, all that military training suddenly evaporated and I found myself doing everything in my power to achieve draft avoidance.

The idea that they should be solely responsible for looking after little children makes men anxious. That is unless they do not dismiss it straight away as being way beneath them. But why would it be any different with women?

While it is commonly understood that they are natural caretakers and led towards this role by their upbringing, the reality tends to be rather different. Training by playing with dolls aside, the large families in which girls routinely take part in looking after the younger children are far less common today than in the past. Women just starting maternity leave can face the same fears and anxieties as any man put in the same situation and frequently even bigger ones due to the experience of childbirth that is often made needlessly traumatic by disinterested or overworked hospital staff. Furthermore, there is the obvious expectation that they will take to parenting immediately and flawlessly because they, after all, are women. They are subjected to a much more vicious pressure and driven towards the feeling of having failed as a person the moment they momentarily find themselves at their wit’s end. This feeling is quite capable of fundamentally disrupting one’s relationship with their children.

This all makes it extremely important to state clearly that there is no genetic predisposition towards childcare. Man and woman both hold a newborn with no idea what to do with it because it is so tiny and fragile and they worry they will break it somehow on the way home from hospital. But they will learn, or at least most of them will. Like women, men will learn to discern the meaning of a baby’s cry, whether it signifies hunger, the need to sleep, or just the infant being having a problem with them leaving them for a moment in order to make a cup of tea.

Despite all this, “nature” remains a strong (or rather oft-repeated) argument in the field of parenthood and childcare, and its meaning usually boils down to “it has always been this way”. However, in an age as culturally diverse and artificial as ours, thinking of “nature” as a static category is simply absurd. There is no reason for the privileges of parenthood to be glossed over within the dynamic of creating and re-creating human nature; after all, it is also a means of sharing experiences and opportunities, finding new methods and creatively developing them instead of just perpetuating the old and familiar.

The fairy tales we tell

The inner conflicts I experienced in my struggle to be as good a parent as I can, the impatience, frustration, the feeling of inadequacy, were an irreplaceable source of self-discovery. But looking after my children (and maybe it should be noted here that they are daughters) also represented a confrontation with the structures that perpetuate social inequality. For example, when reading to my daughters before bed I gradually felt more and more uncomfortable reading about princesses that just blindly wait to be rescued by a prince.

Let’s face it; there is something rotten at the core of Cinderella and Snow White.

When bringing up children, one truly realizes how formative things like fairy tales really are. And when discussing the less savory bits of certain fairy tales with adults, one also truly realizes just how people are willing to stick to the “traditional” for the sole reason of having been formed by it as well. Turning Cinderella into Cinderello is regarded as vile heresy even though these stories, collected and codified in the 19th century, were formed as products of their age and our own interferences (like a sleeping prince being rescued by an active princess) just add another formative layer to them. Trying to keep the memories of one’s own childhood alive should not mean viewing them as sacrosanct. After all, we all tell fairy tales about our roles in life and if mine happens to be that I consider broadening the horizon of human experience and perspective while building real relationships with those close to me, what better way to express both of these sentiments than throwing myself into the adventure of paternity leave?

Ideals to aspire to

When discussing the concept of childcare, the definition and role of “equality” is often misunderstood by men and women (including feminists) alike. The idea seems to be to allow the oppressed to gain access to what the oppressors are freely enjoying, that is, the ability to be rid of the burden of looking after kids, the ability to pursue one’s career and so on. This is a resentment strategy of the oppressed, an inevitable but also unrewarding phase of emancipation. Dialectically speaking it is just a negation: it is necessary for the emancipation to take place, but does not change anything about the structurally flawed situation.

The real success comes in the next phase, when the structure of inequality is superseded by something new.

For example, take the struggle against feudalism: the rule of aristocracy had to be replaced by the rule of the bourgeoisie, but the ideal result was a situation where it no longer mattered whether one was bourgeois or nobility to be able to hold power. Of course, that excluded lower classes, women, foreigners and many others, but those were the objects of other struggles to come.

In case of parental leave, the desired eventual state should be one where the decision on who will undertake it is not based on whether it is the father or the mother. It would be a purely individual, and yet shared, decision by both parents. The ideal is, naturally, that both would be able to participate to a degree they consider best without restriction from cultural, institutional and economic factors. And thus they would share the joys and fears of bringing up their children without any regard for social conventions defined by the female/male axis.

What is there to be gained?

While a man traveling around the city with a child in a scarf, pram or a child carrier pack still inevitably draws attention and bewildered glances, I believe the times are changing and people are getting used to it. But it is quite possible that it is me who got used to their surprised stares: after all, 98 per cent of parents who go on leave are women, which makes a man with a child in a public space a rather exotic sight.

Obviously, there are economic factors in play as well. It is absolutely necessary that unequal wages for men and women be consigned to the dustbin of history. Only then can we hope that the decision which of the parents will stay home with the children stops being a simple equation where X always equals “woman”. Otherwise, the idea of parenthood as a time-out for the less economically capable parent will just not die: the fact that parental “leave” is in fact full-time round-the-clock grunt work with no adequate recompense is just icing on the cake of economic injustice of the current state of events. Although I suspect that even if the salary situation in the Czech Republic were to change, many men would still not be able to break down the psychological barriers that prevent them from even thinking about full-time parenthood. As I said before, I am all too well aware of the inner hurdles I had to overcome and, although I today see my decision as correct perfectly natural, it was by no means easy to make. This could be the real reason for this text: to help even a single man become a parent.

Come to think of it, there are very few opportunities to achieve this many amazing things at once: to muster up enough determination to understand one’s self further and to be confronted with the personal traits I try not to think about and to find out where they originally came from. To really work towards a specific way of freeing others and myself from sexism, because although equality has many facets, childcare is the fundamental one. And, first and foremost, spending time with my children over the most dynamic period of their lives, seeing all the first smiles, steps and stumbles… I would not change that for the world.

This text originally appeared on A2larm. Translation by Michal Chmela.

Bio

Matěj Metelec is an editor of the Czech bi-weekly cultural magazine A2.