Friday, 28 January 2011

Men Pushing Prams

The world has changed a great deal in the last 30 years, and it's impossible to know what if any part any one of us has had in bringing about those changes. I can certainly make no grand claims to fame or agency -- there have been no groundbreaking reports to Parliament bearing my name, no books that changed anybody's mind about anything. But I can claim to have been in the forefront of a quiet revolution in the way men have been reconfiguring masculinity, especially as fathers, and I take some pride in that.

If you want evidence that things have changed, just look on any high street, and count the men pushing prams. In some parts of Britain, even in the 1950s, for a man to be seen pushing a pram would have been like being seen wearing a dress. Division of labour around "man's work" and "woman's work" was so strictly gendered, that even an unemployed man could not be seen publicly or even privately to take on some of the burden of housework and childcare. Women policed this division as rigorously as men.


1932: Grandad almost pushing a pushchair

But in the 1970s some of us felt a rising wave of change and began to question inherited definitions of masculinity. I am, of course, talking about childcare, not wearing dresses, though I did once meet an acquaintance wearing a long red dress that matched his long red beard on a remote Greek beach, but that's another story.

Obviously, arriving in one of the epicentres of radical ideas in the early 1970s, and choosing to share one's life with a radical feminist, did make a difference. But for me, a traditionally-raised boy from a very ordinary family, the learning curve was steep: it's not an exaggeration to say that I arrived at university as one person and left as another. This was not without cost: I fell out of phase with friends, and for many years felt adrift in the world as old certainties turned out to be choices, not eternal truths.

But, as a man, I did have good precedents. For example, my grandfather had every right to be a "hard case". Born illegitimate in 1896 in the infirmary of the Mill Road Workhouse in Liverpool, he and his brother were abandoned and brought up in the "cottage homes" for orphans and foundlings run by the West Derby Poor Law Union in Fazakerley. This was swiftly followed by military service in WW1. A tough start by any measure. And yet, he was as far from a wife and child beating monster as it was possible for a man of his time to be. I don't suppose he ever changed a nappy, but he had good, gentle genes; received, with thanks.

My own father was (again, by the standards of his time and background) a paragon. A clever man of even temper and good humour, after returning from WW2 he was content to lead an unambitious life in order to provide the stability of home life in one town. A little wild in his youth -- a drinker, a motorbike rider and a drummer in local dance bands -- he happily let himself be bent to family life: something I despised him for in my own youthful wildness. I am ashamed of that now.

Between them, my minimally-educated parents seem to have developed a home-grown progressive theory of parenting, with little smacking, much kindness, and total indulgence of individuality. My mother was at work full-time before I was eight, but I don't recall any opposition from my father. We needed the money, of course, but I think he recognised that my mother needed the independence even more. Although he was quite a "cool" guy, a fan of swing jazz and a wearer of Italian-styled suits, he was not afraid to show physical affection to us, in private or in public. My fondest memories of him are when he would patiently explain to me the meaning of songs like "Red Sails In The Sunset" or "Mack The Knife" (as sung by Bobby Darin, of course, "Hup, hup!"). But he never cooked a meal or worked a washing machine in his life.*


1992: sometimes a pram can't get you where you want to go

So, becoming a "hands on" father may actually have come more easily to me than for many. Nappies, cooking, waking in the small hours to calm the big anxieties of tiny children, I did my share and more. No housework happens in our house, so sharing that bit was easy. I never really enjoyed the bedtime preparation rituals, so did all the cooking instead, a deal which stands to this day (hmm... must check the wording of that contract).

Both of our children attended the university Day Nursery from an early age -- a brilliant perk of my job -- and I spent every lunchtime for eight years with them, sharing a meal and then taking them for exploratory walks around the campus. An unusual experience for any father. This, now I come to think of it, laid the groundwork for my daily photographic expeditions, and perhaps also seeing familiar surroundings through their eyes may have helped me to see what others miss.

When they started school I took the (still) unusual step of going part-time at work, so I could collect them, and play with them at home. Quite often, I was the only father waiting in the school playground, and occasionally I was an awkward and resented male presence at traditionally female-dominated occasions like birthday parties. It surprised me to learn that there were still areas of activity which women will defend as fiercely against gender "intrusion" as idiotic men might defend their golf club or a bar. But I was not there to make any point, other than the fact that our kids had two parents rather than one and a half.

Where any of this goes next is anybody's guess. Sometimes, as this morning, I will hear "The Dambusters March" on the radio and feel a pang of regret that I never got to slide back the cockpit cover, jump down onto the airstrip and swagger back to the mess after another successful sortie in the New Battle of Britain. Idiotic, I know, and thankfully WW3 never happened; maybe, as a species, we are learning something. And if I should have grandchildren and they ask, "What did you do in the Childcare Wars of the 1990s, grandad?", at least I'll be able to say I pushed a pram for my country.

1962: the closest I came


* A slight rhetorical exaggeration. After my mother started to vanish into dementia, he learned to operate a microwave.

9 comments:

Kent Wiley said...

It is a different world, isn't it? Really like the 3 pics from the archive, especially #2.

Martin H. said...

Nice post, Mike.

Our daughter was born in 1979. Then, the drive was on, encouraging fathers to be present at the time of delivery. During the twelve hours it took for our little bundle of joy to make an appearance, my support role extended considerably beyond hand-holding. It was the most joyous day of our lives, without exception, but there were still those in the nursing profession who did little to disguise their irritation towards the long-haired, heavily bearded presence in the room.

Like you, I've loved every minute of being a 'hands on' father. No one knows how they'll shape up as parents, and if we get a 'thumbs up' from our kids, we can be thankful for having been given a turn at the wheel in more enlightened times.

Mike C. said...

Martin,

Now, who said anything about *enjoying* every minute of it??

Like every parent, my dark secret is how close I have come, at times, to the sort of violent behaviour that would attract the attention of the social workers... So very close...

I don't *regret* a minute of it, but -- being still largely in the thick of it -- the post-parental endorphins haven't yet kicked in...

And as for the "most joyous day" bit... I remember us bringing the first one home, plonking him in the middle of the floor and staring at him with a balloon over our heads that read "!?!?!?!". That was the *scariest* day of my life! That feeling of inescapable, total, absolute responsibility, and the deep unfairness of not being given a manual at the hospital.

Mike

Anonymous said...

Mike, I'm with you, ... from the screams down the hall involving serious voilence to certain parts of the male anatomy, till now, a mostly self sufficient 35 yr old, back in school, the 14 yr old, running on adrenaline since she got the lead in the sxhool play, and the 11 yr old miscreant, with one fallen by the wayside, and poor, old, dad, muddeling along, and wondering why the house is overrun with cats, dogs, fish, and the occassional hamster. And why am I always covered in fur? Why do they all want to sit on me?

Bron

Mike C. said...

Sounds torrid, Bron (hairy, even -- sorry, couldn't resist).

But, if I may say so, you illustrate another way in which men are changing as parents, i.e. they're much less inclined to run away from a less than perfect domestic situation. To my mind, this shows more strength and courage than any amount of bare-handed lion-strangling...

Mike

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Mike, The "screams down the hall" were from the maternity ward, when my first kid was born. My wife was having her own issues, but nothing like the woman down the hall.

I've been through a divorce, but I didn't abandon my kids; enough so that they both had far more problems with their mother than me ... but that is a long story.

Takes two to tango.

Bron

Mike C. said...

Bron,

Yes, I assumed those were the screams and threats you meant! Though it's true I do know some families where such blood-curdling threats are the stuff of everyday conversation.

I get the impression that men staying in touch with children after separation is becoming the norm, whereas cutting off all contact was once astonishingly common.

Mike

Gavin McL said...

I was once off work for three months and once I was well enough to emerge from the house I felt like an alien the world seemed wholly populated by old people, women and children so whilst fathers do take much more of role than they once did they are still a rarity as a full time carer.
I am not a person normally filled with confidence about the future but I escaped that panic feeling when our first child was born, somehow looking into her very dark eyes I felt like we would get through it all pretty well.
Our children currently 6 & 3 are delightful (an old lady once crossed the street to tell us so) but I have had those darker moments.
I like no. 2 - so you were once clean chinned Mike?

Gavin

Mike C. said...

Gavin,

Keep your fingers crossed -- the secondary school years, especially, can be a trial as a parent -- you revisit all the stuff you had deliberately forgotten about in your own life, but this time as a helpless onlooker...

Yes, I tend to alternate bearded and clean-shaven decades, though it's mainly stayed on in recent times. I hate shaving, basically.

Mike