This weekend I met up with my parents and it surprised me that they both congratulated Nacho, my husband, for being a great father. Don’t get me wrong: Nacho is an amazing father. He spends many hours a day taking care of our son Lorenzo, makes him laugh out loud, and also manages to deal with the little one’s seemingly inconsolable bouts of crying – even though he doesn’t have a quick breastmilk fix to offer.
With Lorenzo barely eight months old now, I would have not been able to do much of what I have accomplished in 2019 had it not been for Nacho: starting this job at The Correspondent, attending conferences and workshops, all of this while still breastfeeding.
I guess my parents congratulated him because they think of Nacho’s role as a help to me. And yes, Nacho is of great help to me. But he is not helping me: he is being a father.
In most societies fathers take a step back when it comes to taking care of children, especially in the first months. Women earn less, on average, and so they are more likely to cut back on their working hours after giving birth.
One exception that is often mentioned is the Aka tribesmen in the Central African Republic. Anthropologist Barry Hewlett has studied how Aka men look after their young children while the mothers are out hunting, and notes that they even offer their nipples to comfort the babies.
Gender stereotypes still play a huge role too. Just think of bathrooms. Changing stations are usually in women’s bathrooms, even at airports. Over the past eight months, Nacho has looked for changing rooms in male bathrooms across Italy, as well as in Berlin, Amsterdam, Toulouse, Stockholm, Zurich, Geneva and Lausanne. He finally came across one over the weekend in Trento. It was so eventful that he even took a picture of it.
“Is there not a healthy balance of father-with-child and mother-with-child?” asks Joe Sherman, a member, in an email following last week’s newsletter I found it an interesting question.
“In the motherhood books I have read lately, that balance strikes me all too often being heavily weighted with mom and absent of dad,” he continues, before referring to his own experience as the father of a young child. “I had to push to get my time in, daughter latched to me not by my breast but by my love for her. The role of father-in-the-flesh arose from my sense of feeling alienated from those first crucial days, weeks and months when, as you have pointed out, the brain architecture in a child develops to a considerable degree.”
In my own experience during pregnancy in Italy, midwives got me to involve Nacho from the get-go and stressed the importance of his role too. Joe’s experience was different: “Caregivers, pediatricians, lactation consultants and others involved in early child care in the USA nod appreciably at the father but all too often consider him a curious spectator with only modest utility.”
Another member’s comment got me thinking even more about how much children’s upbringing is geared towards mothers and not fathers. Johan Lövgren made this comment almost as an afterthought, in a response to the news that I had visited Uppsala for a conference. He said that he had found his paternal leave “a very isolating experience”. Sweden has a generous paternity leave and Johan took nine months of it.
He said that he had benefited from attending an öppen förskola (literally: open preschool) – a space where parents cannot leave the kids, but have to stick around and play with them. “It is a place to meet other parents and for the children to meet other children, and get a chance to play,” says Johan.
“The open preschool really helped during this time, it was great to see other parents and talk to them. I generally feel that such communal solutions to childcare are very important, and should definitely be considered more in the future,” he added.
I will definitely be writing more about fatherhood in the future, so please do share your thoughts and experiences about this. I wonder how much we’re still thinking in binary systems when it comes to motherhood and fatherhood, rather than simply of child-care – regardless of who is providing it. I also wonder how this conversation translates to same-sex relationships.
And I have more questions: are there any others societies like the Aka, where fathers traditionally spend more time with children than mothers? Or are there historical moments in which fatherhood and childcare were more actively linked than they are today?
I am now back in Trento, Italy, and will be here until early December. Let me know if you’re somewhere nearby and we can meet up!
Thanks to everyone for your input, and do keep it coming.
Until next time!
This article first appeared in The Correspondent, the member-funded platform that shut down on 1 January 2021.