Weird ways we treat fathers that end up weighing on mothers
It’s the middle of the night. I am 9 weeks pregnant. I am in A&E, folded on myself, my abdomen screaming in pain and the doctors don’t know why. My partner is sitting next to me, massaging my right thumb, because for some reason, it distracts me from the pain more effectively than the paracetamol the nurse is giving me every couple of hours.
I look at him and it occurs to me that he probably has larger caring and nurturing energy reserves than I do. He is probably going to be better at being a dad than I will be at being a mum. And yet, because I am carrying our baby in my belly, everyone assumes I am and will be the primary carer. I find that odd. We have both created this human so we will both be equal carers. It seems straightforward to us.
But the assumption that the opposite is true is everywhere. Friends ask me what my plan is for returning to work, instead of asking us what our plan is. Letters for medical appointments and antenatal classes are all addressed to me, rather than to the two of us. The midwife regularly asks me how I’m coping emotionally (fine) but never asks how he is doing. And because we are both self-employed, I am the only one who will able to claim maternity allowance. Self-employed dads in the UK have no access to any kind of paternity pay.
Everything seems to be designed as if I had made myself pregnant on my own, and as if having a child was a solo adventure, rather than a shared journey.
A strange thing happened last week. We went to the hospital because someone rather violently hit my 35 weeks belly with a heavy backpack on the bus. When I explained what happened, the two receptionists looked at my partner with suspicion. He felt obliged to smile sheepishly to show that he was the least threatening person on earth.
I am currently doing research into children social services. One of the first things you will notice upon entering a social care department is that most social workers are women. And one of the first thing you will notice when they start talking about the families they work with is how much they refer to “mum” and how little they refer to “dad.” Fathers are often seen as an external threat, and therefore either ignored or kept at bay. The focus is on the mother. Sometimes in a supportive way, sometimes in a punitive way. I remember observing a child protection conference. The aim is to decide whether a looked after child can return to her young mother or not. The young mother says very little, is asked very little. However, she is lectured a lot. One of the social workers says to her: “We all know how bad your tastes in men are.” I look at the young mother. She gives a faint smile and looks down. I do not know her background story. I do not know what the father of the child has done. But when I see the young mother looking down, I see her carrying the weight of her gender. The situation has become all about her ‘choices’ rather than whatever the shared dysfunctions of their relationship might have been.
What I see is the other side of focusing all child related public services towards women: only supporting mothers when all goes well can quickly turn into only punishing mothers when all goes wrong.
Note: I say fathers rather than partners, because I don’t know how same sex or queer couples are treated when expecting a child, so cannot pretend to speak on their behalf. I’d be very interested to know though.