Paternity leave is for losers? We need to stop it with these toxic stereotypes

·3-min read

Any man in an important position who takes six months of leave for a newborn is a loser. In the old days men had babies and worked harder to provide for their future – that’s the correct masculine response.”

With a bit of linguistic tweaking the above opinion wouldn’t be out of place in a Charles Dickens novel – but no, it actually comes from a tweet penned by technology executive and investor Joe Lonsdale. He’s waxing lyrical, specifically, about the pathetic idea that US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg might want to spend some time with his newborn twins, but obviously this applies to all men in “important positions”. (Presumably he considers men like Buttigieg’s husband who is an ex-teacher to already be losers.)

Sadly, this kind of toxic nonsense exists on both sides of the Atlantic. A UK-based report, which polled 631 working fathers at the end of 2020, found nearly three-quarters of men felt there was a stigma attached to them taking extended paternity leave – and numbers of men actually taking their allowed leave apparently fell to a 10-year low during the Covid-19 pandemic.

At nine months pregnant, I can’t help taking all of this rather personally. Luckily, with the help of shared parental leave, my husband will be knee deep in nappies with me for the first two months of our baby’s life – but the idea that society might try to talk him out of this enrages me a bit.

Having children (I’m told) can be tough – and the idea that men who fully participate in it are losers devalues women’s contributions too. There’s an unspoken assumption that the feeding and comforting and cleaning involved in caring for young children (still predominantly undertaken by women) is somehow beneath the attention of those truly interested in changing the world.

And it puts us back to a place where women (or those “unimportant” men taking on the traditional female role) are stuck in the domestic sphere, while “real” men deal with everything else. When these attitudes prevail, who can really be surprised that post-natal depression is such a thing?

No wonder it’s an unchallenged assertion that women will lose their identities to their children. No wonder men often feel like secondary parents. In fact, comments like Lonsdale’s only really serve to keep both men and women in their boxes – and to punish anyone for whom these boxes don’t actually fit. I imagine that the idea of women who might earn more than their male partners, for one example, doesn’t really feature in such a limited world view.

The truth is, stepping up to the full spectrum of your parental responsibilities doesn’t make you a loser at all. Arguably, continuing with business as usual in your own life while your partner’s is completely upended, does. While, sadly, the practical and economic conditions required to allow both parents to participate equally can be an issue, maybe we’d be able to fix that more easily if we all agreed it mattered in the first place.

My own partner enjoys his job, but he also wants to enjoy fatherhood on a level that elevates him to something somewhat more significant than a cash dispenser. And for my part, I’m excited about my baby – but I’m not willing to give up every other aspect of myself while my husband continues to pursue his own ambitions without compromise.

Maybe someone needs to remind Lonsdale that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, that caring for small children matters regardless of the gender of the person doing it. And that only “losers” call other men names for stepping up and doing their bit.

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