What would I like for Father’s Day? I'd like to be treated like a real parent. All the time, by everybody. Certainly, it's not a social problem as big as racism or as urgent as domestic violence, but today seems like a good day to talk about it.
Most dads have had the experience: “Oh, you’re babysitting your kids,” says the lady at work. “Aww, it's nice to see a dad taking the children out,” says a stranger in line at the bakery. “Isn't that lovely, you're giving mummy a break,” says another parent at the playground. I want to fix this other parent with a stare and say “No. She's dead.” I nearly did once because it's true, my wife has passed away and I am a single parent. I didn't say that, I just grunted and walked away. She probably thought I was rude, even though she was prying into my personal life in a completely unreasonable and very unwelcome way. When I think about this moment, and I have a lot, it isn't actually the implicit personal interrogation that makes me angry – it did at the time because it was a shock and I wasn't ready for it. What makes me angry is the assumption that I'm the standby parent. This wasn't true even when my partner was alive and it certainly isn't true now.
Many people seem comfortable with the idea that men can be parents and men can do everything just as well as women, unless wombs or breasts are necessary. But agreeing that men can do that is different to assuming that men do do it. There is still a widespread assumption in modern Australian society that a male parent isn't the main parent. What's worse is that from this assumption, too many people jump to the conclusion that the specific male they are looking at doesn't really know what he is doing. Sure, out there somewhere are probably dads who look after kids just as well as women – but it's not that stressed looking guy who drops his kid off at your childcare centre, surely.
Let's call some spades some spades. It is more common for a female parent to stay at home and raise children. It is more common for single parent families to be families with mothers than with fathers. These things are more common. Just like male police officers and female nurses are more common. But we accept the male nurses and female police officers standing right in front of us. We accept that they are competent and that they belong in these roles. That's our first assumption, we no longer demand proof of competency because of gender. This doesn't go for the modern dad - at least not nearly as often as it should. The standard assumption is that dad is the second parent (and not quite as good with his own kids) until proven otherwise.
So what's so bad about assuming something that's usually true? After all, you can't know everything about everybody you ever meet and at some point you just have to guess. Well, that would be prejudice – forming an opinion that isn't based on reason or experience. “Most men are.... something something” doesn't count as good reasoning and it doesn't count as experience for the individual man you're making an assumption about. If you've never experienced prejudice then (just like everything else you've never experienced) it's impossible to truly understand. In short, it sucks. I have only experienced a very mild form of prejudice for a fairly short time and I'm totally over it already. When you assume something about a person, even if you happen to be right about that particular person, you are reinforcing the idea that everybody is how you first guess they are – even if it's just in your mind. You are needlessly making life a bit more difficult for somebody else who doesn't fit into the way your first guesses work. They probably experience little bits of prejudice all the time and are really sick of it, especially when they have a million other things to do, like being a parent.
The other problem this assumption causes is probably worse. Being a regular parent is hard, so hard. Best not to even start me about being a single parent. Some days you do just want to give up and shove your toddler in front of TV and Coco Pops for 4 hours while you do grown up stuff without them. So if society continually tells you that it doesn't expect you to be a proper parent, because of the genitals you were born with, then that's going to affect you at your weakest moments. It works a bit like I suppose casual racism works, it isn't everybody all the time but is often enough to grind you down. You wonder if you should just give up and go along with it or maybe you should overdo the stereotype just to prove a point. Pushing dads to act like incompetent parents is something that nobody should be proud of, even as a joke.
So, what can you do to tackle the problem and improve my Father's Day? Well I'm glad you asked. I'd like three things from you.
• Don't assume – the particular type of parenting role that a male fulfils probably isn't any of your business or relevant to anything you're doing anyway.
• If you have to assume, assume the best. Start from the idea that the bloke in the shop with the screaming two year old is just as in control as a woman would be. Unfortunately for you and him, that amount of control is not very much – but that's because two year olds are tantrum time bombs not because the dad screwed something up.
• Encourage other people to do the two things above. Attitudes only change when people talk about them.
I don't want to champion mens' rights or start some sort of weird gender revolution. I just want people to stop assuming that I'm some kind of pretend parent or that I'm just a temp parent until the mum comes back. For some of us fathers that's a surprisingly unkind thing to think.
Andrew will be part of The Project’s story tonight looking at modern dads. He blogs about parenting – without fluffy bits – at NutsBabiesBolts.
The opinions expressed in The Side Project blog do not necessarily reflect those of The Project or the Ten Network.