Recently a woman posted this photo of Stuart Hall and Henry Wortis taking care of children in a crèche at the first Women’s Conference at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1970, with the caption: “Brief intermission: here is Stuart Hall on creche duty at a feminist conference in Oxford. Isn’t he cute?” I responded to the tweet stating that it was not cute in the least, noting that when we exceptionalise men who take care of children one day in a year, we are creating a situation where women are still pegged to be the “primary care givers” and men the drop-in, once-in-a-while, father for whom taking his children out is not seen as an obligation, but as a token to the daily labour of women.
Much in the same way that men carving roast or turkey on Christmas—oddly construed as their having “cooked a meal”— becomes the symbolic gesture of men’s contributing to household labour, the reality is that men are still contributing less inside the home: from buying groceries, cooking and preparing meals, cleaning, to planning social activities. While women are on par with men in terms of bill payments, men have much work to do to catch up with women.
So when I come across a statement by anyone who interprets a one-off event of men caring for children as “cute,” I recoil and react. For there is nothing “cute” about men standing in a photo op (conscious or not) for a task which is still today, forty years later, overwhelmingly the domain of women.
If anything, women’s rights are in recession, not progression and what should be a field of equal participation ends up, still today, being quite unequal in terms of who is cleans up household messes, who prepares and executes the endless “to do” lists, who effectively raises children and then those who get to tokenise these activities for photo ops. While certain statistical patterns for men and women are shifting lending to a superficial reading that equality between the sexes is on the horizon or already here, a quick glimpse over these figures reveals that nothing of the sort is taking place.
Take, for instance, the rate of cosmetic surgery for men which has been soaring in recent years. While women are still undergoing cosmetic procedures, the reasons are increasingly related to “body dissatisfaction” while for men the reasons for their somatic modifications are often professional in nature. Or the rate of carers of elderly and disabled which is still largely dominated by women to such a degree that Care England is having difficulty recruiting professional male carers for elderly men, and has had to ask the government to help out in recruiting male care workers for nursing homes because of what it deemed as “entrenched societal perceptions” of who should do the caring. And on the receiving end of healthcare, women are still coming up with the short end of the stick with disparity in services, medical research not reflecting women’s bodies in clinical trials, and women are under-presented in the decision-making of healthcare.
When I decided to have a child on my own, I was often asked wherever I was living—Haiti, Canada, India, Italy, and the UK—why I wanted to have children on my own. My answer provoked laughter across all cultures, for what my words evoked rang true for all the women with whom I spoke: “I want to have one child, not two.” This laughter confirmed that sexism is not just an international menu item well into the twenty-first century, it is a far-gone conclusion that women’s roles in the house have not changed very much and that in having children women will unlikely be granted more than this rare occurrence of a man in their lives coming in to give them a “day off.”
The reality of raising children, to include picking up minute food particles from their hair, floor, and wall, the physical labour of carrying them from the womb to the pushchair, and the constant maintenance of logistics and supplies, is that this is the unpaid labour that women have been performing for centuries. And women attempting to return to the workforce are generally saddled with two choices: either to work to pay a nanny or daycare or, in many cases, to surrender the idea of returning to one’s professional life having to stay home to wait until the child starts school. These are not excellent options to most women, but they are the only options.
So while it’s not “cute” when men take care of children, it should be regarded as an imperative act of social inclusion.