The other day, my roommate and I were talking about fathers and their roles in child care in our lives. As the discussion went on, we were equally in agreement that an explicit show of affection by men was a rarity in our childhood. Both of us were struggling even to recall the number of times our fathers fed or took a stroll with us in their arms. Maybe this could be attributed to the need for conforming to the traditional gender roles as prescribed by a patriarchal society.
I remember how one of my uncles would silently feed his son behind closed doors in his room at night. However, when the same child yearned to be fed when the whole family dined, he would get strangely uncomfortable and flatly refuse. A sense of guilt would wrap his face.
The pressure of living up to a certain prescribed role of masculinity has hit the family unit the hardest. The role of fathers has been traditionally pictured as the strict disciplinarian, the tough guy, chief decision maker and the provider whereas the mother is supposed to be the ideal homemaker and the primary caregiver. The family thus becomes the breeding ground for children to internalise the notion of unequal and unjust gender relationship, and there is a high probability that such flawed understanding gets transferred from one generation to the other.
Likewise unfair labelling of gender roles has had a detrimental effect on the entire lives of women. In the struggle to live up to the character of ‘ideal women’, in singularly shouldering the lion’s share of family responsibilities, an innumerable number of women since times immemorial has relinquished their aspirations. Globally, women and girls carry out at least two and half times more unpaid care and domestic work than men and boys do, despite also being involved in paid and unpaid work outside the home. This holds back women’s economic and educational advancement and continues to be a crucial driver of inequality and the feminization of poverty. The International Labour Organization (ILO) figures show that Indian women on average spend 297 minutes daily on unpaid work, mostly caring for children or elders; the average male, on the other hand, puts in just 31 minutes.
The state of fatherhood has also been suffering immensely in the trapping of social norms and archaic definition of roles. In the quest for maintaining their image of muscular and manhood, men often get cut out of the full cycle of family development. Partial involvement in childcare or in the formative childhood years creates a widening communication and emotional gap in the father-child relationship.
Similarly, minimal engagement in domestic work not only deprives men of learning the functional skill of managing household responsibilities but also makes them perpetrator of restricting their partners in realising their palette of possibilities. Research clearly shows that we will only achieve full equality for women in the workplace if men and boys do their share of the care work. If we pick up the case of India, the disparity is even starker. The proportion of female labour force participation in India is just 27%, as compared to 79.9% among men.
Similarly, the need for promoting equal participation of men and women in childcare is missing from our policies. A clear reflection could be gauged from the fact that while maternity leave is now offered in nearly all countries, new fathers are only given leave in 92 countries, and in half of these, it is less than three weeks.
In 1997, the Central Civil Services Leave Rules in India brought in paternity leave for men in government service. Those with fewer than two surviving children are allowed 15 days of fully-paid leave which may be combined with other leave. While the laws are intended in a good direction but it does not entirely serve the purpose of sharing the struggle especially in the context of new parenthood.
A review by the Centre for Social Research for the National Commission of Women said in 2014, “…The right to paternity leave could be crucial for changes in the relationships and perceptions of parenting roles… The Maternity Benefit Act does not entitle working men such leave, and thereby does not make an adequate effort in the struggle towards a gender-balanced approach to caregiving and unpaid domestic work.”
However, with the evolution of a new generation of fatherhood, there is evidence of growing participation in the childcare and sharing of household responsibilities in comparison to their previous generation. Few key influencing factors could be global mobility, access to higher education, rise of female participation in the workforce and increased discussion on the issue of gender equality.
My roommate told me how her brother Rahul who is a new father actively invests in the childcare chores of his two-year-old daughter. He not only enjoys documenting her every step but lays his fingers on everything from changing the diapers of the little one, feeding her milk and habitually carrying her to the nearby park. Rahul cherishes his role of being a hands-on father.
My team lead regularly shares stories about his two little daughters, and his face just lit up the other day when he shared a newly composed song, sung jointly by him and his 8-year-old daughter. Female colleagues in my office have also shared about the positive parenting support of their spouses.
One of them who has an 8-year-old daughter, shared that her husband is a very involved father. The friendly father-daughter relationship is already showing a visible impact on the child, like good decision-making skills and enhanced self-confidence, which is much unlike her own childhood, where most of the times her communication with her father would be routed through the mother. The other one who is a mother of a six-month-old baby shared that her husband is a very responsible father. He spends time with the little one, keeps track of all his vaccinations, medicines, and all other requirements of the child and this takes away a lot of stress from the new mother.
Involved fatherhood and sharing of household responsibilities not only creates a happy and constructive home environment but also leads to balanced emotional growth and enhanced cognitive and social development of children. A healthy and equitable relationship between a man and woman is a practical education for children on gender equality, and they will grow up as respectful citizens.
Moreover, involved, non-violent fatherhood can help break cycles of violence against women. Data from numerous studies show that boys who saw their fathers use violence against their mothers are more likely to grow up to use violence against their own partners compared to the sons of non-violent fathers.
As we strive forward towards creating more inclusive homes and engaged fatherhood, it is important to discuss urgently and more frequently about the issue in a continuum of public spaces. This could begin with incorporating the subject in the education scenario.
Curating and sharing of real-life stories of equal gender relationship and positive influence of fathers from pages of history, literature, science and the bigger canvas of humanities might help. Keeping in sync with the idea of learning by doing, designing theatre programmes and involving children in role play can also give them a deeper insight on the subject. As media has a positive and strong influence on our everyday life, they could also be constructively involved towards furthering the message. Creating of more media campaigns like “Share the Load” or movies like “Piku” and “Kung-Fu Panda” are already a welcome step in this direction.
Further, it is also necessary to talk more and highlight the positive impact of male role models and influential personalities in our quest to create a gender equal world.
A fair gender relationship will not be advantageous for only a single gender but will be transformative for the whole human race. A quote by Ms Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, reflects the possibilities of such an unbiased world, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes. I believe that this would be a better world.”