June 20th, 2014

Parenting comes in many flavours

By Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, AWARE

man

Ms Shelen Ang is right to suggest that we should value childcare – and other caregiving – performed by men (“Fathers deserve more recognition”, 14 June).

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) has long called for greater support for active parenting by men, including by championing statutory paternity leave.

Men who wish to play a more active role in their children’s lives are often held back by archaic gender stereotypes which dictate male breadwinner and female caregiver roles.

It is therefore unfortunate that Ms Ang’s letter continues to promote rigid ideas about parenting, pigeonholing people according to gender and failing to reflect the rich diversity of our social reality.  She allocates to parents fixed roles, such as “providers of comfort” and “play exploration”, based simply on their gender, with no regard for their personal temperaments, preferences or strengths.

Every individual has different aptitudes and personality traits, regardless of gender, and will bring their own unique qualities to childcare and parenting.

As the parent of a toddler, I am familiar with the damaging anxiety that many new parents experience in the face of endless panic-mongering media and social messages about the “correct” way to raise children.  It is unhelpful and stifling to add to that further pressure through setting rigid, gendered standards for all, causing needless worry for parents who might wonder if they are parenting badly because they don’t conform to narrow prescriptions about whether they should “calm” or “startle” a baby based on their gender.

These stereotypes are also deeply exclusionary to the many parents who are trying their best to do right by their children and who simply happen not to follow some idealised template of “mother, father and children”, perhaps because they are unmarried, divorced, widowed or in same-sex relationships.  Assertions about the damage allegedly done by “father absence” also alienate children who might grow up without fathers for a variety of reasons.

Rather than continuing to promote prejudices about gender and parenting, we can do more to support fathers and all caregivers by recognising that childcare is valuable labour.  It requires recognition and support, whether it is done by mothers, fathers, grandparents, domestic workers or anyone else.  As with all work, each of us has to learn how to do it, and we will get better at it through experience and humility – acquiring skills and knowledge along the way, and bringing to the task our own individual flair and flavours.

An edited version of this letter was published in TODAY Voices on 20 June 2014.

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