The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

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Double standards and the hands-on dad

They’re not as light as they look, are they, children? The picture of the buggy on the Mamas and Papas website portrays a svelte hipster in an achingly nice sweater propelling his Little Darling along without a care in the world. Probably he would glide casually up Gipsy Hill. Well, I’m no hipster. I’m an overweight 1990s throwback and I used to dislike climbing up that hill when all I had to do was pick up our curry for two from Crystal Palace. With my child in tow I have seriously considered crampons and a rope.

It’s the trips first thing that bite the hardest, when the air is cold and apparently serrated as it stabs its way down to my pounding lungs; my legs still ache from wandering aimlessly around the lounge the night before fruitlessly trying to settle The Boy; and my head aches from dehydration because for some days now there hasn’t really been enough time to pour myself a glass of water. When I reach the top I pause and gaze back over London. I pretend it’s to enjoy the view, but when you’re basically crying because you’re so unfit you can’t see much anyway. I stop simply so I don’t keel over. It is on such a morning and in just such a state of obliterated reverie that a woman stops her car at the traffic lights, winds her window down and yells at me: “Nice to see a father doing a shift for a change!”

I don’t react, partly because I haven’t regained the power of speech after my mountaineering exertions, but mostly because I am a little shocked at being screamed at, and bewildered by what might cause someone to reach such as state of agitation that they bawl at me in the middle of the road before driving on. How egregious must my gender appear to her to be, that it should provoke such an odd reaction to the sight of a man pushing his child up a hill?

The Boy is sick, a consequence of eating mud, or poo, or another child’s finger, or some such hostile infiltrator of our carefully and endlessly sterilised and disinfected existence, and I am off to Sainsbury’s to buy some form of chemical plug for his effervescent rear end. His front end is pretty volatile when it comes to that, and my lurch up Gipsy Mountain has been accompanied by bouts of prolonged, agonized screeching. All illnesses suffered by an infant are of course exacerbated by their immediately catching a cold. In short, his world is ending, the ravens are leaving the tower, all is lost, and worse still his teeth are all hurty. Happily we are still at the stage where the dummy is a pacifier rather than a useful projectile weapon, and so it is that, finally becalmed, we mooch forlornly around the aisles looking for his medicine.

I used self-service supermarket tills long before The Boy was born, essentially because I am a misanthrope, and any form of interaction avoidance technology is absolutely fine by me. But there is a flaw in the system, a loophole exposed by The Boy’s company and ruthlessly exploited by enemy forces. The prowling assistant whose job it is to relieve bagging areas of their unexpected items will make a beeline for any buggy. The one in Crystal Palace Sainsbury’s is particularly persistent. “Breathe on her,” I plead with The Boy inwardly as she inevitably approaches, “breathe on her hard. Give her your cold. It’s the only way she’ll learn. It’s too late for us, but you might just save others.”

“Isn’t he amazing?” asks the assistant, apparently rhetorically, bending over the buggy. I smile. As it happens I agree with her. The Boy glares. We routinely tell friends The Boy takes against that it’s random and he’s just in a bad mood. He isn’t. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He just doesn’t like you, and he doesn’t like the persistent assistant in Crystal Palace Sainsbury’s.

“You’re amazing,” she continues, firmly unabashed, “but you don’t need that, do you.” With that she reaches into the buggy, removes the dummy from his mouth, and then wanders off to help someone buying a six pack of Tennent’s who can’t do so without its being verified that he is eighteen. That it’s 8.30 in the morning, and the singular odour of the individual in question suggests that he’s already put away three or four, is not an impediment to the persistent assistant’s willingness to verify, cheered as she is by her heart-warming encounter with my child, fortified by the sense that she has righted a hapless father’s mistake.

You will think I should have said something to this idiot. You might say I should have retorted with something sharp and witty to the woman who stopped her car to yell at me. I should certainly have said something unpleasant to the toothy Underground gate attendant who, having obsequiously held the luggage gate open for the improbably attractive mother pushing the ostentatiously vast pram, let it swing back on The Boy and me at Tower Hill. I might have been more aggressive in pursuit of a seat on the train home from London, when all those miserable bastards looked up, thought, “he’s a man, he’ll cope” and stayed exactly where they were. I could have pulled my colleague up when, after what I will admit was a fairly melodramatic, morning-after rendering of the story of what a nightmare The Boy had been when I tried to get him to go to sleep the night before, she replied with a sympathetic tut and the line “sometimes they just want their mum, don’t they…”

The truth is my stock reaction to all of these offences – and they are offensive, not innocent mistakes or me taking it wrongly, but considered, prejudiced views of fathers generally – is to smile weakly and walk on. The anger hits me ten minutes later, when having run the incident or conversation back through my mind I realise that it would not have happened had The Boy’s mother been pushing the buggy. The delay is caused by the fact that the prejudice is in me too. I can’t very well be morally outraged (I have a good go, mind) because ten months ago I would have made a lot of the same mistakes. Although I like to think that I wouldn’t have snatched a dummy out of the mouth of someone else’s child, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to stop my car to yell at a dad in the street.

There’s an extent to which we bring this nonsense on ourselves. Just one in 172 fathers take Additional Paternity Leave. Certainly among the couple of dozen fathers at my office I am the only one who has done so to date. Worse still, four in ten fathers don’t take paternity leave at all. Statistically, therefore, fatherhood is a relatively rare public sight. I can be as upset as I like by it but I ought not to be surprised.

A recent Frog Pyjamas post makes the point that the very terminology of fatherhood is wrong. I am not “happy to help out”. Happiness doesn’t come into it. (For the sake of clarity, I am well beyond merely being “happy” to be a father, and never more so than when I returned to Sainsbury’s the following weekend and saw the persistent assistant sneezing heavily.) But I know dads who refer to looking after their kids alone in the evening as “babysitting” without thinking it’s at all an odd way to put it. When I breathlessly announced my impending fatherhood to my male colleagues, my trembling hand clasping the grainy picture of what we had been assured by the medical staff was some form of human life, I felt the searching glances of more than one of them, trying to determine whether I regarded these tidings as wonderful or a dire, personal tragedy.

My own father, for whom such things as Additional Paternity Leave were not available, gazed sagely down on his grandson on hearing these complaints and remarked that such sexism will probably be a thing of the past when The Boy is staggering around with his own buggy. I’m not so sure. Equality tends only to come to those who campaign for it. At the very least it requires dads like me to stop grinning and walking on.

Guest blogger: Steve

Grumpy father trying and failing to resist the unbending and thus far all-powerful will of his first child

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“A girl next?”

I don’t often feel inclined to slap people, particularly pregnant women, but the other day I came across a worthy candidate. I found myself sitting next to her at a party, watching a small pack of children – among them my two sons and her own boy – charge about in high spirits. I knew her only a little, so followed the usual talking-to-a-pregnant-person etiquette: congratulations: when was she due; how was her pregnancy etc. Then I made my mistake. Did she know whether she was having a boy or a girl? “Oh yes, it is a girl this time,” she said, smugly. “I am so lucky to be having one of each – that is what everyone wants.”
“Oh?” I replied, “Is it? Actually I am completely happy with two boys.” And I got up and walked away before the twitch in my hand became uncontrollable.

Perhaps, to be charitable, she had forgotten that I have two sons (unlikely, given that I had introduced them to her moments earlier). Most likely she just didn’t think. She could have said: “I am so lucky to be having one of each because it is what I have always wanted”, which would have been fine. Instead, in one loaded sentence she inferred that it is inferior to have two sons. She was also ignorantly implying that I, as the second of two daughters, was a disappointment to my parents.

It was the most tactless comment of its kind I have ever experienced, despite the number of people who felt it appropriate, during my second pregnancy, to tell me that I must be “hoping for a girl this time” (Must I? I guess I missed the antenatal class covering that one) and later, when the Spare was born, to speculate that O. and I would now want a third, to “try for a girl.” I was deeply offended by the implication that I should, or even could, be dissatisfied with my second gorgeous, healthy son.

Until I had the Heir and the Spare it had never even occurred to me that, in modern liberal society, there might be considered an “ideal” gender division among your children. If I thought about it at all it was to count myself lucky that I don’t live in an age or culture where my entire pregnancy would be dominated by the pressure to produce a son. However, conversations with other parents have shown me that my experiences are depressingly common. In fact, I got off lightly compared to some. The near-universal theme is that other people (friends, family, a random stranger encountered in the supermarket) assume parents must want one baby of each gender. One mum even had someone buy her a book on “choosing the sex of your baby” when she was planning a second child, because “of course you want to have one of each.”

Mothers of a boy and a girl have been treated to such delightful comments as “you can relax now because you have one of each” and “now that you have a boy and a girl your family is complete” (because parents of same-sex siblings have incomplete families, right?) I know of more than one mum who had people suggest her third pregnancy must be a mistake as she already had one of each.

Turns out there is a further complication: the absolute best way of doing it, apparently, is to have a son followed by a daughter. A good friend has been told that she has “done it right” not only by having one of each but by having her son first. Another friend was assured how “clever” she was to have had a boy and then a girl.

Often the pressure for gender preference comes from the older generation, for whom tact isn’t always a concern. One grandfather, himself father of two girls, said to his pregnant daughter: “if it’s not a girl I’m not interested, I won’t know what to do”, while conversely another dismissed his third in a line of granddaughters as “another bloody girl”. Again, there is often a much-voiced desire to have a “pigeon pair” of grandchildren, even if the parents themselves have no preference. This weight of expectation can be daunting, worrying and downright harmful – I spoke to one mother who believes that pressure from her partner’s parents contributed to her severe postnatal depression as she felt she had “let them down” by having another daughter.

I would have imagined that, for those who have struggled to conceive or carry a baby to term, gender preference seems an unimaginable luxury. But it turns out that it isn’t always negated, particularly among concerned others. One friend, pregnant through IVF after years of disappointment, had no personal preference but her parents-in-law, despite knowing how hard-got this baby was, still insisted on telling her how much they wanted a grandson (which they didn’t get).

There is a prevailing feeling in my social circles that, if you have to have two the same, then having multiple daughters is somehow preferable (never, however, from people who have exclusively sons of their own). Some comments are downright offensive. I know mums whose second or third sons were greeted by “poor you”, “never mind” and “what a shame”. Another reported an acquaintance saying to her “I’m so glad I’ve only got girls, I’d hate to have boys”. Sons, it would seem, are perceived to be harder work. Well guess what? Parenting is hard work, irrespective of whether you have sons or daughters. Boys and girls? Swings and roundabouts.

Probably because we had no real preferences either way, O. and I never found out our baby’s gender during either of my pregnancies. Many people do, however, and say that if you have a strong preference it is helpful to come to terms with the gender of your child as early as possible. One mum confessed that, upon finding out her unborn child was third boy, she subjected her family to “a weekend of hell with me swearing and cussing that I was going to be surrounded by testosterone and penises…” before becoming reconciled and falling instantly in love with him. Indeed, almost everyone I know who was initially disappointed by the results of a prenatal scan claims to have been completely accepting by the time the child was born.

Unsurprisingly, our own childhoods influence our feelings on this topic – the desire to repeat positive experiences and avoid negative ones. I am so close to my sister that I was with her during her labour, which has definitely made me look favourably on same-sex sibling bonds. (I did secretly used to want an older brother – firstly so he could be like Julian from The Famous Five and later so I could date his friends – but I would never have swapped my sister for him.) Equally, many people who have bad relationships with their brother or sister prefer a different gender balance than the one they endured themselves, in case of history repeating itself. Additionally, what you want before you have children may change according to what you have first: a second-time parent is influenced by what sibling they want for their firstborn.

I believe that a great deal of gender preference comes down to stereotypes. Over and over I hear women say they want girls for the enduring quality of the mother/daughter bond. But there is no reason that a mother and son cannot be equally good friends. I have a strong relationship with my mother, but I don’t in any way feel bereft because I won’t have an identical one with a daughter of my own. Having a girl doesn’t guarantee a close friendship, any more than having a boy means you won’t be looked after in old age. The Spare’s favourite colour is pink and, age three, he enjoys trying to walk in my high heels. I find this amusing and I certainly don’t tell me he can’t because he is a boy, but I am not secretly hoping it means he will be gay (although if he is that is fine) in order to be my “substitute daughter”.

The pregnant woman at the party angered me with her tactlessness, but ultimately it didn’t really matter because I am absolutely thrilled with my boys. I never felt an overwhelming desire or any pressure from my nearest and dearest to have a daughter in preference to, or as well as, a second son and I certainly don’t feel my family to be “incomplete”. No two children are alike, be they boys or girls, so perhaps it would be helpful to focus on a baby as an individual rather than a gender. Ultimately, whatever the parents’ thoughts may be, it is never appropriate for others to voice anything other than enthusiasm for a baby of either gender.