So fathers want to be ‘more present’ in the home? Put down your phone and I’ll tell you how | Nilanjana Bhowmick


‘Like many men of my generation, I wanted to be a more present father than my own had been.” As I read the first sentence of another article about fathers staying at home, I thought about how we glorify men (or how men want to be glorified) for selflessly deigning to set their careers aside, which is usually seen as being “for” their spouse, and getting away with doing the bare minimum.

Staying at home with the children is not babysitting – it is a complicated business of physical, emotional and cognitive labour.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on something that here in India, as everywhere, used to be mostly unseen: women’s burden of care. So men normalising a stay-at-home father’s role should be welcome. However, as a feminist writer, a vocal advocate of the redistribution of women’s unpaid care duties and a working mother, I am sceptical.

The care burden of women is not simply looking after the home and offspring. Stay-at-home mothers do a whole lot more, dumped with all these other – largely invisible – labours. What is interesting is that a working mother with a stay-at-home spouse, in a heterosexual couple, is often only relieved of round-the-clock caregiving of the children – her other duties largely stay the same.

And research has shown that the hours a stay-at-home father puts into caregiving differ from that of even working mothers. In 2017, the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that stay-at-home fathers there spent an average of 19 hours a week on childcare compared with 21 hours by mothers – on top of an average of 35 hours a week the women were spending on paid work. In those households, the fathers devoted 28 hours a week to housework, with mothers contributing 23 hours.

However, the report found that in families with stay-at-home mothers, working fathers, who averaged 51 hours a week of paid work, spent only 13 hours each on housework and childcare, while the mothers spent 37 hours a week on each of childcare and housework.

I am reminded of the times I had this conversation with my male partner, who always assured me of his willingness to be a stay-at-home father. We decided to try it out, but I didn’t feel any relief. Yes, our child was looked after, fed and kept alive, but my partner was indifferent to mess, menu-planning or making appointments. I was still worrier-planner-monitoring chief.

A man holding a small child while talking on a mobile phone in Delhi.
Men are usually judged less harshly than women for perceived failures in caring for their children. Photograph: Allen Brown/Alamy

Many men seem immune to mess, maybe because they have internalised the gendered nature of housework: that someone – mother, wife, sister or domestic worker – will clean up after them. But most women are not.

Once I visited a friend’s house to find her rushing around planning for a work trip while also stressing about how dirty the kitchen was. Her stay-at-home partner had cooked and fed the children but not cleaned up. He relaxed on the couch, engrossed by his phone, even as I watched my friend getting more and more agitated before going into the kitchen and beginning to clean up.

“I said I’ll clean up later,” her husband called out. “Don’t worry, I’ll do it,” she said, rolling her eyes and adding to me: “The kitchen has been a mess for hours – I can’t leave the home in such a mess. If someone walks in, they’ll blame me for being careless and untidy.”

She was right. This ubiquitous fear of being judged and found to be not doing enough or being enough, of being judged for not keeping a perfect house, or attending parent-teacher meetings at the school, or organising playdates, or baking for the school sale – these bother stay-at-home and working mothers alike. And not without reason: studies have shown that women are judged more harshly for a less-than-perfect home.

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Why do we play along? It is because women have been socialised to believe they are genetically blessed with not just caregiving and housework genes but also empathy and multitasking genes. That is our unique selling point and we are indispensable because of this. What is a woman without her all-sacrificing, nurturing side? An evil witch? Possibly.

The anticipatory care that only women seem able to provide is their “cognitive labour”. Another study defined cognitive labour as “anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions and monitoring progress”. This cognitive labour, though often invisible, is also taxing, and is largely carried out by women. The women who took part in the study were found to do more cognitive labour.

What else do stay-at-home mothers do all the time? They multitask. But this is not just juggling home and children – for women, it is also balancing physical, emotional and cognitive labour. If men want to be more present, they must be there not just for their children but also for their spouses. Multitasking is not rocket science – and it’s definitely not a feminine superpower; it is really time management.

In 2015, a study busted the myth that women are better at multitasking. It found that while an overwhelming majority of people believed that women were better at it because of their experience of managing children and other household work, in fact “women and men performed equally well in both sequential and concurrent multitasking situations”.

We don’t need men to stay at home just to keep the children fed and alive – a babysitter can do that. We need spouses who can share our complete caregiving load.

#fathers #present #home #Put #phone #Ill #Nilanjana #Bhowmick

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