Monday, May 09, 2016

Parenting, sexism, and Those Jeffries Boys

Father and daughters, at the pub, no doubt
When I was in my final year of university, I had a major run-in with my lecturer. It began with me submitting an essay about the ways in which the postwar British welfare state maintained women's oppression and ended with him shrieking at me, "You don't know what it's like to lose your eight-year-old son because the courts are biased in favour of women."

Past and present rescued canine chaps
It went on for a good deal longer than that, but that's the gist of what he said. According to him, he had been the primary caregiver since his son's birth, and when he and his female partner broke up, she was given custody of their son.

The outcome for me, which is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, was that he refused to mark my essay and told me it was barely a pass grade. I took the essay to another social policy lecturer and asked him to look over what I had written. He did so, and in his opinion, whilst it was not up to my usual standard (I was averaging a first-class), it was certainly not a fail grade.

Thus began a two-year war with the aforementioned lecturer that culminated in him refusing to give me associate-tutor work at the university during my postgraduate studies. Jump two years into the future... I met him one evening in the supermarket, where he proceeded to instruct me on how to cook moules mariniere (even though it was he, not I, whose trolley contained mussels) and gave me his email address, should I ever need a reference for a job.

To this day, that chance meeting continues to amuse and bemuse me.

The thing is, for as much as he acted unprofessionally and took out his frustrations on an undergraduate student, albeit one who could handle it, I truly sympathise with his plight. Indeed, Nigel and I went through a similar, if somewhat less distressing situation with our own children, whereby Nige was one of only two dads in the 'mother-and-toddler group', and it was not uncommon for people to assume that his wife was dead. After all, why would a dad be caring for his young children?

I'll tell you why. Because I didn't want children. I wanted rescued dogs and a house in the country, but Nige wanted children, so we compromised. We had children and rescued dogs. :) Nige was the stay-at-home parent while I was the breadwinner. It made sense, financially, practically and emotionally. Socially, not so much.

So...

That was a very long preamble to my explanation for why I wrote Those Jeffries Boys, a novel for which the tagline is:

Three brothers: doting dads, dealing with the everyday challenges of fatherhood.

Of course, the main reasons I wrote the novel are firstly, I was asked to, and secondly, I wanted to. I don't have to justify the decision, and yet I know there will be readers out there who will be outraged that I, a woman, have written a story about dads doing what all dads should do. Some may even argue that my portrayal of fatherhood buys into the idea that men make better parents than women.

And you know what? Sometimes they do. I'm sure if you asked my children, they'd be happy to supply you with evidence that this has been their experience. I wasn't cut out to be a mother; I don't possess that magical 'maternal instinct'. I feel no overwhelming urge to snuggle newborn babies. It's simply not me.

But why should it be? Just because I'm a woman, I'm expected to be driven by a biological imperative to nurture young humans. I don't dislike children, nor do I wish them any harm; there is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to be a stay-at-home parent. There is nothing wrong with a woman following a 'biological imperative' for parenthood. Equally, there is nothing wrong with a man doing the same.

My point is that the drive to become a parent, and the emotional ability to care for the young, has absolutely nothing to do with biological sex. Yet western society persists in organising itself around assumptions of female caregiving (not just to the young), and in the face of any challenge to the status quo, the same old arguments get rolled out...

Women are more caring, more emotionally intelligent, better at multitasking, have greater intuition...
Men are more logical, more intellectual / mathematically minded, able to focus on one task for long periods, demonstrate strong reasoning...

See? I can do that parenting thing!
No. Just...no. See, I've been to the timber yard and been treated to 'the smile' - you know, the one that says 'you're a woman, what could you possibly know about construction work?', and while I appreciated the apologies the men offered after accidentally swearing in my presence, it had nothing to do with good manners and everything to do with sexism.

The fact that I used to work in a timber yard and know my way around a length of 5x1 PAR is by the by.

On one occasion, when I took Nige with me (alien in a strange world), the man on the counter addressed Nige with his answers to MY questions!

As if Nige knows anything about home improvements. After all, this is the man (sorry, dude) who was seconds from connecting the live and neutral wires on the washing machine to bypass the switch! (OK, in your defence, you usually deal with lighting circuits, but still.)

So, as per usual, it comes down to sexism:
individual - in the case of the women attending the mother-and-toddler group Nige and daughter #1 went to and the men's expectation of my ignorance in the timber yard;
institutional - in the case of my lecturer who lost custody of his son.

And it is damaging to both men and women.

Now, you may well STILL be thinking (or not), 'But women are biologically equipped to care for young babies.' And that is a fine argument - for societies where there is no equipment for bottle-feeding or expressing breastmilk. In western societies, there is a mantra underpinned by government health legislation that 'breast is best', and the manufacturers of baby formula have to label their products as supplemental to breastmilk.

Many parents choose not to breastfeed their babies for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the sales techniques of formula manufacturers (although I know a family who migrated to the UK from Hong Kong, where there were no controls over marketing and they were told breastmilk was inferior to formula).

Nige and Daughter #2 - after the pub...
My youngest daughter, for instance, was born five weeks early and thus had no sucking reflex. She was tube-fed, and too damned impatient to wait for the hind milk once her sucking reflex arrived, so my breastmilk lasted all of three months. She went on to have a baby at twenty-eight weeks of pregnancy (he's now eight months old), and with him being in intensive care and taking only the tiniest amount of milk (one ml at first, I think) via a feeding tube, her milk quickly dwindled. She did brilliantly, but sometimes, with the best will in the world, breastfeeding is not possible. Other women (my sister included, and she felt the need to apologise to me) choose to bottle-feed because it is right for them. And that is OK.

Most women who have been through Day Three will tell you: breastfeeding is not all plain sailing. When your boobs feel like they're going to burst, and the baby is hungry and screaming, and your hormones are completely haywire, there is nothing absolutely-bloody-perfectly-lovely about trying to feed your child. Chapped nipples (Kamillosan is a magic potion), leaking milk going through pads, bras, tops, let-downs in the middle of supermarkets because checkout assistants don't move any faster for the siren song of squawking infants...you get the idea, I'm sure. Conversely, bottle-feeding means buying formula, sterilising bottles, getting the water to the right temperature, etc. so it's all swings and roundabouts.

The other alternative, if there is a lactating parent involved, is to express breastmilk and share the burden/joy, which is what Nige and I did. I got up, expressed milk, went to college, came home, breastfed, expressed again, and then we took it in turns during the night to get up and feed, change, comfort, and so on and so forth ad infinitum (my eldest daughter is nearly 23, still doesn't sleep well and says she's never leaving home - in case there is any doubt, I'm not still breastfeeding her. She gave me up long ago, for cornflakes).

Nige and Daughter #1 - (sigh) after the pub...
In short, the notion that women are biologically equipped to feed their young is true, but we are not prehistoric people. We're biologically equipped to process the pips and stones in fruit, but it doesn't mean we should eat them. Aside from that, in many non-human species, adoption of orphaned and abandoned offspring occurs often, and in those cases, the adoptive parents successfully feed and raise their adopted infant, just as we humans do.

To return, then, to Those Jeffries Boys. I wanted to write a story that portrayed modern fatherhood. The three main characters - Mike, Andy and Dan Jeffries - happen to be heterosexual men, but their experiences of balancing being parents with jobs, household chores, family life and the bigger challenges it throws at us could be the experience of any parent, regardless of gender or sexuality. There are women in the story, too, and they are strong, independent women, who enjoy sex, love their jobs (sometimes) and love their partners and kids (with one notable exception).

These characters are not entirely the figments of my stereotype-busting overactive imagination. There are real parents - mums and dads - who are doing parenting their way, or trying to. Any parent - single, in a same/opposite sex partnership, or whatever, it doesn't matter - who goes against the 'mum at home with baby, dad out at work' 'norm' will tell you, it's a never-ending saga of explaining, justifying, brushing off insults, ignoring strange looks and correcting assumptions about broken relationships or dead partners.

I'm a firm believer that subtlety changes minds, because it's not rote learning. Teaching someone what equality means does not lead to them understanding and embracing it. Offering them examples to explore and giving the opportunity to mull them over, ask questions, seek other opinions - that's how it's done. Those Jeffries Boys is, like all of my stories, intended to entertain, but hopefully it also provides an opportunity for readers to consider a view of the world that might be different to theirs but is no less valid.

Those Jeffries Boys is available now for preorder and will be out on May 26th.

Thanks for reading,
Deb x

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