Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘Facts about fatherhood: we can’t wish away human nature’

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Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘Facts about fatherhood: we can’t wish away human nature’

Regina Doherty was right to say the low take-up of paternity leave by Irish fathers is about more than money, but wrong to criticise them for it


'The father is supposed to feel that same bond immediately after birth, but most men don’t have the same instinctive reaction to babies. Some do, but they’re the exception' Stock image
‘The father is supposed to feel that same bond immediately after birth, but most men don’t have the same instinctive reaction to babies. Some do, but they’re the exception’ Stock image

Regina Doherty has a habit of getting into hot water for something she has, or is alleged to have, said.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most politicians these days tend to say as little as possible in the hope that they can get from one election to another without controversy. At least the Social Protection Minister isn’t afraid to express an opinion.

The latest row arose when she was reported to have said that the amount of money which was paid to men to take time off work after babies are born had nothing to do with whether or not they take it.

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As in all these things, it was less clear cut than that. What Doherty actually said is that there is a “narrative that the value of money associated with the scheme isn’t enough for men to take off work”, before adding wryly that “it doesn’t seem to have stopped women from taking maternity leave”. Both of which statements happen to be true, if that is deemed to matter any more.

Apparently not. A tonne of bricks immediately came down on her from people who claimed that her remarks were disparaging to men, notoriously sensitive creatures that they are, bless them.

Much as it might spoil the hero/villain narrative which now seems to dominate political coverage, the mundane truth is that Doherty is both right and wrong.

She was wrong insofar as it stands to reason that the amount of money which is given to men to take paternity leave will inevitably affect the numbers who take up the scheme. If you’re earning a big salary, then the €245 a week which is paid by the Government to fathers taking time off work is bound to be a substantial sacrifice.

Many families can’t afford to make it, especially with a new baby in tow. Babies are expensive. If it was raised to many multiples of that, as in Sweden, where parents can get 80pc of their salaries for up to 480 days after a child is born or adopted, then of course more men would take up the offer.

Doing so in Ireland may prove financially ruinous for the Exchequer – or, more likely, small business owners who would be expected to bear the brunt – but it could be done and rates of paternity leave would rocket accordingly.

The minister is also right, though, to point out that there are social and cultural, as well as economic, reasons why 60pc of new fathers currently don’t use their full share of paternity leave.

She was a bit sniffy in how she expressed herself, regarding their reluctance to rush home to spend time with baby as a failing on men’s part; but that men and women see their roles differently is hardly a revolutionary thought.

How could it be otherwise? Babies grow inside their mothers, not their fathers. It would be biologically, as well as psychologically bizarre, if that did not affect how each feels about the relationship. Men are physically separated from their children for the first nine months of life, and, even when they’re born, babies can be boring.

A mother has all that time for her relationship with the baby to grow. That’s why it’s still so transgressive for mothers to admit to having no feelings of connection to a child. They’re made to feel guilty about it. The father is supposed to feel that same bond immediately after birth, but most men don’t have the same instinctive reaction to babies. Some do, but they’re the exception.

Women will coo over newborn babies, even when they’re not their own. Not all women (personally, I never saw the appeal of other people’s babies, though my own, of course, were perfect) but enough to qualify as a deep-seated characteristic. It’s a trick Mother Nature played on her daughters.

The feeling persists once the novelty of a new baby might’ve been expected to have worn off. Some women may be desperate to return to work after having a baby – but huge numbers of women, maybe a majority, just don’t want to leave their children with strangers all day when their maternity leave is up. They have to do it, because paying rent or a mortgage and raising a family demands two incomes, and these days even that often isn’t enough; but that doesn’t mean they like it.

It doesn’t matter how successful or high-flying they are. The resistance to leaving your child is mighty. A survey a few years ago by the UK’s National Childbirth Trust found 77pc of new mothers only go back to work because they need the money. Again, some men might feel the same way, but not many. Their relationship with the children tends to strengthen as they get older and there are more things that they can do with them.

That’s recognised even in Sweden, where those 480 days of paternity leave can be taken up until a child turns eight. Fathers don’t have to do it all in the early weeks, which is how paternity leave seems to be envisaged here. It can be taken in chunks of months, weeks, days or even hours, rather than all at once, so it’s perfectly possible that many Swedish men are taking time off to do something other than mind the children. Watch the World Cup, for example.

Despite all the incentives, it’s also worth pointing out that the “latte dads” (as the new breed of “youngish, bearded men carrying their babies in slings” has been described) are still taking less than 30pc of all parental leave. The annoyance at men for not wanting to spend time with newborns is part of a wider denial of biology. We’re supposed to believe everything is cultural, and that behaviours which have been around for thousands of years can be cured overnight by wishful thinking. Why is it seen as progressive to eliminate differences and make men and women the same? It used to be regarded as a liberal virtue to recognise difference, not try to socially engineer it away. Now it’s seen as churlish to even suggest men and women see the world differently.

This demarcation of roles doesn’t always work to men or women’s benefit. Women understandably feel that they’re being left to do the lioness’s share of domestic duties, and men say they’re stressed out by the need to be the breadwinner and the resulting work/life imbalance. The way we live these days, under pressure and over worked, is not good for health. A readjustment is long overdue, and Government has a role to play in nudging that along. But just because they can be adapted to fit changing times doesn’t mean that social conventions are not based on real gender differences.

As a senior member of the Government, Doherty deserves some criticism for ticking off Irishmen for not being progressive enough while not making it easy for them to be so. They want us all to live like Scandinavians while not laying the foundations for the social democracy which underpins that lifestyle. Given a choice, we might decide that the Nordic model is not for us, but thinking that we can have it by hopefulness alone is a classic Irish fudge.

Nonetheless, to claim that what Doherty said was “downright insulting”, as some did, is plain silly. Fianna Fail’s Willie O’Dea even called her words a “gross insult” to men. Since when did the pugnacious deputy turn into such a delicate little snowflake?

Sunday Independent

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