Parent = Mother
Posted by Leah on October 3, 2009
For ages I’ve been meaning to write about the issue of sexism in regards to male and female parental responsibility (for the record, I’m only discussing heterosexual, dual parent households here), and was finally spurred into action by this report yesterday about parents whose extreme neglect killed their daughter – the mother has been given a life sentence for murder while the father has been sentenced to 12 years for manslaughter.
Admittedly there may be details about the case that explain why the father – who lived in the same house – has been given a much lighter sentence. However, these (as far as I can see) haven’t been explained in media coverage, which to me is indicative in itself of a wide spread presumption in our society that, for better or worse, mothers are more responsible for their children than fathers are.
I say ‘for better or worse’ because depending on circumstances, mothers can be heaped with praise or damned for their actions…either way, the father is often left out of the equation and receives neither praise for a healthy, happy child nor damnation for a neglected, unhappy child.
Obviously this division of responsibility between parents can actually reflect reality in families where the mother takes the primary caring role for children – and I’m not arguing that every family should split responsibility 50/50, I think that’s for each couple to work out themselves. What I’m focusing on here is the presumption so often reflected in the media, workplaces and the courts that women should be more responsible for their children than men are.
A few cases in point. I recently was on the staff team negotiating my workplace’s Enterprise Agreement. I argued (in vain) for greater equity between maternity and paternity leave. Women in my workplace currently get more than 6 times the length of leave than men when they have a baby. I understand the argument that women have usually been through the physical experience of pregnancy and labour and that deserves time off on top of baby-caring leave; however, in my workplace mothers who adopt also get the full female entitlement, thereby showing the presumption behind the unequal leave is based on one’s sex, not on whether one has just gone through pregnancy and labour or not. Surely dads have a right to care for their babies just as much as mums – not to mention the benefit to the mother and baby of having more ‘hands on deck’.
Victorians may well remember the case of baby ‘Catherine‘ who was abandoned outside a hospital in Melbourne. The entire media coverage presupposed it was the mother, not the father, who had left the baby there, and vilified her for this, while the role of the father was almost entirely ignored – many of us will remember the infamous Herald Sun headline ‘How Could She’.
My partner alerted me to this story by the BBC about research showing ‘Children whose mothers work are less likely to lead healthy lives than those with “stay at home” mothers.’ Yes, it’s all about the mums. Never mind fathers’ responsibility for their children.
Professor Catherine Law, who led the study, said they had not looked at fathers in this study because fathers employment levels had not changed whereas the numbers of working mothers had increased dramatically.
So, if I follow the argument correctly, it goes something like: ‘because men have always been absent, they’re not responsible…mothers used to be present, so, damn it, they still should be!’? A comment on the story by Naomi of Sussex echoes my point:
I’m cross on so many levels, but mainly a personal one! I work, my husband doesn’t, he is our daughter’s main carer…Why do people insist on saying ‘mother’ when they often mean ‘parent’. It’s wrong on other levels too of course, but for me it’s the stupidity of assuming a mum should stay at home and a dad should work – are we still in the 50s?
My point is simple: however couples choose to take responsibility for their children is their business and, unless no responsibility is taken i.e. the child is neglected, others should reserve judgement. I think this can best be done by the media, courts, workplaces and other important institutions taking as neutral a stance as possible i.e. making no assumptions and when an assumption is unavoidable (e.g. when deciding on maternity and paternity leave provisions) assuming equal rights and responsibilities between women and men.