I’ve started to notice a weird quirk of celebrity interviews. If the interviewee is a man and has small children, he’s invariably asked whether he changes nappies. It’s a binary question with binary consequences. If he doesn’t, he’s a bad dad. If he does, then he’s an amazing dad.
Now, I don’t have a problem with the former assumption. If you’re a father in 2020 and you’ve never changed a nappy, shame on you. It’s the latter that I take issue with, because changing a nappy is nothing. Making sure that the person you love most in the world doesn’t have to waddle around caked in their own shit is the least that any father can do. And yet the nappy issue still seems to be the dividing line between good dad and bad.
Fatherhood has changed. A few decades ago, the gender roles of parents were neatly delineated, with dads earning the money and mums basically doing everything else. For the most part, this was the case in my family: the Time My Dad Cooked Dinner was a standout moment of my childhood, partly because the results were inedible, but mainly because – no, really – it only happened once. And that’s a problem because, with these new standards of fatherhood now set, to whom are we supposed to turn for advice?
Old-school dadding no longer carries weight. Sure, women still bear the overwhelming burden when it comes to stuff like housework – to the tune of two extra hours per day, according to one study – but the pink and blue parenting roles are dissolving. This was especially apparent during lockdown, when men’s childcare hours rose by 58%, according to the Office for National Statistics.
I noticed it, too. My home set-up is such that my wife and I split the day in half; she has the kids in the morning while I work, then we swap in the afternoon. Previously on my childcare shift, I was a lone island in a raging sea of mums. But during lockdown, it was a sausage fest. In the park, at the beach, in the woods, I saw loads of dads looking after their kids. And with the exception of a man I saw frantically trying to scrape sand out of a crying toddler’s mouth with his fingers, they all looked perfectly calm and content with their lot. It was lovely to see. It felt normal.
This is the key. You don’t have to indulge in the big-swing annual grand gesture to keep your kids happy. The trick is simply to be there. That’s all. Be with them as often as you can. Listen to them. Be interested in them. Make them feel valued and secure. That, rather than a willingness to change a nappy, is what actually makes you a good father.
And if you do it in public, it’s like hitting the goddamn jackpot. Dads, you see, are wildly overpraised for doing any parenting at all. I’ve been out with my children and heard strangers mutter, “Where’s the mum?” and, as recently as this summer, an old lady at the beach stopped to call me a good father, when all I was doing was sitting down playing Candy Crush while my kids tried to murder each other in the sand.
This is brilliant! Dads barely have to do anything and people think we’re heroes! Should it happen? No, of course not. It’s awful. But does it happen? All the flipping time. And how does it feel? Amazing. Being a present dad means getting complimented up the wazoo! We don’t deserve it, but that doesn’t mean we have to refuse it. We’re not idiots.
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