The Times journalist tells us how his experiences as a new dad, as well as a wealth of research, defy many stereotypes about mothers and fathers.
Paul Morgan-Bentley, head of investigations at The Times, lives in Buckinghamshire with his husband Robin and their three-year-old son Solly (who was born via surrogacy). When the couple became parents, they were struck by how our society expected little involvement from fathers. They saw how this automatically pushed most of the work of parenting onto mothers, even if they had busy careers.
This spurred Morgan-Bentley to write ‘The Equal Parent’, published in March. The book is partly a memoir of his experiences as an involved father and the reactions he has experienced. It is also a deeply-researched manifesto for freeing parents from the stereotypes around mothers’ and fathers’ roles, exploring everything from maternity ward layouts, to parental leave schemes, to how parenting shapes your brain regardless of your sex.
We spoke to Morgan-Bentley about his new book. These quotes have been slightly edited for length and clarity.
[The book is] essentially about how it’s impossible to have gender equality if we just focus on work; we also need equality at home. After having our son, both my husband and I were really struck by the generally low expectations of fathers – our society often reinforces this idea that women have to be the primary parent with the [main] responsibility, no matter how high-earning or high-achieving they are professionally. So I wanted to question that. I wanted to look into the science and break it down for people in a readable way.
Nappy-changing is just one example. A generation ago, men proudly talked of not changing nappies. [Nowadays] I think we can all agree that if a man was boasting that he never touches a nappy, everyone would judge him very negatively. But changing facilities are still often in women’s toilets. There’s so many times that we had to essentially break into the women’s toilets to change our son!
We also found that there’s often huge and inappropriate praise for really basic things, as a dad. People look at you like you’re some kind of superhuman, as a man, if you turn up to [your child’s] vaccination appointment. Nurses would praise us and say: “It’s so good to see dads here.” If a woman didn’t show up, questions would be asked about her. But men routinely don’t show up for these things, and it’s just expected.
Some of the most interesting stuff was scientific experiments [from] the past few decades. People talk about “mother’s instinct” – and does that mean that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t do equal parenting? But the science now completely disproves that.
For example, when scientists have measured levels of oxytocin [the ‘love hormone’] in new mums and dads, they were surprised to find that when dads were very engaged in hands-on stuff with their babies, their oxytocin levels rose to be just as high as the mums’. It took a bit longer [because women have oxytocin boosts during pregnancy and childbirth], but it wasn’t very long at all. Absent fathers don’t get this rise in hormones. So literally just holding your baby, whatever your sex…just doing parenting changes you biologically.
It’s good for women, because those who want to work, get to go back to work. And there are lots of studies that show it’s great for men, and it’s better for [their] relationships, when they do more childcare. The research also seems to show that it’s important for children to have a few really good attachments – not just one. [It helps with] the foundations of learning about empathy, about relationships, that people are different.
We do a combination of working from home and in the office – there’s always one of us at home, and whoever’s at home has to go if there’s a call from the nursery. We try to split it 50/50…but we also both have intense periods at work. My husband sometimes has to travel – if he’s in New York for a week, I’m going to be doing a hell of a lot more parenting! And when a big investigation is going into the paper, I have to be in for long hours and my husband has to step up at home. It’s a constant [balancing act]. You both have to sometimes be willing to sacrifice things.
What we’ve learned is that you both have to be able to do everything…so the one who’s not ‘on duty’ can properly focus at work. There’s no excuse for….‘I just can’t get [our child] to sleep in the way that my wife does.’ If you’re not doing it, you don’t get better at it. You’re not forming your own unique bonds.
A big part of [equal parenting] is also not trying to control each other or each other’s methods. It’s really hard – I took my parental leave first and…[when I went back to work and my husband started his leave], I definitely felt the urge to check on him and tell him ‘don’t do it that way!’ But one of the key messages that came from [researching] the book was: it’s not helpful to write those to-do lists. If you want to do it equally, you also have to give your partner the space to do it equally.
I think men generally have a long way to go in terms of doing an equal share, but we should give men credit as there has already been loads of change. Lots of men want to be around much more than their dad’s generation. But society isn’t keeping up with [that].
Morgan-Bentley picks out the following society-wide changes that we need: