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The coronavirus crisis has thrown the role of working dads into sharp relief. But here’s some thoughts on why and how to make a success of it
OK, working dads, you’re up.
The coronavirus crisis is really biting as we enter the second week of homeschooling. It’s about to get worse. There’s two weeks of Easter holidays on the horizon, the kids are going to need entertaining without leaving the house. And all that will be accompanied by a steadily climbing death toll. At best that’ll make a grim backdrop, at worst the epidemic will touch your family directly.
It’s going to be tough.
But we working dads are the heroes the nation needs. IF we get it right.
Inevitably, there is a tendency to compare the current crisis to the Second World War. Certainly the curbs on our normal way of life are in the same league. But a fundamental difference between the two is the role of men. Between 1939-45 men went out to fight, dig coal, keep things running while women broadly maintained the home and took on new duties outside the home as necessary.
This time it’s different. It’s women on the front line – as nurses, doctors, teachers, nursery staff and supermarket cashiers. The vast majority of key workers are female. (And if, at the end of this, they are not as feted as the fallen, The Few, and the veterans of previous wars then it’ll be hard to blame another reason beyond deep seated sexism.)
It’s on us to keep the home fires burning. To be the best partners, parents, educators and, yes, employers and employees we can be.
One friend I talked to this week admitted he was worried about the weeks and months ahead. He’s self employed, his wife’s a doctor. He knows she’s going to be out all hours saving lives and when she gets home she’ll need sleep and support. He’ll be left to take on the burden of childcare, homeschooling, feeding the family etc. He went self employed so he could take a full role in family life, he didn’t sign up to do it full time. But these are extraordinary times. He accepts his business will have to wait while he steps up to care for his children and his partner. He’s a great example of the role that awaits working dads right now. And his attitude is exemplary. He knows it’ll be hard, he admits his concerns, but he’s going to get on with it.
Sadly, he seems an exception.
I’ve heard so many stories of men locking themselves away this past week.
Men who’ve retired to their bedroom, their home office, put signs on the door telling the family to keep out because they’re working.
To paraphrase Whitney Houston, it’s not right and it’s not okay. Not to put too fine a point on it, anyone who behaves like that is letting the nation down.
If you want to stick with the Second World War analogy it’s like men going off to fight in 1940 and the women back in Britain simply refusing to take on the new roles necessary. Insisting that domesticity was what they were good at and anything over and beyond that was off limits.
Now, clearly I’m not in the business of talking down working dads. Not least because I am one myself.
There are good reasons for men to feel they have to get their work done during lockdown. It’s likely dad earns more. That remains the case in the vast majority of couples. And with the economy going down the pan keeping your job is more important than ever.
It’s equally likely that up till now mum has done most of the childcare. So she’s comfortable with what the children need and how to provide it. (Up to a point, homeschooling is new to most of us). And many mums will resent and resist a partner who suddenly appears to be invading her sphere of interest.
Interestingly many women I’ve spoken to talk about feeling that they have to live up to an ideal, to make sure their children are getting on with the school work. Whereas their partners are more laid back and relaxed if the kids spend a morning in front of the TV. That fits with gender stereotypes explored in my first book The Gender Agenda, itself inspired by a German project that was triggered by the difference between encouraging female good behaviour with the phrase ‘there’s a good girl’ and writing off male bad behaviour as ‘boys will be boys’. (For a truly up to date example of how this manifests itself see Taylor Swift’s Netflix film Miss Americana).
So, it’s complicated. And different families will find their own ways to cope with the topsy turvy world we inhabit for the foreseeable future.
But I can already see the predictions that the bulk of the extra caring responsibilities would fall on women coming true. I know of one friend’s marriage that could not cope with 14 days self isolation and another that is teetering on the edge. (But neither can actually separate until lockdown is over. Awks.) It need not be that way. And if we working dads step up everyone will benefit.
So here are 10 tips for not just coping with lockdown, but making a success of it.
I don’t really claim to be an expert. But these tips gleaned from my experience and from crowdsourcing online may hopefully help you through this. If you have experience or advice you think could help others please leave a comment or get in touch through social media. We working dads need to work together to get through this. But if we do, and we step up appropriately we can be the heroes the nation needs and our children will look up to for much longer than this crisis lasts.