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Ingeborg van Teeseling sets out to dispel the remaining stigma and dated stereotype surrounding single-dad families.
A fair few years ago, the wife of a friend of mine left him for another man. She also – and this is relatively rare – left their two young daughters behind. What happened next has always puzzled me. For months afterwards, women kept leaving meals on his doorstep. And messages, with tips on how to raise his children. And offers to take his girls shopping, or to the movies, or even on holidays. This was surprising because my friend had always been a hands-on father. From the moment his children were born, he cut back on work, was the designated cook and cleaner, and two days a week he picked them up from school to take them to ballet and soccer. He loved them to bits and they thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. Despite this, the casseroles kept on coming, even after he had made it clear, first nicely, then more forcefully, that he really didn’t want or need them. Although his daughters were naturally confused and saddened by the loss of their mother, they were soon thriving again. Nevertheless, their father was called into their school’s headmaster’s office on a regular basis, so she could “check he was still coping.”
According to the ABS, there are 961,000 one-parent families in Australia, which is about 15 percent of the total amount of families. 780,000 of those are made up by single mothers (81 percent), the rest are single fathers (181,000). A 2012 study by Monash University calculated that the percentage of single fathers is on the rise, amounting to an estimated 20,000 extra over the five years between 2006 and 2011. What the research also showed was that single fathers feel stigmatised. Whatever they do, they are seen as incompetent, not able to properly raise their children. Stereotype? Look at television ads for an illustration. Remember the father with his son in the backseat, talking about the Great Wall of China? First class dumbo. Or the dad in the insurance commercial, who can’t even hose his car without wrecking half the street? Or the latest one, for a flavoured milk, which features an idiot who has mistakenly put his dog in the baby carrier instead of his child? Inept parents, all of them.
The message is clear: men are hopeless around children. If you want it done right, ask a woman, not the big child with the job who she’s got lying around the house. Waste of space, he is: useful to bring in money, but don’t give him any responsibilities, because he will mess everything up.
When my friend became a single parent, I had been one for a few years already. Unfortunately (or fortunately, who knows?) there had been no oven dishes on the doorstep for me. Nor had anybody offered to help me out in any way raising my daughter. Instead, there had been a lot of raised eyebrows and a lot of “bad mother” remarks. One time, somebody had even suggested I give up my child for adoption, because I was still running my own business, and that was “obviously” hurting my girl. I got into the habit of not telling people I even had a child, just to prevent the nasty comments. I am not saying here that single fathers are more fortunate than single mothers. Although financially they probably are: 72 percent of the single fathers in Australia are in full-time employment, against 55 percent of single mothers. But that is not my issue here. What I am railing against are the gender stereotypes we employ every day. Especially because they are hurting us, and our children.
If you ask an advertising executive about the “stupid man” ads – and yes, that is their official name in the business – they will tell you they make them because their target audience is women. And, apparently, this is the way women think about their men: as useless dorks. Also, the makers of commercials will tell you, men don’t mind being portrayed like this. One, they are used to it, and two, there is something in it for them: if they apparently are unable to parent, that means they don’t have to do it either. It reminds me of something my husband once told me. Whenever his mother had another baby, his dad was put in charge of the household. Because he didn’t like that, he accidently-on-purpose burnt the meals and broke the plates while he was doing the washing-up. After baby number three, his wife called in her mother when she had to deliver. Goal achieved for the father. This, though, was the 1960s, when ideas about parenthood and who did what were very different to what they are now. Gen Y has grown up with different roles for mum and dad, and more involvement by fathers in the raising of the children. So why are we still pretending only women can be safely put in charge of them?
Personally, I think being a single parent is a gift. Yes, it is difficult, and yes, it is tiring. But there is something in it for both men and women. In most one-parent families, the children are with the ex-partner, at least, part of the time, even if it is only a few weekends a month. This is great for women especially. In a two-parent household, women almost never have time away from their children. This is exhausting, but also narrows their vision of themselves. When you are always “Mum,” you don’t have the space to be just Julie or Chris. You start to think of yourself as an extension of others, not an independent person with independent ideas and wants. Single mothers do develop that broader vantage point, and that helps them not only when they are raising children, but also when the chicks have flown the coop. The feeling of loss is less invasive, because they have never been only mothers and partners. Also, because they have been forced to trust their children to the care of their fathers on those weekends, they have often acquired a new appreciation of men: if you leave them to it, they don’t actually kill their babies, but bring them back to you in one piece. A little dirty, maybe, but happy and alive. Who knew?
For men, there is a lot to like about being a single father as well. Mothers tend to hover over their children and get anxious when dads are in charge. When a baby cries, they stereotypically take over, and in response, fathers hand a crying bub to the mother, just to be on the safe side. This way they never learn that they are very able and capable themselves. If you sing to a child, or feed it, or change its nappy, or entertain it, or all of the above, it will, in the end, start to smile at you. Again: who knew? If you read books by single fathers, their inevitable conclusion is always that it has brought them closer to their children and given them more confidence in themselves. After taking care of their brood, on their own, for a while, they suddenly find they are more emotional than they thought, more competent, more – and we need to find another word for this – maternal. I am not advocating a prescribed period of single parenthood for every Australian. Or maybe I am. In any case, what I am saying is that the rest of us can learn from one-parent families, and adjust our gender-stereotypical thinking accordingly. It would recalibrate the 1960s-mindsets of advertising people as well.
Wouldn’t that be something?