Clementine Ford: Men Aren't Ostracised For Becoming Parents. Why Are Women?
Earlier this week, I delivered a speech about #16DaysofActivism at a local city council forum.
The evening was designed to address women’s lack of safety in public spaces -- a pertinent topic, especially given the horrific sexual assault of a woman jogging along a well-known path in Melbourne’s inner north. We discussed the statistical reality of men’s violence against women, which is far more likely to occur behind closed doors between people well known to each other. Still, the fact that women are unable to freely move through public space without fear is a matter worthy of the community’s attention.
As I do with a lot of events, I brought my three-year-old son with me. I occasionally feel obliged to apologise for this, because apologising for mothering in public is something a lot of women have become extremely good at. But I resisted the urge this time. After all, if you can’t bring a child to a feminist event about women’s involvement in the community, where CAN you bring them? (Thankfully, the Council were very welcoming.)
The thing is, I often have to bring my son to work events. It’s either that or pay for a babysitter, which is a choice very few male writers and speakers working in the same field as me ever have to make -- particularly if they’re partnered with women who take on that work for them. I’m not just making that up. Even the Australian Institute of Family Studies acknowledges that women’s parenting and domestic workload vastly exceeds that of men, particularly in the early years of a child’s life.
In all the years I’ve been working as a public speaker and writer, I’ve never seen a man single-handedly have to balance caring for a child while preparing to speak on stage or do a panel. I’ve never seen him walking a baby in a pram in the hopes they’ll sleep just before the event starts so it can all be done without interruption. This isn’t to say that no man in the history of humanity has ever done these things. But statistically speaking, it’s not something that most men are concerned with or have to think about, because they usually have women doing it for them.
A recent report in The New York Times confirmed this imbalance, citing studies that showed men were less likely than women to take leave to care for their children even when it was paid and provided for them by their workplace. And so although more men now express a desire to care for their children, they’re still not taking full advantage of the opportunities provided to them. Frustratingly, this gap becomes even more pronounced when parental leave is unpaid. The assumption that men’s work is more ‘important’ still persists, particularly where finances are concerned. And childcare is still perceived to be the domain of women, whether it’s paid or not.
In the course of my son’s short life, I’ve breastfed him on stages, rocked him in a carrier while delivering lectures, let him crawl around at my feet during panels and been greatly supported by volunteers or friends who’ve entertained him off stage.
With only one exception, all of these ‘members of the village’ have been women. When my son was a baby, I used to make a point of asking men to hold him if I needed to strap on his carrier at the airport security or dash to the toilet quickly in a cafe -- because I wanted to make the point that this kind of assistance and support is the responsibility of everybody in a community, not just the women.
For the most part, men were very happy to help!
But still, children aren’t often included in “serious” public spaces in this country. In a lot of circumstances, people can be actively hostile towards them. But as countless women have argued over decades, when you exclude children you also exclude mothers. And a ton of us are mothers.
I’m fortunate that I work for myself and can wield some kind of privilege in just rocking up to do my work with my child in tow. But inclusivity for children shouldn’t be reserved for privileged women whose workspaces are slightly more flexible. And we need to radically address the ways in which women are excluded not just from work but also from public life.
It makes me so upset to hear stories of women being asked to leave events if a baby’s crying, or having people angrily shush or tut at them.
I know significant numbers of women choose not to come to events like that important community forum because they assume their children won’t be welcome.
Shamefully, it took me becoming a mother myself to really understand this. That’s the way it is with most people it seems. Out of sight, out of mind. You bloody chose to have those kids! Etc. Except that men are not at all excluded or punished for becoming parents the way that women are excluded and punished for becoming *mothers*. And the lengths we go to to minimise the presence of our children or apologise for them is really telling. It’s an extraordinarily white thing to gleefully hate children, and it denigrates our communities as a whole.
I strongly believe that all public forums need to allocate money for childcare in their event planning budgets, not just for speakers like myself but also for community members who want to attend but feel unwelcome.
Communities INCLUDE children. They belong in spaces like these too. And perhaps having more of them running around will remind the rest of us exactly who it is we’re trying to change society for.