Toes all present and correct

I’m really really proud to be able to announce that my wife and I had our second child yesterday, a girl, to be known on this blog and twitter as MiniHer!

Born at 17:01 at 8lb 6oz (tiny compared to her older brother MiniMe). Mother and child are well and father is as pleased as punch.

Monkey MusicMy emasculation was completed this morning when I took MiniMe to Monkey Music for the first time.

It had to happen sooner or later, and while I’m obviously a proud and doting Dad I can’t help but be aware that as the sole man in a room full of mothers (and nannies) and children I am not fulfilling my gender stereotype.

Now, you might think this is a welcome break from politics and conference related postings, but sadly it isn’t. While I’m not going to discuss Brown’s speech (far better people than have done analysis on it) or The Sun‘s switch back to the Conservatives (was anyone really surprised?) I have been thinking about his proposals for teen mothers – more vulgarly know as ‘gulags for slags’.

While MiniMe and I were on our forced march around a community centre hall to martial music (well, something about rain) it struck me that this was parental responsibility in action. Was I particularly enjoying it? Perhaps not. Did I feel self-conscious? Most definitely. But was I part of a group who were taking responsibility for their child’s upbringing and development (even if outsourcing it to a nanny)? Absolutely.

We were on a forced march of responsibility. But oddly enough, we were there voluntarily. It was our responsibility, our duty, as parents. But this is a government that doesn’t seem to understand concepts like personal responsibility or freedom. They are, after all, the party that are suggesting sending leaflets to parents reminding them they are responsible for their child’s discipline.

And while we were there voluntarily Brown was going to compel teen mums on that route. No bad thing, a Daily Mail reader might say. But I cannot help but be shocked at the message this sends.

He is, in essence, saying to everyone around the teen girl, and the girl as well, that they need not take responsibility because the state can happily step in. Her parents need not worry themselves, as once they might, about the care of the child. And we certainly don’t want to trouble the father. No, the state is there and can take care of such problems. Behave as you wish, with no regard for the consequences because when you find yourself unable to cope because you can’t afford it or are too immature the state will bail you out.

And our prudent Prime Minister is also keen to point out that this is a cheaper way of looking after them. Well, fair enough, but then large dormitories would be a better way of providing social housing. And a return to workhouses might be a cost-effective way of tackling unemployment. Or is he saving these ideas for the election?

When you consider what the policy actually means – an extension of the state into people’s personal lives and an abrogation of personal responsibility – use of the phrase gulag isn’t that inappropriate.

Not a stock photo, but MiniMe's first digger
Not a stock photo, but MiniMe's first digger

“Do I look professional?”
“Do I look like a stay-at-home Dad?”

That small exchange with my wife this morning marked the final stage of my transition to ‘new man’ as she headed off to work and stayed home with the child.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Although we may appear a fairly modern middle class couple, my upbringing is traditional working class. My father (a docker) went out and earnt the money so my mother (a housewife, occasionally working a factory line) could look after the home and family. There were clearly defined roles and everyone I knew followed them. The only exception was a friend whose father, not his mother, picked him up from school occasionally. But he was a milkman, so it was OK, his working day was over.

Having had a traditional, but stable and loving upbringing I was all set to repeat the process with my children.

But when my wife was pregnant this childhood programming crashed. Because most of the things I did to bring home the bacon were actually done at home there seemed an obvious solution – she could return to work part-time, and with some clever diary management I could make sure I was working from home when she was working at, well, work. It was win-win-win: we’d still have a decent joint income; I’d get to spend time with our child; and my wife would benefit from adult company and some intellectual stimulation, neither of which I come close to providing.

Even after MiniMe was born (some desire for privacy or impulse for protection means I’ve always used a cipher when referring to my son in public: MiniMe, Junior, the little ‘un – never his name) the plans remained. Babies, it seemed to me, mainly slept. Even nappy changes weren’t as bad as I thought. How lucky was I to be in such a position.

But gradually my childhood programming has returned and started running. As he developed, I realised that my vision of working away happily on the computer while he slept happily was naught but a fantasy. Were I to try he would not be happy unless banging on the keyboard with me. Instead, I find myself in a losing battle trying to interest him in Olly the Octopus to distract him from Elliott the Electrical Appliance. And while I applaud his fine skills in standing up using the sofa, I’m not sure my message that chewing the sofa isn’t essential to balance is getting across.

I’ve obviously looked after him before, but now I know it’s going to be regular I’ve a new-found respect for anyone staying at home to look after new children. I’m also particularly looking forward to working away from home for a few days next month… and that’s in Coventry.

Obviously I jest. A bit. It is a joy to look after him; clearly parental bias plays a part but he is (usually) a happy child and it is impossible not to forgive what is clearly developing into a mischievous nature. Yes, he loves to go places and play with things he shouldn’t – but that’s the burgeoning explorer in him, or intellectual curiosity, or maybe criminal tendencies. And yes, he’s totally changed our lives, but I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

The next few months – or years, or however long this set-up lasts – will be an education for me. I refuse to believe that prolonged exposure to nappies, In The Night Garden and Monkey Music (that link leads straight to the Monkey Music Time song, be warned) won’t have an effect. Indeed, it already has…

Since this first day has really brought home to me is how deeply embedded gender roles are in this country.

Despite my expectations and best intentions, both my wife and I had slipped towards the traditional models. While on maternity leave she took almost total responsibility for MiniMe. My rĂ´le was mainly play, the very occasional nappy and odd bit of baby-sitting. And she also took on elements of the housework effortlessly. I, on the other hand, am finding the addition of a baby makes even the most routine tasks almost impossible. Some skills I will learn, but this morning I realised that it went beyond questions of ability or knowledge and becomes a question of authority.

When a man knocked on the door this morning, drumming up business for the local milkman, I was unable to help. I wanted to, I think there’s something special about getting milk delivered, but I just didn’t feel that was the sort of decision I could take. A shocking admission. But he took it totally in his stride, he didn’t query it or pressure me. Instead he indicated that he knew how it works and will simply come back tomorrow when I can pass on my wife’s answer!