When I was little, I loved watching cartoons on Saturday mornings. It was the only day that my mom allowed me to hang around on my Snoopy PJs all morning long. In those shows, I remember how female characters were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. The usual answer was “I want to be a mother”. For many years, I never questioned the validity of this answer. I thought that women wanted to be mothers more than managers, soccer players or lawyers. This was not the case for male characters: they wanted to be heroes and engage in saving the world. Therefore, I assumed that girls were supposed to be mothers and boys were supposed to be all of the other options. As a result, I grew up thinking that I had endless options for becoming whatever I wanted to be in life. In spite of this, it has taken me many, many years to figure it out.
However, there is one thing that I knew since I was little. It is a little bit odd, but I want to share it: I wanted to be a dad. I knew that one day, when I grew up, I wanted to be, more than anything else in the world, a father. Culturally, this was strange as boys are not supposed to be thinking about being dads; they are supposed to be exploring the world, becoming mentally and physically strong while learning how to shut down emotionally in the process. Therefore, I never mentioned to my friends or peers that desire. In society fatherhood is seen as one of the shortcut for “becoming a man”. For me, becoming a father was not going to be something that just happens or a check on the list of rites of passage from boyhood to manhood. I wanted to be the best person I could, so hopefully one day, I could be the best version of myself for someone else, as a dad.
Fatherhood is one of the most transformative changes that a man can face in its lifetime. In its traditional way, it is the result of a heterosexual relation with a partner you care for and love. But in reality, fatherhood comes in different forms and shapes: it could be biological or by adoption; desired or unplanned. Sometimes fatherhood is imposed by the absence of the dad in relatives, mothers and role models. In other cases, fatherhood is just the empty space left by a man who walked away.
Due to its importance, fatherhood has served as an entry point to promote change on pressing gender issues. It is conceived as a golden opportunity to help men to reflect critically about the new journey they encounter and the needed changes that need to take place in their lives. This, in order to avoid the vicious circle of violence, abandonment and loss that many of them have experienced growing up. On this regard, the work performed by organizations like Promundo and MenCare have increased the attention on the opportunities offered by fatherhood to increase men’s involvement in maternal and child health, decrease occurrence of violence against women and foster care giving as an essential trait of masculinity (stats here). There is a fascinating report made by PBS that tells the story of such transformation. In addition, fatherhood is a great opportunity when you consider that by the age of 40, 80% of men in the world have fathered. In the U.S, the mean age for men to have a first child is 25 years and in 2/3 of the cases, men become fathers in their twenties. This means that is very likely that sooner or later, fatherhood happens.
In spite of the hopeful outcomes of using fatherhood as an entry point to change attitudes and behaviors about gender norms and gender roles, I keep asking myself: can we wait? Can society wait until men become fathers to start caring for gender equality? Can women wait?
The answer is no, we cannot wait. This is why it is so necessary for men to engage in purposeful efforts to shape gender relations now. Why waiting to be a dad to care for gender equality? Here are three specific actions that men (and women) can push for in the quest for gender equality:
- Advocate for Paid Family Leave: Getting paid paternity and maternity leave as a fundamental recognition of the importance of the early involvement of men in care giving roles and taking responsibilities of household chores. The arrival of a child is a perfect moment to shift traditional gender norms and roles about who is responsible to take care of the kids and the house. In the United States, the lack of federal laws regarding paternal leave (and maternal leave) are a shameful reminder of how profits have been prioritized over people. Children should not be the definitive factor to impede women’s advancement in the work place. So advocate at your work place for this leave, take it if you are entitled to it. Vote for politicians who are willing to give the fight for you to make this law a reality. It is not a favor they are doing to society, it is their duty.
- Foster valuable, healthy new roles for men: Traditional gender roles for men have been severely affected by social changes driven by the push for gender equality and the shifts derived of the prevailing market economy model. This is not an opinion, this is an undeniable fact. As a result, today we talk about masculinities, recognizing the spectrum of characteristics that define what being a man is and means. Men are trying to adapt to these new changes in social dynamics and assuming roles that have been traditionally observed as emasculating or that have been undervalued, as they are performed primarily by women.
This is the case of men as stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) and as caregivers. It is important to acknowledge these new roles as valuable traits in the construction of alternative healthy masculinities. This applies to recognizing men who take these roles but also to demand adjustments in the way this new roles are being measured and analyzed. For instance, the Pew Institute calculated in 2012 over 2 million SAHDs in the US while the Census Bureau calculated only 214,000. To foster these new roles and create moment for public policy actions it is very important to make them visible. Data is quite helpful in this. It also helps to show the magnitude of this new social phenomenon. In simple words, to show men they are not alone
- Educate boys so you don’t have to punish men (and women): Gender based violence (GBV), rape culture and street harassment are pressing problems faced by societies around the world. These issues are rooted in the same cause: lack of proper education. Proper does not mean getting trained to solve complex math operations or learning grammar tricks. It is about adequate education about sexuality: a comprehensive approach on life, love, feelings and sex. It is about teaching boys and girls at early ages how to set clear limits and respect not to cross them. It is about learning about diversity and acceptance. Unfortunately, many men have pornography and the “entertainment” industry as their main sources of knowledge about intimacy and sexuality, which creates an imaginary that greatly differs from reality. This is very dangerous as it creates frustration and anger in individuals who have been taught not to show emotions and man up. The result: the high incidence of violence against women and children. The entitlement for men should be about respect not about exercise power over women. We have to start educating boys at early ages as the Dutch do, so we do not need to punish men (and women) for their inability to set and respect limits.
I am almost thirty three and I still dream about being a father. I hope that when the time comes, I am able to take paid paternity leave without putting financial pressure on the household. I hope that staying at home as a primary caregiver would be our decision, as a family. I hope that my children (and your children) get real sexuality education so we start seeing each other as human beings, with respect, regardless of our sexual orientation, our looks and who we decide to love.