This weekend the Mail on Sunday ran an interview with our Prime Minister Boris Johnson, where he talked about firing up the economy, did some push ups to prove that he was, in his words ‘as fit as a butchers dog’ and then sort of fudged it when he was asked if he was helping to look his two-month-old son Wilfred by doing night feeds and changing nappies.
His response was that he ‘both present and involved in a detailed way,’ which I think we can all take to mean that no, Boris Johnson isn’t doing the hellish 5AM feed where you’re never sure if your baby is going to go back to sleep or if no, that’s just it, you’re up for the day.
But the question is, why would we expect him to? Why do we ask this question of powerful people (men) when it makes no sense? Speaking as someone who has just emerged from nine months of night time feeds, night time nappy changes, night time pacing up and down a very dark room at 3AM while your baby wails, an extended period of broken sleep is exhausting and totally screws with your ability to function cognitively. And when you’re off work on maternity leave that’s mostly ok. You might walk into the supermarket and have no idea why you’re there, or spend 15 minutes looking for your parked car on the wrong road, but on an average day, you probably don’t have to make multiple decisions quickly, process and analyse lots of new information or have to sit through endless Zoom calls without falling asleep. So you just muddle through it.
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In theory, Boris Johnson has to do all of the above, and then some, before the rest of us have had breakfast. Now, more than ever, we need him to do it well, we need to him to make decisions quickly, be intellectually agile and remain on top of huge amounts of detail. Whether you think he is or not is another matter, but when we know that lack of sleep can affect our memory, concentration and in some cases is comparable to being drunk, I think we should all be encouraging the guy to hit the spare room with a set of earplugs and a white noise machine.
I have just finished a nine-month period of maternity leave, during which I did almost all of the night-time wake ups with my son. Now I’m back at work, and my husband is doing the last three months of parental leave, the deal is that he gets up in the night, and I get up with our son in the morning and give him his breakfast before I start work, which means my husband gets a lie in or some time to himself before another day of childcare. No-one would be applauding me if I insisted on still getting up in the night, I’d be absolutely knackered and frankly, worse at my job.
So if it seems insane to me to expect the Prime Minister, in the midst of a major global crisis to get up in the night to change a nappy when there’s another parent in the house to do it (and equally, I also hope New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden who I think we can all agree is doing a great job, is letting her husband pick up the night-time childcare slack right now), why do we still ask the question as though it tells us something about our Prime Minister’s modernity, commitment to equality or commitment to his latest progeny? It’s a total red herring.
And while we’re here, maybe we need to stop pretending that doing a night feed or changing a nappy is, in itself, a shortcut to being a good father or a good husband, because it isn’t. It feels a bit old fashioned, a bit 90s, a throwback to an era where being a ‘hands-on dad’ was suddenly cool, but no-one had any idea what that meant or how to do it.
20-odd years later, when take up of shared parental leave still sits at just 2%, and the gender pay gap jumps from almost zero to 11% after the age of 40 (a couple of 12 month maternity leaves and taking on the bulk of the childcare responsibility will do that to a woman’s earning potential), being a father has to mean more than getting up at 4Am with a bottle of formula. So maybe it’s time we look beyond how powerful men parent for our inspiration.