Bodies and masculinity

I have spent the last week and a half battling with my body though a viral infection and a stomach bug, my experiences reminded me how much I take my body for granted sometimes and how bodies dictate our freedom. It has been very frustrating to be limited my body and I have been unable to make the progress I wanted with my PhD. In addition to my own body, my son has also been physically unwell with a persistent viral gastroenteritis. It was been horrible to see him suffer with an upset tummy and he has had some very difficult early mornings as a result. This has compounded the physical battle of the last 10 days and highlighted the degree of dependency we all have to our bodies. I am writing this blog for parents, and specifically fathers, in the hope they might reflect on their own physical commitment to their children and the freedoms they allow their partners.

Men and women have different socially constructed expectations of their own and each other’s bodies. There are some functions that we have in common; we can all perform very similar physical fetes, albeit men are typically stronger than women due to testosterone levels and physical size; however we are comparably very similar in most everyday tasks. In contrast, becoming parents marks a significant point of difference between men and women, especially concerning pregnancy, birth and childcare. I won’t elaborate the specifics of my experiences with too graphic details, but I will emphasise that anyone who claims men are stronger, more resilient, or have a higher pain threshold clearly has no understanding of what it means to be a mother. It is this distinction which has been drawing my attention this week, especially what this difference means for masculinity and men’s bodies.

My understanding of and relationship with my body has been influenced by cultural, social and some innate factors. I have always enjoyed being physically active, especially through sporting and outdoor activities. Some of this is obviously nurtured through my upbringing, but I definitely think I have a different experience with physical activity than my brother who shared the same family influences as me. Accepting the possibility of the principle of physical differences between siblings, it is also reasonable to suggest that physical differences between men and women are also guided not only be social construction (though that is a VERY important influence). I am treading this contentious issue within gender theory because I think it is very important in the context of parental discourse. The main reason for this is that I believe men’s construction (innate & socially-bound) of their bodies as fathers is perhaps too influenced by the socially constructed elements, which can constrain our innate desire to be more involved and caring parents.

To explain my thinking on this a little more, I see parallels between the physical stereotypes applied to boys and girls growing up, and the physical stereotypes applied to mothers and fathers. Notwithstanding the obvious differences linked to childbirth and breastfeeding, I believe there are some harmful stereotypes that inhibit some men’s involvement with their children. To put the record straight, it is not the mother’s responsibility to change all the nappies (regardless if the father finds it repulsive – newsflash no-one enjoys it!), nor is it the mother’s responsibility to get up whenever the baby cries overnight. I think this overnight delineation of care is totally linked to the egregious social attitude that childcare is a lesser work than the work of ‘going to work’. When we pander to these physical stereotypes where fathers are exempted from the less pleasant physical caring of nappy changing, mid-night crying and soothing, and feeding, we allow socially constructed gender to override the innate reality that men are just as capable of providing full childcare for their children.

Men are also just as responsible for enduring their fair share of sleep deprivation! I accept that this is a critically important issue for parents and something that I cannot easily speak about from my singular perspective. I speak from a privileged position as a PhD student and flexible part time worker, but I argue that it is totally unfair to burden the totality of sleep deprivation on any stay at home mothers (or fathers). I believe the day-long caring responsibility for a dependent child is equally tiring and arguably much more important than most jobs (you can battle through most jobs without risking the well-being of a vulnerable human). One caveat I add here is that some professions such as medicine, which is literally life and death, include exhausting 12 hour shifts (and on calls) which do require some protected sleep. Allowing for the circumstances where parents do need some sleep allowances, I think the sleep deprivation issue is currently still disproportionately perceived as a mother’s responsibility. If we are going to get serious about equitable treatment of men and women as parents in the workplace we need to start talking more openly about the physical acts of parenting for men and women to change our collective expectations of our shared responsibility.

What I am arguing for in this blog is for men to reflect on their own commitment to the work of family life. Are we all doing as much as we could be? It is not easy, it is often painful, but it is fair and right for men to contribute to their child’s care. If any men reading this are labouring under the assumption that when a mother on parental leave looks after the baby during the day they are chilling at home, I am going to use my privileged access to the real childcare experiences of my wife to dispel that assumption. Proper childcare is really hard! As a baby gets older, they demand more attention and more of everything from the parent. All babies are different, but you should be under no allusion that it is in any way easy, ever! So, when you are dragging yourself out of bed for another day at work, remember that the protected sleep you might have enjoyed was at the expense of your partner’s well-being. And, the child-free day at work you ‘endure’, is time you don’t have to spend physically caring for your child. So, if you have an agreement with your partner for protected sleep, perhaps you might reflect on the support you can give when you get home. Even better, perhaps you can agree to share some more of the physical care and contribute more to your shared responsibility as a parent.