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Shared parenting: Good luck with bucking human nature

Over the weekend, the Prime Minister reaffirmed her commitment to encouraging “fathers to share caring roles more fairly, through initiatives such as shared parental leave, and promote schemes for mothers returning to work“.

  • Giving fathers encouragement to get involved is excellent.
  • Giving mothers opportunities to return to work, if and when they want to do so, is excellent.

What is not excellent is to promote the false implication that mothers and fathers are essentially interchangeable.

No matter how much money, time, encouragement, policy, law or coercion she puts into this, she won’t buck human nature.

It’s basic behavioural psychology that mothers will always think about their children more than fathers do. There may be odd exceptions. But this is the unavoidable norm.

Growing a baby inside for nine months conditions a mother’s brain to think about that baby unconsciously and automatically. So by the time the baby is born, her thoughts are ‘baby, baby, baby’ all the time.

Over the years I have made this point to several thousand new mothers in NHS post-natal clinics and Surestart centres while teaching my relationship programme Let’s Stick Together. Not one mother has ever challenged me or showed anything other than complete agreement. It’s self-evidently true.

Now this doesn’t make mothers better parents. But it does make mothers think about parenting a whole lot more than fathers.

Some fathers are naturally brilliant, engaged, sensitive, thoughtful, interested, involved, proactive as parents. Others are less so. But whereas for fathers parenting is a deliberate intentional act, for mothers it’s largely automatic.

Unsurprisingly, although mothers want fathers to be involved, it can be a frustrating process simply because fathers haven’t thought about what they are doing quite as much. When a father is clumsy or doesn’t do it quite right, how many mothers end up intervening and saying – whether out loud or to themselves – “it’s easier if I do it myself”? Do that a few times and the father will naturally back off.

A few years ago, a study from Oxford University followed fifteen new millenial couples from two months before to six months after their child was born. Before birth, all of the fathers were saying they wanted – and expected – to share parenting equally. But once the baby had arrived, the mothers took on the lion’s share.

The authors tried to explain this away in terms of obstructive social, childcare and employment policies that made it hard for fathers to be involved. The much simpler explanation is that the mums didn’t want to let go. Why would they?

Despite years of government policy initiatives on childcare and Surestart, take up of shared parental leave by fathers remains at 2 per cent. Almost all parents who stay at home to look after their young children are still mothers. Almost all lone parents are still mothers.

Think of the shock that still accompanies the news that a mother who has abandoned her child. It remains a taboo. In stark contrast, 15 per cent of children are born without a father in the house and nobody bats an eyelid.

No. Shared parenting, if people want it, is great.

But no matter how much the Prime Minister and other worthies express their frustration that parenting should be equal and parents should be interchangeable, they are not and never will be.

Here’s the news.

Men and women are similar in all sorts of ways. But they are not the same and never will be in one vital aspect.

Women have babies. Men don’t.

You can’t buck human nature.

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