Dear Mark Latham, mothers are not the natural enemy of stay-at-home dads

Alleged parenting expert, Mark Latham.

Alleged parenting expert, Mark Latham.

How do you come to be a stay-at-home father, swimming against the tide, writing about parenting and its impact on your perspective on the world and, starting a fight with so many mother writers? Where on earth do you find the passionate point of difference? Ask Mark Latham.

Sarah Macdonald's recent piece on progressive parenting is not particularly prescriptive, no more so than a certain opposition leader back in 2004 campaigning on the advice that parents should read more to their children. But none the less, she earns quite the rebuke for her "social experiment" parenting techniques from Mark Latham in his latest column for theAustralian Financial Review. There's something of a pattern here because a fortnight ago, Latham went after Lisa Pryor for writing about the power of self-disclosure in an article mentioning how she doesn't find motherhood easy and taking anti-depressants helps. It was hardly controversial, and yet.

In Latham's latest column there's also a lot of fussing about Macdonald's agenda when ultimately, all Macdonald suggests is that you might say one thing to your children about gender stereotypes and be unintentionally modeling another entirely. Values can be undermined by actions, especially when you're tired. (Similarly, Latham might have argued that you thought literacy was the "greatest gift we can give our toddlers," but you're not actually finding time after work to read to your kids). 

In her article, Macdonald even offered her mea culpa recommendation that you not demonise femininity in the rush to free your daughter from gender stereotypes. Doesn't matter how moderating Macdonald is, Latham still argues we're seeing the dark side of feminist parenting here. It takes determination for a person to muster that much anxiety towards a self-reflective account of mothering.

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Speaking of personal stories, Latham has an interesting story, too. He's a stay-at-home father with a wife working outside the home. Having made the transition from political leadership to primary caring he might offer an insightful perspective, instead, he seems clouded by a kind of defensive masculinity. And his hostility towards feminist parenting is curious when you consider Latham's own role reversal is exactly the kind of freedom feminists are seeking as an option to be available for more parents. But critiquing parenting has long been an underhand route for simply censuring women.

Women well know that when male commentators talk about women's lives they are prone to holding unexamined views that run contrary to one another. So, being the primary parent has allowed Latham to see the hoax that fathers can't be nurturing, but somehow mothering is still essentialist enough for inner-city feminists to be capable of running a secret campaign to "free themselves from nature's way". And further, mothers who take their experiences seriously enough to write about them are "self-absorbed", but to not take them seriously is to be "breeding a generation of shirtless, tone-deaf, overweight, pizza-eating dummies". Although Macdonald, apparently, manages to do both.

His contempt for No Gender December, a campaign against the sexist stereotyping of toys also lacks logic. Latham might have spent much time as a stay-at-home father lovingly pushing his child around in a stroller but wanting toy prams and dolls to be available for small boys to play with, as well as girls, is a "wacky sociological conspiracy". The hostility towards No Gender December is surely merely an excuse to attack Greens Senator, Larissa Waters for having promoting the campaign. Waters neither called for legislative change nor boycott action; she simply asked gift-givers to consider this aspect at Christmas. A National Party politician may suggest you buy Australian meat for the Christmas meal, why wouldn't a Greens politician with women's portfolio responsibilities suggest you buy a toy because it's fun rather than because it's stereotypical for your child?

But the same paranoid, macho posturing that almost made Latham prime minister is the same kind being offered here with his parenting analysis. He was ultimately out of time then and his views are most definitely out of time today. What do Macdonald, Pryor and Waters all have in common? Unfortunately for them, they represent inner-city lefties to Latham and a particular type of pressure on the Labor Party that he believes distracts the party from its true focus - jobs, and everything that goes with it. Problem is, the Labor Party is a naturally progressive party and at its heart lacks genuine differences with left-leaning voters.

Contrary to Latham's world-view, voters are not split between the categories of inner-city elites and suburban aspirationals. Women earn less than men, but mothers are the poorest women on the planet. It's possible there's some structural disadvantage at play when you specialise in unpaid family care work and regardless of your postcode you've rubbed up against it. Sometimes it can help to remember that even the most privileged mother is occasionally woken in the middle of the night by her sick toddler and sits bolt upright in bed, bleary-eyed and shivering in the dark, to catch vomit or worse in her bare hands. It may take some of the sting out of her, apparently, selfish lifestyle for you.

Even for someone on the right, like Latham, you have to really work to find much at all to be passionately opposed to in feminist parenting. I ran a survey of feminist parents on my website (sorry, mummy blog), for a number of years and received over a hundred responses from around the world. Feminist parenting was defined by respondents as being about, yes, gender neutral toys and play, but also about more equal parenting between men and women, teaching sons good communication skills, defusing shame in daughters about their bodies, and about building community.

Overwhelmingly, feminist parents were concerned with removing barriers for girls' achievement. Notably, a goal conducive to increased female participation and therefore wholly compatible with Latham's focus on 'aspirationals'. Indeed, in a number of cases working class parents saw feminist parenting as being important to them in helping their child recognise, endure and overcome class discrimination. This stuff is hardly the destruction of a socially democratic economy.

Once you step outside the doctrine of work as the single path to happiness and fulfillment you are suddenly drifting awfully close to the realisation that capitalism is not the marketplace, but rather a system involving the intersection of the market with government, families and communities. You might find yourself very close, indeed, to a feminist epiphany, if you allow yourself. Latham says he has found the most satisfying role in his life as a stay-at-home parent. When he describes his new life to other men, he says they are envious and long to do the same.

But they don't.

Might it be the drop in status, the loss of income, the long-term disadvantage it poses for aging and divorce, the threat to negotiating and decision making power in a relationship that usually comes with being a primary carer that is holding these men back? Because interestingly, this is something feminist mother writers talk a lot about. There might be some sympathy from those of us on the dark-side for the tension you feel in both being driven to care for your child and being marginalised for it.

If you fight to be taken seriously as a primary carer, if you want to talk about the quiet revolution of tending gardens, making 'slow food' and the zen-like rhythm you find when you're in the company of children as Latham does; let me tell you, 'leftie mummy bloggers' are your people. But you'll find a surprising number of them reside outside the inner city, they don't fit your stereotypes, just as your electoral analysis increasingly doesn't fit the results.

Because just as lefties aren't the natural enemy of the Labor Party, mothers are not the natural enemy of a stay-at-home dad.