French fathers don't change nappies


Photo: Getty Images

You have to love the French. After all, this is a people whose collective genius managed to make philosophy into a career, legitimised pastry as breakfast food and gave us Gerard Depardieu.

And, oh yes, they came up with liberté, égalité, fraternité.

But it’s not all Champagne and Boules in Franceland. It’s disheartening, but they have conservatives just like us. And although their conservative politicians wouldn’t be seen dead in lycra, on most other counts they’re just as objectionable.

What’s even worse, some of their most outspoken conservatives are women. Recently, French conservative politician Valerie Pecresse has come out and said that men have more important things to do than change nappies.


In a debate about making parental leave more egalitarian in France, Pecresse said, ‘Do you think that most fathers want to change nappies?’

I’m not sure how many actual women Pecresse has been talking to, but I’ve yet to meet one who actually wants to touch, see and smell their kid’s dirty nappies.

Pecresse isn’t the first powerful woman to make excuses for many men’s unwillingness to share the nappy-changing tasks. Her fellow national Carla Bruni-Sarkozy dished the dirt on former French president Nicolas saying he absented himself from this parenting task because he is ‘a Latin man’.

Well, that clears that up then.

And it’s not just a French disease. Madonna claimed Guy Ritchie didn’t change nappies because he's 'a man's man', and 'it's not a man's job'.

To be fair, in most families, mums stay home for a while and dads go straight back to work. Therefore women encounter more of the estimated 7000 nappies required per child before they are toilet trained.

But I don’t think this fully accounts for the discrepancy in nappy changing duties between men and women. Based on my, admittedly unscientific, research of one child, I’ve observed that babies and toddlers also excrete outside of business hours.

Pecresse, however, tried to recover some respectability in her argument. But in doing so, she managed to both flatter and degrade men in the same breath.

‘If we want to share the responsibilities of fathers and mothers in the education of their children, we should certainly encourage fathers to take parental leave’, she said. ‘But they will be more willing to take it with an older child, and their employers will better accept seeing fathers getting involved in more complicated problems.’

‘We know well how much children need to be followed during their adolescence. And that is the moment when the need for fathers is greatest, notably because they are a figure of authority,’ she said.

Aside from the nauseating spectacle of yet another conservative and powerful woman excusing men by claiming they have more ‘authority’ than women, the idea that there is a ‘moment’ when men are required in their child’s life is insulting.

Ironically, the idea that men have more important things to do than raise children devalues men as well as women. The implication of Pecresse’s argument is that fathers are pretty much rubbish at everything when it comes to parenting young children.

If you accept this logic, then the only useful role that fathers play in their children’s lives is teaching them to play chess or advising their offspring on which university they ought to study at.

This limited notion of masculinity reduces men to that of enforcers and advisors. And you have to wonder how successful their attempts to give advice or enforce rules will be if their kids hardly know them.

While many emotionally-distant fathers do exert an influence on their children, as the children seek their approval — even into adulthood — such relationships are hardly ideal. In many cases, they’re damaging and hurtful.

It may come as a surprise to conservatives, but having a penis doesn’t mean that people automatically respect you or take your advice. Sorry. I don’t make the rules.  

Early childhood is a critical time to establish bonds and trust between parent and child. It’s also fun. Aside from the drudgery of nappy changing and other domestic tasks, playing with young children and watching them develop is wondrous and life-affirming.

Men who are fathers-by-appointment are missing out. By prioritising other activities that are more ‘important’ they miss out on the richness of what’s really important.

Kasey Edwards is the author of Thirty-Something and The Clock is Ticking: What happens when you can no longer ignore the baby question.