HOW MANY dads get laughed at today if they take their child out to the shops, pushing a pram? I remember a TV documentary where one man described how he was ridiculed when he pushed his daughter in a pram to the shops. That was Britain in the 1950s. Today it is common to see men taking care of their children in public.
In just two generations the expectations about men's role in childcare have undergone a dramatic transformation. A new report, Working Fathers: Earning and Caring, produced by the Equal Opportunities Commission, provides new confirmation of this. The survey of 7,500 fathers shows that there has been a marked increase in the time that fathers spend taking care of their children.
In the mid-1970s fathers of children under the age of five devoted less than a quarter of an hour each day to looking after children. By the late 1990s that had increased to two hours a day. Today the time dads spend with their children accounts for about one third of all childcare. As the survey says, 'In everyday life traditional dimensions of the good father, such as providing for the material welfare of the family, take place alongside activities previously considered solely maternal, such as bathing infants.'
Over a third of mothers working full time said that the child's father was the main carer, followed by grandparents and then other relatives. When both parents are doing full time jobs, two thirds of mothers and three quarters of fathers report equal sharing of bathing and dressing their children, and cooking.
All this does not mean that sexual divisions at home do not exist. We still live in a sexist society, where women earn at best only 80 percent of men's wages and where sexism dominates every institution from the courts to the portrayal of women on TV and in magazines.
But the survey shows that the old stereotypes-of a woman chained to the kitchen sink and of the man down the pub-no longer match the reality of people's lives. It totally contradicts the idea that men and women's roles are natural and unchanging. Some feminists reinforce this idea by arguing that men have always oppressed, and gained from oppressing, women.
Many ordinary men and women struggle hard to achieve more equality in their lives. The survey found that men, especially young men, would like to be more involved in caring for their children and do more at home.
They are prevented not by some in-built sexism, but because they come up against a capitalist system that rests on competition and the exploitation of workers. They are prevented from doing so because of excessive working hours, unsociable shifts, and evening and night work.
If a father works over 50 hours a week (as one third of fathers do) the amount of childcare he does drops considerably. The same is true for fathers who work 'atypical hours'-doing evening or night work.
Men suffering from overwork, tiredness and stress are less likely 'to share family meals, to read, play and help children with homework, and to be involved in recreational activities or to do the shopping'. Yet fathers grasp the opportunity at weekends to spend time with their children, and do as much as six hours a day childcare and housework. The family is often viewed as an unchanging institution.
But the form of the family, and the roles within it, have dramatically changed over the last 200 or so years as capitalism has developed. The most important change since the Second World War has been the mass entry of women into paid work.
This has had a huge impact on gender roles and on the expectations and attitudes of both men and women. Today most women do some kind of paid work outside the home. Around 65 percent of women with dependent children go out to work, including a majority of women with children under five.
Unlike the lives of our grandmothers or great-grandmothers, most women's lives today are no longer centred solely on childbirth, child-rearing and housework. While capitalism ushers in changes that can give a glimpse of a new way of organising our lives, at the same time it stunts, limits and distorts those changes.
A system which continues to keep women down
THE OPPRESSION of women is vital for capitalism. The ruling class want women in the workforce-preferably on lower wages and worse conditions than men.
It does not want to invest in the kind of childcare, or maternity and paternity benefits, which would enable men and women to live more equal lives. It suits the ruling class to load all the responsibility for children's welfare and upbringing onto the family rather than the whole of society. This is what Marxists have called 'privatised reproduction'.
The oppression of women is upheld by all the institutions of capitalist society-work, schools, housing, healthcare, the courts, and the social security system. A woman's main role is still seen as revolving around being a wife, partner or mother-whatever the reality.
Despite the many changes that have taken place in our lives over the last few decades, capitalism cannot deliver true equality or liberation. All women are oppressed, with only a tiny minority of fabulously wealthy women being able to escape the harshest aspects through employing maids, cleaners, cooks and so on.
Men's and women's roles in childcare are related to the class-divided society we live in. Capitalism ensures the continuation of inequality. A woman may want to be the main breadwinner in her family and a man to be the main child carer.
Because women earn less than men, the pressure is on the woman to stay at home or work part time, while her partner does long hours, overtime and shifts that bring in more money.
New Labour talks about equality, but it wants to shore up an image of the family that ensures inequality. So we get continual lectures about bad parents creating criminals and drug addicts, attacks on single parents and the like.
But the government doesn't provide the resources and support that would enable people to develop good relationships with their children. The whole thrust of New Labour's policies-privatisation, flexibility, welfare cuts-piles even more pressure onto families and makes it harder to cope. To achieve true equality and liberation we need to fight against the capitalist system.
Understanding and resisting oppression
THE MARXIST tradition has analysed how women's oppression and the family are linked to the rise and structure of class society. Frederick Engels' book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was a path-breaking analysis of this. He wrote that the rise of class society signalled the rise of women's oppression, 'the world historic defeat of the female sex'.
For over 90 percent of the time humans have existed, people lived in small nomadic hunter-gatherer bands in which childcare was the responsibility of all. It was only with the development of the productive forces, and the control of a surplus by a minority, that women became excluded from key areas of production because of their reproductive role.
The Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai said that the basis of women's oppression lay in the role of the family in class society. Under capitalism the major responsibility for caring for children was left to individuals, mainly women, inside the family. Rulers and politicians preached family morality at workers. Yet at the same time capitalism wrecked people's family lives.
Kollontai said, 'What 'family life', in which the man and wife work in the factory in different departments? What 'family life' when father and mother are out of the home 24 hours of the day, most of which are spent at hard labour, and cannot spend a few minutes with their children?'
The development of capitalism had drawn more women into the workforce. This put a 'triple burden' on women. 'The wife, the mother, who is a worker, sweats blood to fill three tasks at the same time: to give the necessary working hours as her husband does, then to devote herself as well as she can to her household, and then also to take care of her children.'
Kollontai argued that only socialism could provide the collective facilities that could lift domestic drudgery from women and lay the basis for liberation.
The pressures on our relationships
British fathers work 46.1 hours per week-the longest in Europe.
One in eight fathers work over 60 hours per week.
There are 600,000 children living in poverty, but only 42,000 subsidised nursery places for disadvantaged families.
Maternity pay in Britain is the third worst in Europe. Fathers will be granted paid paternity leave from April this year. It will only be for two weeks.
Working Fathers: Earning and Caring can be downloaded from www.eoc.org.uk/cseng/news/13_jan_fathers_uea.asp
Alexandra Kollontai on Women's Liberation.
Sex, Class and Socialism by Lindsey German is the best recent analysis of women's oppression. Both these books are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848.