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Reclaiming the family

Feminists must extend the definition of family to include gay and straight, single-parent and extended families; and embrace paternity leaveIvana Bacik 

Feminist campaigns for women’s rights – for equality in law, for access to affordable childcare, for reproductive rights – should encompass a campaign for paternity leave. After all, feminism is about creating a better society, in which individuals – and individual parents and carers – are judged on their own merits, not on the basis of gender or cultural assumptions. This was always the goal of the Irish feminist movement and is now a goal hopefully also embraced by the new feminist revival.

Feminism in Ireland appears to be undergoing a welcome revival. It is, therefore, a good time to review the question of feminist attitudes to the family and to the role of fathers and mothers. Under Article 41 of the Irish Constitution, the ‘Family’ (defined as being based upon marriage) is guaranteed ‘inalienable and imprescriptible’ rights. The same Article speaks of women’s life within the home and refers to the duties of mothers – no reference is made to fathers.

It is not surprising that feminists in Ireland have had a difficult relationship with the legal construction of ‘family’– nor that we have often been labelled ‘anti-family’ by conservative pundits. Now is the time to change this discourse. Feminists must reclaim the family. First we must redefine it to be more inclusive – to encompass gay and straight families, single-parent families and extended families. Then we must engage in an honest debate about the role of fathers within families.

The role of fathers is often ignored in wider public discussion, just as it is in the Constitution. The focus in any debate on parenting or families invariably rests on mothers. Typically, it is ‘single-parent families’ or ‘lone mothers’ who are blamed in the tabloid press for high rates of truancy or youth delinquency. Such disapproval might perhaps better be focused upon the absentee parent.

In June of last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued provocatively that fathers who desert their families should be subject to the same social disapproval as drunk drivers. It is always dangerous for Tory politicians to start moral crusades, but his article was in fact a celebration of fathers in general and his own father in particular. In criticising irresponsible fatherhood, he was emphasising the vitally important role of responsible fathers.

A feminist strategy of similarly emphasising the importance of responsible fatherhood would recognise the changing reality that fathers increasingly share childcare equally with mothers. This could help to redefine the debate on families. It could also contribute to resolving the tedious media-generated battles between so-called ‘working mothers’ and ‘stay at home mothers’.

This tired chestnut was recently re-ignited by a high-profile article by US academic Ann-Marie Slaughter. This was presented as suggesting that mothers cannot ‘have it all’ (i.e. hold down a job and be a good parent). In fact, as she herself stated, her article was based upon her own highly specific experience. She gave up a political policy-maker job in Washington DC with obscenely long hours and a tough commute to return to a tenured academic position closer to her home and family. However, she did not give up work; nor did she argue that mothers should stay at home in order to be good parents. Despite this, the article generated the inevitable anti-working mother headlines internationally.

This debate is artificial and, worse, often misses the point. The truth is that childcare arrangements always have to be negotiated between the parents or carers of any child or children. Those parents, fathers or mothers, who do manage to juggle a full-time career and parenthood will invariably have a supportive partner whose work arrangements can be adjusted to make the juggling possible. Just as Ann-Marie Slaughter had.



raditionally it was the mother who gave up work or went part-time on the birth of a child and the cultural assumption was that she would do so. Even after decades of equal-pay legislation, the marked disparity in earnings between men and women meant that it usually cost more for a father to give up work. So while mothers might have chosen to do so anyway, this meant it would have been harder for a father to become the primary carer.

This is changing with economic recession. In many families a father whose work has been downsized will become the primary carer. However, feminists have always campaigned for mothers and fathers alike to have greater choices in combining work and family life. These choices would undoubtedly be easier if fathers had legal recognition in the workplace.

That is one reason why the feminist movement in Ireland needs to take on the cause of paternity leave. Of course, there are other powerful social reasons to provide fathers with time off when their children are born. A right to paid paternity leave – even for a token period of one or two weeks, as in Britain – would make an enormous difference to the quality of life for newborn babies and their families. Its introduction, however, would also contribute to challenging engrained cultural assumptions about caring roles.

It is time we moved beyond the stale ‘working versus stay at home mothers’ debate, and started honestly talking about how best to provide legal supports for those who are combining parenting and paid work – not just mothers. Indeed, Article 41 of the Constitution could become much more progressive if it were simply amended, as recommended by the Constitution Review Group in 1996, to acknowledge the work of ‘carers’ in the home – male and female. That would be genuinely pro-family.

The introduction of paid paternity leave could be a first step towards a new policy on families and parenting, in which carers of both genders are recognised. Decent childcare supports and targeted poverty alleviation measures would then mark further steps towards a more progressive policy on parenting and on the rights of children.