A short while ago Gank wrote a post about, amongst other things, the fact his child was turning one (many congratulations to him) where he expressed a certain dis-satisfaction with all the gender stereotyping that goes on with childrens’ clothing (and baby clothes too). Just recently Jessica at The Velvet Café wrote a post about some gender stereotypes being broken down in current cinema – male stereotypes, and suggested very strongly that if we are serious about equality it means addressing both feminine and masculine stereotypes. It is somewhat serendipitious that I read both articles so close together, as these sort of issues have been much on my mind lately.
My own opinion on gender issues has been greatly influenced by several years I spend working as a medical secretary in the local hospital. It is a fairly large hospital, and I believe I was the only male medical secretary in the entire hospital. It exposed me to a great deal of unthinking, and a certain amount of quite deliberate sexism. I was told quite categorically I would not be considered for a particular job because I was a man. In other contexts I was often assumed to be a doctor because no one could comprehend that a man would be a secretary. In yet other cases I was told flat “I want to speak to a real secretary”. The prejudice ran (and I believe still runs) very deep. As an aside the experience also makes me react quite negatively to the certain sort of feminism that believes women are somehow inherently better than men, or that other sort of feminism that is blind to the sort of situation I just described above. On the other hand it has also made me very much a proponent of equality, though I do not think many people understand really what equality means.
Equality means that a bloke can dye their hair, or wish to be the parent who stays at home, or does knitting, or indeed works as a nurse, midwife, or secretary. If it does not then all the advances about women becoming doctors, directors, and company executives is just empty. The fact is though that women entering more prestigious positions is sort of glamorous and notable. A man with a penchant for embroidery is most likely to be assumed to be homosexual (another silly prejudice), and a man working as a secretary is likely just going to be though of as a pathetic. Equality also, just for the record, means a woman can choose to be a stay-at-home wife, or a man a builder. It is no good if we break down one lot of prejudices if we just create a new set of barriers.
In the last year I have encountered a part of the healthcare system so deeply rooted in prejudice however that at times it has left me in tears, and other times in fury. I speak of course of that scourge for new parents – the health visitor. Now, I am quite prepared to accept there are many decent, hardworking health visitors in this country who are a great help to those they meet. My own experience is limited to relatively few individuals in one small part of the country.
From a gender perspective this first really hit home the first time a health visitor visited us after Melian was born. The health visitor essentially ignored me the entire visit, only at the very end even turning her head to look at me. I was cuddling Melian the entire time (she was asleep). Indeed, the health visitor spoke more to min sverinde (Danish sister-in-law) than me. It made me feel so small and unwanted that after she left I cried gently, rocking Melian, saying quietly “Du har en far, du har en far” (which means “You have a father”) over and over again. Not for the first time.
There is a lot of ink spilled about bad fathers in this country. Personally I think the health and social establishment needs to take a long hard look at itself, because from the start it is made quite plain that fathers are not valued by the establishment. This happens in the official documentation. When the midwife first meets the new mother-to-be there is a question, that is mandated by law, asking if they are a victim of domestic abuse. This has to be asked when the father is not present. While this makes me angry I could understand it … except the obvious reverse question is not asked. Domestic abuse against men is one of the least reported, least understood crimes in modern society. It is reinforced in part by this sort of prejudice, where according the officialdom only men can commit domestic abuse. In our case I was not present for this question being asked, being at work, but our midwife was very apologetic to my wife knowing, I think, that the way this is handled is likely to offend.
Later on, on the visit we had from the health visitor before Melian was born she asked for my wife’s medical history, but not mine. Indeed, the form she was following did not have a place for it. Apparently, according to officialdom, fathers have no genetic influence on their children.
There were other incidents, little things mostly, little expressions that irked me. Sometimes I cried, other times I became very angry. Some times I became fearful. After all, these are also the people who can initiate the process to have our child taken away from you. That is their implicit threat: do things our way or else! Fortunately as Melian has gotten older their role in our lives has reduced.
There is one incident, however, that I think further illustrates just how unthinking the health visitor service is. A few months ago I had taken a few days off work to look after Melian while my wife attended a course. This was actually really enjoyable – three solid day-times looking after my daughter all by myself. I felt so proud of myself! Also, Melian and I had lots of fun together. Do not get wrong, I prefer time when my wife, Melian, and myself are all together – but given that is not always possible Daddy-time with Melian is very good too. Anyway, so on one of these days I took Melian to the local Childrens’ Centre to get her officially weighed and looked at. This is something they like you to do every so often, and on the merits it is a good idea. Apart from anything else they have properly accurate scales.
My wife warned me about something however. When you turn up you are asked to complete a small form. Really it is a kind of register, so the health visitors know which children have come to the centre that day (it being a drop-in thing). They then call them out in order of arrival. This form had on it the question, which I reproduce exactly: “Have you breast-fed your baby today?”. The unsubtle assumption is that they do not expect a father ever to bring their child to the centre un-accompanied. Just another way to make you feel worthless.
It was good I was forewarned. Forewarned is fore-armed, and I was able to joke with the two volunteers who help staff the centre about that. I spoke a little to a couple of the other mums that were there (I was the only man) and the group was welcoming enough. The health visitor who called Melian and I was less welcoming. Firstly it was quite plain she did not quite know how to deal with the fact I was an unaccompanied man, but she did her best to hide it. We spoke a little, I undressed Melian so she could get weighted, and lifted her up. The health visitor made a joke about daddy being brave, the implication that Melian might go to the toilet on me. The thing is – that is just what parents do. They pick up their children, and when they do their natural reaction is to hug. Frankly I couldn’t care less if Melian did her business on my shirt. She was less than a year old – it is what babies do! What did she think I would do, hold her out at a distance like some sort of yucky insect? To my great amusement, after she was weighed, Melian did wee on their scales.
I have other issues with health visitors, to do with how they seem more intent with ticking boxes and treating my daughter as a number rather than a human being, but those complaints are for another time. On the issue at hand, no matter how aggravating or annoying I have found the health visitors I know that none of this is actually malicious. Like many perpetrators of prejudice what can be so difficult is that they themselves are ignorant of the hurt they cause. Literally, they know no better, and there is nothing in their environment or professional situation to help them come to see what it is like from the other side.
This places a very high burden on the victims of such prejudice. One must become an educator, not an agitator. Agitators may gain notoriety, but usually they harm the cause they seek to help – usually by committing the very errors they are railing against. I am not saying I am perfect, because frankly I am not. Never the less, this is the ideal to which I aspire. To try to gently demonstrate to them why what they do is hurtful. I am expecting to face bucket-loads of this sort of prejudice as Melian starts school, and just from the teachers, so I should have plenty of opportunities to try and teach.
Meanwhile I hope to help raise Melian to understand equality, and so that she knows deep in her bones that there is a whole wide world of possibilities out there for her. To give her such confidence that when the world says to her “a girl cannot / should not do that” she gives the world a polite two-fingured salute and does it anyway.