Shelley Bridgeman
Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Hands-on dads are the family's unsung heroes

Hands-on dads are the family unit's unsung heros.
Photo / Thinkstock
Hands-on dads are the family unit's unsung heros. Photo / Thinkstock

Last week Piri Weepu became an unwitting poster boy for hands-on fathers everywhere as we wondered how a photograph of a tender nurturing moment between father and baby could be turned into an ideological football rather than accepted at face value.

As others have pointed out, the image of a tough burly All Black with his precious baby in his arms sets an admirable example to other Kiwi dads. Weepu is a powerful and positive role model - exactly what we need in light of the cases of baby abuse that continue to infect our nation. So what if the nutrition was being administered via a bottle? How else is a man supposed to feed his baby?

Yet it seems the establishment, some vocal groups with entrenched opinions about raising babies, place little value in the role of men as hands-on parents. My husband experienced this for himself as a brand new dad. One Friday night in March 2003 he had to leave National Women's hospital on the dot of 8pm for this was when visiting hours ceased. And no exceptions were made even though our daughter was only two hours old and I had just undergone an emergency C-section.

As I could hardly move, I was incapable of looking after myself let alone a newborn, so our baby was cared for in the hospital's nursery. All three members of our freshly minted family spent the first night apart. It was plain weird. Kevin went home and toasted his new position in life with a shot of Cointreau while I lay awake all night in my private room listening to doors slamming and thinking that some of the throat clearing noises from down the corridor sounded rather manly.

The next afternoon we transferred to Birthcare in Parnell. After about sixty hours with no sleep, I planned to settle our daughter in the nursery and get straight to bed. "Where's the nursery?" I asked gaily at the reception desk with my baby in my arms. "There's no nursery here," the woman behind the desk replied. "You're all in the same room."

I surveyed the room - with its modest proportions, hospital-style bed and adjacent crib - and realised it wasn't configured for uninterrupted sleep so I dispatched Kevin to secure a separate room for him and the baby. And soon I was fast asleep. A kind midwife came in at midnight to give me some pain relief and she whispered: "Father and baby are doing well."

At around 8am when the morning shift arrived Kevin and the baby were asked to leave their room and move in with me. "These rooms are for mothers and babies. Not men," a midwife huffed. (For the record, there were many vacant rooms and we paid in full for the extra one.)

It was only Kevin's second day of parenthood yet two separate incidents at two separate facilities had made him feel surplus to requirements. But that didn't deter him from being a fully hands-on father once we were free from the influence of these institutions.

He did about 80 per cent of the night feeds for those first seven weeks and, because I didn't want to witness the injections, he took our daughter for every vaccination. He missed her during the day while he was at the office and when he arrived home he would take over the baby routines. It wasn't something we specifically discussed; we just believe that fathers are as important and as capable as mothers.

And yet, as the Weepu affair has revealed, some outdated notions that babies are women's work persist from generations ago. I read with interest a piece entitled Weepu strays into ideological minefield in which fathers' rights advocate Darrell Carlin asserts that this is a tactical weapon devised by feminists to create a barrier between men and their babies. I'd always thought its source was a patriarchy intent on keeping women out of the boardrooms and positions of power.

My husband is not unique. Hands-on fathers are everywhere, just quietly getting on with raising and loving their children. Somewhat under the radar, they're the unsung heroes of our family units who should be celebrated not spurned.

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