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Think you're a 'superdad?' New research suggests you might not be as good as you reckon - here's why

The Duke of Sussex has been changing baby Archie's nappies
The Duke of Sussex has been changing baby Archie's nappies Credit: Patrick van Katwijk/Getty Images Europe

Mother changes own child’s nappy” is unlikely to be thought of as news. The fact the Duke of Sussex has been changing baby Archie’s has, on the other hand, made headlines. 

On his second day of public engagements since the birth, during his visit on Monday to a children’s hospital in Oxford, he admitted that he was exhausted, after Master Archie had kept him up most of the night – but that he couldn’t now imagine life without him. 

Prince Harry is hardly the only father to be lauded for what all mothers are expected to do naturally.

“My relatives often say how ‘good’ my husband is with our daughter, as if that’s a big achievement with your own child,” fumes one friend. “Midwives in the hospital did it, too. No one ever says that about mums.”

This, indeed, is the flipside of the story of the nappy-changing Duke: “Meghan changes nappy” would seem an unremarkable development.

Yet the narrative around modern fatherhood is that dads of today are very different, rejecting the old-fashioned, hands-off approach and getting stuck in with a wet wipe.

Darcy Lockman: 'We have this expectation men are so much better than they used to be, which is true, but it hasn’t reached parity' Credit:  Harper Collins

And it’s true that the number of men who are proudly strapping on the baby sling and holding earnest debates about sleep-training have grown. The Duke of Cambridge alluded to his own “involved-dad” status in his knowing one-liner after Archie’s arrival: “‘I’m very pleased and glad to welcome my own brother into the sleep deprivation society that is parenting.”

So you might be forgiven for assuming the unequal division of labour in the home was now a thing of the past for any moderately progressive set of parents.

A new book by an American author boldy makes the case that you’d be wrong. All The Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and The Myth of Equal Partnership, by journalist turned clinical psychologist Darcy Lockman, contends that while fathers often believe they are shouldering half of the parenting responsibilities, their wives, meanwhile, see things differently.

Dr Lockman, a New Yorker whose own children are aged nine and six, started her investigations close to home. “Like me, the women I met through the comings and goings at pre-school and playground worked full-time, and like me, post-partum, they’d found themselves shouldering the bulk of all the theretofore unimagined burdens at home,” she writes.

Further, more extensive research told her such a situation was widely replicated. That “in an era of seemingly unprecedented feminist activism, enlightenment and change, data shows that one area of gender inequality stubbornly persists: the disproportionate amount of parental work that falls on women, no matter their background, class or professional status”.

Astonishing? It was to her. “I was surprised when we became parents how the division of labour fell between [my husband and me],” she tells me. “I ended up doing all the work, and it wasn’t what I’d anticipated. We have this expectation men are so much better than they used to be, which is true, but it hasn’t reached parity. The data shows women who work outside the home are still in charge of 65 per cent of childcare. We didn’t realise we weren’t quite there yet in terms of equality in the home.”

Perhaps we as a society didn’t realise. But if you ask individual mothers about the division of labour in their household, the response is unanimous frustration.

“What fascinates and infuriates me most is the way things just don’t occur to my husband in the way they do to me,” one friend complains. “When our daughter wakes up in the morning, he’ll take her to the kitchen and get himself a bowl of cereal, then ask what she wants. I would always see to her needs first. He never thinks to wash her clothes – he lets his own laundry pile up and just sorts that out. Though he’s happy to cook for her if prompted by me and told what to make, he would very rarely use his initiative and organise something of his own volition.”

Duke of Cambridge (left): ‘I’m very pleased and glad to welcome my own brother into the sleep deprivation society that is parenting' Credit: ISABEL INFANTES/AFP

Others talk about the mental load, that interminable list of things to remember that runs in the background of most mothers’ minds – but less often, it seems, in fathers’: birthday presents that need buying, school trip money that needs paying, washes that need doing, food that needs preparing, and so on. As feminist cartoonist Emma writes in her 2017 comic The Mental Load: “When we ask women to take on this task of organisation, and at the same time to execute a large portion, in the end it represents 75 per cent of the work. The mental load means always having to remember.”

The lived experience of every mother I know suggests all of them carry this burden, which is largely unshared by their husbands.

“All the worrying is done by me,” says one mother-of-two. “Why does he cry about nothing? Does he have any friends? Is he going to fall down those steps? What has he got in his mouth?, etc.”

So the persisting unequal division of household labour, both physical and mental, won’t come as a surprise to many mothers. The question is, when the number of mothers in full-time employment has increased over the past two decades, why does the lion’s share of parenting still fall to them?

Dr Lockman suggests the answer lies somewhere within our subconscious. “We have all internalised the sexism of western culture in ways we didn’t realise we had,” she says. “So you’re faced with contending with your own internalised sexism and your partner’s sexism, which he doesn’t even know he has.”

But there is nothing in our biology that makes women better suited to parenting tasks. “Men are also biologically primed for parenthood,” she explains, their hormones changing when around their pregnant partner. “So our assumptions play out in terms of who ends up taking more of the responsibility.”

In most cases, this will be the mother, even if she’s working, too. Dr Lockman cites a second reason for this: what is known by sociologists as “intensive mothering”, and defined as the notion that mothers should put their children first at every moment of every day and be completely invested in them.

“This has been playing out since the 90s,” she says. “So full-time working mums today spend the same amount of time with their kids as stay-at-home mums in the 70s did. There wasn’t this pressure [before].”

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex with their newborn son Archie Credit: Reuters

Its arrival coincided with the period mothers entered the labour force in big numbers and, says Dr Lockman, “there was a lot of anxiety about what it was going to mean for kids that women were working. This translated into a cultural edict: you must always put your children first. It also frees men up to be more promotable and employable because women have children as their primary concern.”

So what, then, are the answers? How do we untangle the complicated web of subconscious assumptions and internalised societal pressures that lead to women taking on a greater share of parenting and men allowing this to happen? And aren’t women guilty, too, for jumping in to do things themselves for fear their husbands won’t perform the job adequately or at all, thus denying them a chance to even try?

“If you’re raising children with someone you have to have agreed standards,” argues Dr Lockman. “One woman said to me: ‘If I left the cooking up to my husband, our children would eat [fast food] every evening.’ Is that a good reason? No. Some agreements have to be reached. One of the ways women said their husbands get out of stuff is by saying: ‘Your standards are too high.’ But if you’re part of a team, you agree what the standards are.”

At the same time, women should feel more entitled to time out and pursuing their own personal ambitions, she says. One friend describes her own version of this problem: “If we’re sitting around on a Saturday morning, my husband seems to feel no guilt or shame about getting absorbed in a really long newspaper article, or turning on the TV to watch a football match while I entertain our daughter. I just wouldn’t be able to relax enough to do that.”

This matters, says Dr Lockman, because the health of the relationship is at stake. Women who report the division of labour is unfair in their home are 45 per cent less likely to report their marriages are very happy than women who say labour is fairly shared, she points out. She has seen this effect within her own marriage.

“We’ve been dealing with this in our relationship for the past seven years,” she says. “The fact I’ve been thinking and talking about it has brought change. Our relationship is in a much better place now.”

• All the Rage by Darcy Lockman (HarperCollins, £20) is out now. Buy yours for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk, or call 0844 871 1514 

Do Darcy Lockman's findings ring true for you? How can mothers not have to take on a greater share of parenting and how can fathers stop this from happening in the first place?​

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