Dad dancing, dad jokes, dad jeans, dad bod – fathers are used to being figures of fun. Apparently it is one of the few things they are good at.
If you watch TV or films or, yes, read newspapers, you will not find many average, competent dads. Series such as Outnumbered had Pete, the put-upon, ignored father of three; before that the armchair-bound Jim in The Royle Family left everything except breaking wind to his wife; cartoons from Family Guy and The Simpsons to even Peppa Pig featured useless, comic dads, and adverts often serve to reinforce the domestic stereotypes. How many supermarket Christmas ads have featured mums doing everything and dads doing nothing, except waiting for their dinner?
And it appears the nation’s dads have had enough, with 80 per cent of UK fathers in a new study saying they were bothered by such depictions. Dove Men+Care asked more than 11,000 men and women in seven countries about their attitudes to various aspects of parenting and found that UK fathers were more concerned with social stereotypes than the fathers from any other country. In fact only 47 per cent of US dads took issue with it.
One such bothered UK father is Mark Taylor. The deputy headteacher from Peterborough says he gets annoyed by the use of one particular phrase – the term “daddy day care”.
“What does that mean to you?” he asks. “You hear it all the time. ‘Oh, you’ve got the kids today – it’s daddy day care, is it?’ That implies to me some sort of surprise that you’re able to handle the children. The number of friends that I’ve picked up on this and asked them, ‘Do you know what that term is actually saying?’ ”
Mr Taylor is also struck by how society regards the idea of joint custody of children when couples separate – and in particular how fathers are seen. “I saw something on EastEnders. One of the male characters said he was going for joint custody of his child and there was almost shock and horror from the other character. ‘Why would you do that?’ they said.
“But it’s your child, every bit as much as the mother’s. So why would you not have joint custody? Why would you not have that?”
Mr Taylor has two daughters, a five-month-old with his partner Akvile and, from a previous relationship, an 11-year-old to whom he remains very close.
“With her, I get a lot of comments about ‘Oh, you’re a really good father’ because I see her regularly. Well, I’m not. I’m just a father.
“My daughter deserves both her parents in her life. Not just for every other weekend and one day in the week. That’s the standard arrangement. If you achieve more than that as the father, everyone says you’ve done well or you’re amazing. Why? It’s your child.
“The court system is in serious need of modernising. It completely reinforces the stereotype around men.”
So there are plenty of negative media stereotypes that modern fathers are faced with. But there are also seemingly positive fatherhood role models that are damaging in another way.
Celebrity dads are only too keen these days to display their daddy credentials. Triumphant sportsmen seem to hoist their children aloft before lifting the actual trophy they have just won while social media are full of Hollywood actors proudly showing off their families and lifestyles.
It is great that dads are wanting to be so public – but at the same time there is more to fatherhood than carrying your baby daughter around a football stadium or sharing a photo from a red-carpet premiere or luxury-resort family holiday.
There are not enough examples or messages of dads getting their children’s PE kits ready, shopping for dinner, delousing their kids’ hair or just being there for their children – those everyday things that kids need and that dads can get enormous satisfaction from delivering.
Louis Theroux, the TV documentary maker, reinforced the stereotype that dads are not natural caregivers in a recent episode of Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4. He said: “The guilty secret of many people who work in TV and have young families is that it can be quite relaxing on location compared with the chaos of home life.”
This, unfortunately, is still the norm. Looking after children, especially when they are very young, is hard work; too hard for many men. A more progressive vision of fatherhood was presented by Rio Ferdinand, the former footballer, in a 2017 documentary. But it took a family tragedy to bring it about.
He had lost his wife, Rebecca, to breast cancer and the BBC programme followed his efforts to cope as a single parent – both with the practicalities of everyday life and with the emotional trauma of grief.
He learnt how to cook and do the laundry – “I know what you do but I don’t know how you work,” he says while loading the washing machine – and he is seen reading to his children and doing his daughter’s hair. All the while he is worrying about how they will get over losing their mother. “What are they thinking? Are they worried? Are they happy? Are they sad? I’m desperate to know, but I don’t want to scare them.”
All those things are what parents should be thinking about their children – fathers as well as mothers. But too many dads are happy or at least conditioned to leaving those kind of worries to their partner.
This levelling-out of parental responsibilities starts from their child’s birth. If take-up of paternity leave lags so far behind maternity leave, it is hard for dads ever to catch up.
As the Dove Men+Care study concludes: “Without sufficient, taken paternity leave, it’s unlikely the father will ever be a true equal, and that pattern has a reinforcing effect: the more a mother cares for a kid, the more she feels able to do. The less a father feels able, the more he steps back.”
It is time for dads to step up.
Give the gift of Care
Brought to you by Dove Men+Care and Telegraph Spark, celebrating all dads who spend quality time with their children. Follow @dovemenUK