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  • Eleonora Voltolina

Dads’ long march to demolish the patriarchy

Updated: Mar 26

The Italian newspaper Domani and The Why Wait Agenda are continuing their collaboration with a series of reports on the issue of choosing to have children. This fifth article was published in Italian in Domani in September 2023.

'Women are less and less inclined to have children. The number of children per woman is at an all-time low. It is difficult to balance motherhood and work'. When we talk about the family, and the reasons the birth rate is in free fall, we always focus on women - forgetting that children, most times, are made by two people. And usually, those two people are a man and a woman. Where, then, are the men in this discourse? Where do they stand regarding becoming parents?

Wind of equality, change of balance

'I would like a second child, but the truth is I have to take care of the first one. My husband doesn't contribute much; he arrives home late from work and is always exhausted. I don't know if I could manage having another child, considering he's already the second one.' Discussions like this are commonplace in online mothers' forums. And after all, the division of childcare activities is one of the litmus tests of the changes taking place in society.

 Both people work in most modern couples, and the arrival of a child implies adjustments. There are still attempts to replicate traditional gender roles with clear divisions, but new generations are increasingly aiming for equal models. Like what Mickol Lopez and Daniele Marzano, who are married and the parents of three children, are proposing on Instagram in Italy. Through their 'Guida Senza Patente' profile, they demolish gender stereotypes with the examples from their daily lives.

 'Over the past nine years, I have seen a positive evolution of the father figure,' says Marzano. 'Having remained caged for too many years in the classic family structure of patriarchy, men today can more easily deal with their emotions, rediscover their even more fragile side, without undermining their virility or authority'. 
'Couples where both parents are involved in the offspring's management are more long-lasting, there is less conflict: the whole family benefits,' echoes Silvio Petta, creator of Superpapà, a Facebook page with 330,000 members.

 Fathers, not "Mr. Moms" 

Guida Senza Patente – as well as Superpapà – has joined the #IoCambio campaign to demand changing tables in men's spaces; and Marzano would like to bury the concept of "Mr. Mom" forever. 'If I change my children's nappies, if I settle them at school, if I take them to the doctor, I am not copying their mother, I am not an alien: I am simply being a parent. There is no need for a new term, it is already there: dad'. 

When the Marzano-Lopez couple – who last year also published ‘Lascia splendere la tua meraviglia. Lettera ai nostri figli e a ogni bambino’, ed. Fabbri, at the moment only available in Italian – is invited to speak in public, they often find themselves ‘battling with the older generations; we have great hope, however, with the new ones’, who have more robust antibodies against gender stereotypes. Still, ‘it's not that women have something genetic about them that makes them better nappy-changers,’ Marzano jokes: there are ‘politicians, managers, powerful entrepreneurs who when they cross the threshold of the house become utterly clumsy, they don't know how to heat up some pasta, or where their child's socks are. How is that possible?’.

 Men's emotions

But there is a new breed of man on the horizon, who can share sad, even dramatic moments with their partners, such as difficulties in conception, miscarriages, and medical abortions. In the past, this was seen as ‘women's business’; but today, men, too, sometimes share their emotions, they do not hide their scars.

 The couple becomes a team, and men learn that they can find gratification in caring duties. When Petta started Superpapà thirteen years ago, ‘there was little talk of fathers on social media’, which is why he wanted to open ‘a space for discussion. Caring for children is a valuable experience that enhances us as people; we should acknowledge it, not hide it’. He speaks from personal experience. Since his wife often worked in the evenings, he always took care of the children – ‘who are now two grown men aged 21 and 19’– by picking them up from school, playing with them, feeding them, singing them lullabies. ‘I established a solid relationship with them, which came in very handy when they became teenagers’.

Especially in the beginning, Superpapà was backed by separated fathers, who ‘felt caged on social media. We encouraged comparison with women too. Mothers and fathers should not be in competition: we are in favour of co-parenting’.

Besides, there are also the rainbow families. Couples made up of two dads, laughing at gender stereotypes in the home, finding themselves living in a society in which the caring duties are all attributed to women, and so when there is no mother present, things go haywire. 

Paternity leave

From the perspective of equal parenting, ‘the mother of all battles’, as Marzano puts it, is now the one to extend leave for fathers, from the current ten days provided by Italian law to at least three months. Lia Quartapelle, a member of the Democratic Party, presented a bill months ago, but it has not yet been calendared. It is also supported by Girolamo Grammatico, a Sicilian father living in Rome, writer, feminist, author of '#Esserepadrioggi: Manifesto del papà imperfetto' (ed. Ultra 2020, only available in Italian at the moment) and promoter of a petition that has collected tens of thousands of signatures.

 Two years ago, Grammatico came across a post by the digital activism project Cara Sei Maschilista – ‘Sweetie, you're sexist!’, focusing on internalised chauvinism in women – which decried how men were notably absent on the paternity leave front. Grammatico realised that this was true: ‘There was not a single male voice’. He then wrote an appeal on the spur of the moment, which gathered 33,000 signatures in less than a month.

 (Still far from) equal parents

The petition is now called ‘Genitori alla pari’ (Parents as equals); connected to the petition by Movimenta – a ‘feminist, ecologist, progressive and pro-European’ political association – it currently has almost 85,000 signatures. Grammatico's worry is that the issue still seems of interest almost only to women. Yet ‘this is a battle for civilisation. I already have two children, I won't have any more: but I'm doing it as an ethical matter, because it is right that we have this possibility’.

But according to data from Inps, the Italian social security institute, only 150,000 new fathers took leave in Italy in 2021. That is approximately 50% of the potential recipients. Why so few? ‘There is so much misinformation,’ Marzano replies: 'but when men realise they have this right, ‘then they say "it would be stupid not to take it!"’.

 ‘If we want companies to stop judging women as a less profitable investment, there is no alternative,’ says Grammatico: we have to make sure that when a child is born, new mothers and fathers can stay at home for the same time. ‘In countries where there is equal leave, there are benefits from an economic and female employment point of view,’ recalls Marzano. However, it takes political will to find the funds: that does not exactly seem to be the priority, even though Italy is the only country with a Ministry for the Birth Rate.

The risk of going backwards But shared parenting, far from being the standard, is still the exception. There are few fathers out there like Marzano, Petta, Grammatico. In Italy, as in many other countries around the world, women still do most of the caring and childcare work, and change is happening in very small steps. There is also a risk of moving some of them backwards, warns Marzano, if the right-wing government currently in charge in Italy persists in ‘addressing only women’ as the ones responsible for the family.

 If equality and shared parenting are now crucial for couples when the time comes to choose whether to have children, the state must make them feel ’more protected, freer, more helped, more supported’, Marzano concludes, ‘in a mission that remains one of humanity's most complicated: becoming parents’.


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