Children’s birthday parties are all fun and games until the inevitable tears show up then it becomes a race for the mothers, for it’s (almost) always the mothers, to flex those nurturing muscles and wipe those tears away before they’ve finished their sorry trajectory down their cherub’s chubby cheeks.
This is matriarchal Malta after all and we Maltese mothers pride ourselves in being champion caregivers to our darling offspring. The “only” champion caregivers. Fathers? What about them? I can’t believe I am actually writing this in 2022, but here we still are.
Mothers up and down the island are regularly heard complaining about fathers’ lack of involvement in looking after their children. Yet, the minute a dad attempts to change a nappy or feed a child, a torrent of criticism is unleashed on the hapless chap. Small wonder then that fathers are left feeling confused about their role in raising their children.
When David Muscat Fenech Adami found himself confronted with those tears at a recent party he knew exactly what to do. His eldest daughter Sophia, 3, had hurt herself while playing.
“She started crying so I went next to her, I hugged her, asked her if she was ok and she said she was fine so I sent her back to play,” he explains. “One of the mothers at the party came up to me and told me as a mother you should always check if your child is ok and why she is crying. I told her mothers have a different way of nurturing kids and dads have a different way. I don’t want to make a big fuss. This woman was trying to tell me indirectly mothers are more nurturing than dads. That made me a bit uncomfortable.”
And therein lies the rub. Despite all the talk of gender equality, we seem firmly entrenched in the idea of the traditional roles for mum and dad. But change is afoot. When David was preparing to become a father for the first time, he found his role was reduced to little more than a paragraph at best within the volumes of literature aimed at mothers-to-be. At the pre-natal parentcraft meetings he very often found himself in the minority as other fathers-to-be “couldn’t make it” for various reasons.
And when the big day arrived, the hospital checklist was tailored entirely to the mother’s needs. While he was allowed to stay overnight with his wife Laura, David had to contend with an uncomfortable night on a chair without a blanket. Even the ward kitchen and toilets were out of bounds for him.
“They were seeing us [men] as sperm donors rather than a parent. Why are we not treated equally? I know my wife is going through all the hurdles but I am there holding her hand.
He was determined to share the birth moment with his wife by being as useful as possible, with the midwife’s approval.
“Luckily we had an amazing midwife and I asked her how I could help, whether I should hold my wife in a particular way, motivate her, speak to her. She guided me through my wife’s eight-hour labour. Afterwards, while my wife was having some sutures done, I held newborn Sophia in my hands. I had no idea what to do. I had read you should hold the baby like a rugby ball. She began to cry and I stayed with her alone for two hours. I started singing a Christmas lullaby to her, Ninni la tibkix iżjed, as it was the first thing that came to my mind even though it was September.”
His efforts did not go unnoticed.
“When everything was over I thanked the midwife and she told me: ‘I wish all dads were like you. You take everything to the next level’.” As he had been so vocal and forthright with his wish to be a truly hands-on dad right from the start, the midwife also remarked he could be “influential”. And that is how The Maltese Daddy blog was born.
Spreading the word
Parenting blogs are nothing new, but the overwhelming majority are produced by mothers for mothers. David wanted to address parenting issues from a father’s perspective, to answer all the questions dads have from his own experience of fatherhood so far, “posting from the heart”, sometimes with the help of guest collaborators including midwives and parenting experts. However, he made sure his blog was not purely tailored to dads only.
“I wanted it to be tailored to families, focusing on women to give more leeway to dads to motivate them to be more included. The blog analytics showed that more women were visiting my blog than dads.”
Feedback was swift and largely positive although he also encountered a couple of male dissenters who suggested he should leave parenting blogging to the mothers and focus on football instead. Some women inevitably remarked how he, a man, had the temerity to write about what women go through during pregnancy or the “hypocrisy” of posting about beautiful lingerie for breastfeeding mothers. “Negative comments keep me motivated and keep me posting,” replies David defiantly.
“I want to change women’s perspective in terms of how they see men. I want women to see men not as fathers but as dads. Anyone can be a father but it takes an amazing father to be a dad.”
Growing up, David had an “amazing” role model in his own father who was a very hands-on dad sharing in all the household chores.
“What I am passing on through my fatherhood is based on him. He’s very happy that I am doing this, amplifying everything I have learnt from him to give to others. I owe this blog to him.” But the role of dads seems to be a reflection of the different generations.
David recalled an incident when he was looking after baby Sophia at Tigne Point shopping mall while his wife was shopping. “Sophia was having a massive tantrum and her cry was so loud. I was rocking her and humming waiting for her to fall asleep. An old lady walked up to me and asked me: ‘Where is her mother?’. I told her I was the baby’s father. She replied: ‘It seems you are not doing a good job’.”
“I told her: ‘I look at you and I understand what was wrong with your generation. I am doing the best I can. I know what I am doing. This is how you do it. She needs a mother and a father.’ At that moment Sophia miraculously stopped crying. I felt so good.”
The perception is changing, slowly, but surely. More new dads are willing to take a more hands-on approach to looking after their children. David’s private Facebook group Daddy Boot Camp has 700 members, all men, and strictly only men (any rogue women who try to slip through the net and join the group are quickly booted out). Fathers-to-be attending parentcraft meetings at Mater Dei Hospital are informed about Daddy Boot Camp.
“A lot of the dads want to be involved. They want to know more and there’s a lot of younger men who are changing the general mentality. It gives me hope and brings more opportunities for me to be more vocal about this. From the general gist of conversations within the group it is clear that alpha masculinity in Malta is the biggest obstacle. They also ask for webinars for dads by dads not from midwives.”
David is at pains to explain that fathers will never be the same as mothers and he does not even want to be judged in the same way as a mother.
“Men want to be involved in caregiving and raising their families. Children tend to be more fruitful for society when that happens. When only mothers are involved [in caring for the children] there is no equilibrium. I don’t want to be judged as a mother. I am different. I just want dads to give their knowledge just like mums give theirs. I may be slower than my wife in changing a nappy, but I still do the job. The nappy may be crooked: then my wife will tell me it’s not good and I’ll do it again. But don’t tell me I am useless. Teach us to be better. We are not wired like women.
”Changes in perceptions of dad’s role need to go wider beyond the family home. Take the simple example of nappy changing facilities in public toilets. By default they are mostly located in women’s toilets or, sometimes, in disabled toilets, but never in the men’s, with at least one known exception being at Malta International Airport.”
Another change that is being requested by dads is parental leave. Over 2,400 people have signed a petition to Malta’s parliament calling for the implementation of paternity and parental leave as per the EU’s Work-Life Balance Directive which has yet to come into force in Malta.
Under current legislation, mothers in Malta benefit from 18 weeks of paid leave while fathers and partners are granted only one day of paternity leave known as birth leave. Both parents are entitled to unpaid parental leave for four months until the child is eight years old.
However, the petition, presented on behalf of local movement Positive Birth Malta, called on the government to implement the directive without delay to give fathers or second parents at least 10 working days of paternity leave. It is a million miles from the Swedish ideal where parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave to be shared between them when a child is born or adopted.
Of course, this holy grail of parental leave does not come “free” and it remains the biggest bone of contention how any additional paternity leave would be funded in Malta without it becoming a burden on the employer. “This is a very sensitive subject,” concedes David who has signed the petition.
“I would love to see society give more credit to dads when it comes to work/life balance. It is not the first time I took a day off to take care of our sick children. We need to change the mentality and the first act to give recognition to us dads is for us to be recognised as an equal birth-partner and governments/social services should empower both parents equally and not individually.
”With the arrival of his second daughter Emilia in August 2020, David found his days were even busier than ever and his blog had to temporarily take a backseat while he focused on the girls. He currently works for “an amazing family-friendly company” which allows him to work from home part of the week. On the days when he works in the office he makes sure he is home by 7pm for the girls’ bedtime.
“We love routines and we love to stick to the routine. 7pm is shower time then I have 30 minutes with my daughters in which to cram all that I had missed out on during the whole day. So I maybe read them a book, we play with dolls or we sing songs while trying to keep it as low key as possible, so as not to get them too excited before bed.”
He also makes it a point to keep work stress bottled away from the children. If he’s been at the office he’ll sing all the stress away on his drive home. “I make sure I vent out all the negative vibes so that at home I only bring positive vibes.”
Dads are superheroes too
David has big plans for his blog and hopes to one day produce a book about parenting for dads.
“There aren’t a lot of books about what a dad should actually do during the pregnancy. I’d like the book to cover different phases of the father’s life from pre-birth, during the birth, early days, toddler, pre-school and so on. All books out there focus on mums being the superheroes but I want children to see dads are their superheroes too.”
“I want my daughters to see how I am with my wife. Us fathers are our daughters’ first love. I want to show them that not all boys are pigs. It scares me when I hear about rapes. I can now imagine what fathers went through when I broke some girl’s heart as a teenager. How can I teach my daughters to choose the right partner? I want them to see I was there when they needed me. That’s the most important thing. I support them and give them advice.
“I want to change whatever I didn’t like in my childhood and try to train myself to be a more improved father so that they can replicate this with their partner in future. We are shaping up their character through us.
”David’s fatherhood journey so far has been “the most amazing thing that ever happened”.
“I would do it over again but having kids has changed my life completely and made me realise I need to be selfless. It has made me more patient and it has made me appreciate women even more. I am so happy that things changed in my life but when they ask me how do you feel being a parent I say it didn’t change my life to the better but to a different way to understand life better. When you know kids are looking up to you and you are their mentor, you need to pull up your socks. You are not a kid anymore.”
“I am not the perfect dad. I will never be the perfect dad. I want to keep learning and not be the stubborn dad who insists this is my way.”
And with that, Sophia, tired from a morning at school, clambers onto his lap, pulls his earphones out to end the Zoom call and reclaims his full attention.
Time for daddy to get back to his duties.
Follow https://themaltesedaddy.com. Fathers can join the private Facebook group Daddy Boot Camp (Malta) run by Parentcraft Services and fathers.
This story was first published in Sunday Circle, a Times of Malta publication.
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