Whatever Happened To The ‘New Man’?

Image by Author - Happy Man Making Yorkshire puddings

I was at a meeting. I’m not normally at meetings. I don’t get invited to many. Now I am ‘Director of Myself’, I only meet with the inside of my head. It’s a busy place with multiple competing agendas, so, it was a reprieve and a bit of a ‘jolly’ to get out of the house and mix again with real people. Even better to be around tables with a flip chart. I was so engrossed in the discussion about freeing women to use their gifts in the church that I wasn’t checking my mobile every few seconds just in case I might get an email or someone urgently needed me. And of course, like waiting ages for one bus and three coming along all at once, when I glanced into my handbag, there they were …. three missed calls …. 11.55 - No Caller ID, 11.56 - No Caller ID and 11.56 - LYDIA. My heart did that mother thing, mild anxiety tinged with fatigue. I could just imagine the scene, Lydia and the school nurse, trapped together in a room. “Parents never answer my calls,” she would be saying, “they always pick up for their children. You try from your phone”. It was 12pm now and I hadn’t responded for a whole four minutes. I rang her back. It went straight to voicemail. I phoned my husband. I felt like I’d interrupted his midday flow. He was brief and functional. “I’m going to pick her up,” he said, “sore tummy”.

As I was relaying this slightly banal incident over sausage rolls and chicken goujons at lunchtime, I described how my failure to instantaneously act, meant that the other half of the parenting partnership had to step in. “She’s so lucky,” said one woman who knew me very well to another who didn’t. “Her husband does everything for her, cooking, childcare, laundry”. I wondered had I been giving away too many insights in my writing but she hadn’t mentioned how I text him when that funny little red light comes on so he can put diesel in my car or the time I ran the tanks of two vehicles dry during his month-long ‘course’ in the United States of America. She also hadn’t mentioned the porridge with fresh berries he makes for me every weekday morning and the variations on eggs at the weekends - baked with tomatoes and spinach, scrambled with smoked salmon. Nor, had she explained that when he’s away, it’s always the butcher’s puff pastry pie for tea because he prepares all the meals and I only heat stuff at 200 degrees celsius¹.

But I was curious why him doing ‘everything’ for me was so controversial or unusual, as if somehow, I had neglected my job. Maybe, I was in full-blown feminist mode. Someone had already rattled my cage about keeping women in their godly place. “Yes, I’ve been emancipated, I’ve been freed,” I said. I was Emmeline Pankhurst and Betty Friedan and Mrs Banks with her ‘Sister Suffragette’ all rolled into one. It’s never been a popular opinion when I’ve expressed it but before we will ever see equality in the workplace, in society and in our systems and structures, we will have to sort it out at home.

“Everyone needs a Russell,” became a bit of a joke among the dads in our ‘social circle’² as our children grew up. He was so good with Shepherd’s pie and emotions. “How did he learn to do all those things?” someone once asked me. I may have divulged that he’d sewn on a button. “I think he did Home Economics at school,” I said. “He’s self-taught”. It’s amazing what you can do when you try. His learning has coincided with my unlearning. “Do you even live in this house?” he will say to me occasionally as I stand, puzzled with a sieve in my hand, wondering what cupboard it goes in or studying all the options on the oven. When I read Michelle Obama’s Becoming, I was struck by what she said about moving into the White House, how much easier things became for her husband with chefs looking after his nutrition, staffers reading and answering his mail.

“Barack has never derived pleasure from shopping, cooking or home maintenance of any kind. He’s not someone who …. shakes off work stress by making a risotto or trimming hedges. For him, the removal of all obligations concerning the home made him nothing but happy, if only because it freed his brain, allowing it to roam unfettered over larger concerns…”.

Well, don’t Barack and I have a lot in common, all we want is to free our brain, his to oversee domestic and foreign policy, keep an eye on the military, terrorism, nuclear weapons etc, mine to get words and sentences in the right order. Chores don’t half get in the way of genius. “Do you do anything?” one friend asked me. Yes, there are lots of things I am good at - forward planning, networking, observing, bringing the craic, horizon scanning, ‘big picture’. I think I’d make an excellent CEO.

As, I pondered my husband doing everything for me, I wondered whatever happened to the ‘new man’? According to Google, the term was coined in the 1980s as a “radical way to describe an exotic new species, happy to do the washing up or change a nappy”. A ‘new man’ is a “man who believes that women and men are equal and should be free to do the same things, who does tasks and shows emotions that were traditionally only considered suitable for women,” says the dictionary. In case confused, an example was provided of how to use the expression in a sentence, “I’m not particularly what you would call a new man, but I do cook and I iron my own shirts”. In 2014, restaurant critic Giles Coren, dismissed the concept of the ‘New Man’, saying he was a ‘relic of gender history’. “He became a cartoon-like figure of fun. They were terrible limp men carrying babies around their chest. They ate vegetables and gave up drinking”. Funny how Giles’ comments coincided with him becoming a father. But of course, aren’t new men still comic caricatures - poor Kevin from Motherland, desperate to fit in, always coming up with ideas for the PTA, organising the WhatsApp group, lumbered with caring for everyone else’s children.

Really, women, I do think we need to move over and let men in. We don’t have to call them ‘new men’ or single them out because they are helpful. My husband is still reeling from being silently evicted from the church meals rota because he was the only man. But, there was only one way to solve that. I got added to the rota instead and when a meal was required, I let him know, he rustled it up and put it in foil containers.

This afternoon, as my ‘new man’ husband, who hasn’t given up drinking and eats a lot more than vegetables was a flight away from me, I sent him a message, “Will you need dinner when you come home?” I kindly asked. “Probably not,” he said, “but thanks for checking”. “That was a very formal response,” I replied. “Just surprised you asked,” he said. I will leave that one there.

And so, on the night of my meeting, as Lydia miraculously recovered from her sore tummy and I was sipping a martini while my husband did the dishes, a thought came into my head. “Did we not decide you’d be first contact?” I said to the man at the sink. I remembered Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the missing packed lunch³, how I’d written “when September rolls round, I have choices. I don’t have to be the first contact. I don’t even have to fill in the forms”.

“Yes,” he said, “I am”. “The nurse said dads don’t usually answer,” a little voice piped up, “so she said she’d try you first… ”.

[1] If you are rolling your eyes at this point, you are now at the footnotes and need to go back to the next paragraph.

[2] I wanted a better phrase than this but couldn’t think of one. I don’t have a ‘social circle’.

[3] https://dj-sloan.medium.com/parenting-failures-again-ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-the-missing-packed-lunch-408dfb194c3

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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter