Róisín Ingle: Why are dads shut out of so many school WhatsApp groups?

It’s time for fathers to gain acceptance to the school gate mummyverse

One man told me he was sick of asking to be added to the WhatsApp groups for his children. “I asked one woman and she said, ‘sure, what’s your wife’s number?’”

One man told me he was sick of asking to be added to the WhatsApp groups for his children. “I asked one woman and she said, ‘sure, what’s your wife’s number?’”

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My colleague Ross O’Carroll-Kelly has written hilariously on the subject of the WhatsApp groups set up by parents to discuss school and child-related matters. As usual, he was spot on regarding the often repetitive, inane commentary that can be found in these chats.

Recently, a female friend of mine watched 15 people reply to a plea to locate a mislaid item of child’s clothing with “no, sorry haven’t seen Sorcha’s jumper”. My friend promptly left the group and hasn’t looked back, leaving the women to chat about missing jumpers amongst themselves.

I say women because of course it is mostly women on these groups. I don’t have any hard statistics to prove this. I have to rely instead on intelligence gathered from regular interrogations of mothers and fathers I meet. When I ask how many fathers are active in parents’ WhatsApp chats the answer is usually “none” or “one or two”. The other thing you hear is “well, there are a few but they don’t really contribute”.

Isn’t it only a stupid WhatsApp group? Does it matter that a group chat full of homework queries and sportswear reminders and thumbs up emojis and 15 replies about Sorcha’s missing jumper is mostly populated by women and a very few mostly silent men? I think it does.

These women-dominated groups are massive red flags pointing to the fact that it is, in heterosexual partnerships anyway, mostly women who take on the mental load of managing family responsibilities. As Paula Fyans, author of The Invisible Job, says “this reality is so ingrained in our conditioning that we barely notice it”.

I’ve heard countless real-life stories of men trying to join these spaces and being shunned

Once, when I asked a male friend of mine why he wasn’t on the parents chat group he told me he left such things to his wife. “I’m busy with work. I don’t have the headspace for all that stuff,” he said, defensively. And yet there are many women who work outside the home who on top of their actual jobs must navigate the bulk of summer camp bookings, bullying allegations, school policy negotiations, playdate arrangements and all the other largely headwrecking parts of parenting school-age children.

In the cases of women (and men) who work in the home – the hardest of all jobs – it could be argued that they have more time for “all that stuff”. But that is still no reason for their partner not to be involved. Having a co-parent also present in the group would mean they are more alive to, and appreciative of the blessed escape from, all the boring, thankless tasks that day-to-day parenting involves.

Perhaps men are just not welcome in these spaces. In Motherland, the stunningly accurate Sharon Horgan-produced comedy series about schoolgate culture, my favourite character is Kevin. He’s a stay-at-home dad who is taken advantage of, mocked and barely tolerated by most of the mothers, especially the alpha-mums. His face is pressed up at the window of the mummyverse but he’s never truly accepted because, after all, he’s just a man.

I’ve heard countless real-life stories of men trying to join these spaces and being shunned. One mother told me a story of her husband, despite being the one who does all the drop offs, collections and playdate organising, being largely ignored by the mothers he comes into contact with every day. One man told me he was sick of asking to be added to the WhatsApp groups for his daughters. “I asked one woman and she said, ‘sure, what’s your wife’s number?’ But she’s never even met my wife”. Another man said he’s in one group where the opening conversational salvo by the female group leader is always “well, ladies”.

Why, you’d have to wonder, are women shooting themselves in the foot like this? The other day I conducted a Twitter poll on this subject. I asked my followers whether they thought more men should be in these parenting spaces. I wouldn’t call it hard data exactly, but the result was overwhelmingly positive with the vast majority saying it would be better if more men were involved. There was a clear acknowledgement of the benefits of including men and yet some of the replies to the poll were depressing like this one:

“Depends on the men. I knew my children’s loves and hates, hopes and dreams, likes and dislikes, what challenges were good and not so good. Their dad was vaguely aware there were people shorter than him in the house.”

Maybe we could encourage men to get more involved instead of shunning them when they try. We could stop assuming that female parents and guardians are the default contact

And this: “My eldest is in Senior Infants. When I asked last year for my husband to be added to the WhatsApp group for the class I was told ‘that’s not how we usually do things’ and informed I could pass any necessary information on.”

And another: “You can add them all you want. Will they contribute? Doubt it very much. The mothers are doing a very very good job. Ask most fathers what days are tracksuit days or how much for photocopying every year... Blank faces. Just the way it is”.

Then there was this tongue in cheek reply from Finian: “Let it go Róisín! We’re not wanted and to be honest, I’m delighted I don’t have to read 127 daily messages”.

We’re not wanted. That’s not how we usually do things. Just the way it is.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe we could encourage men to get more involved instead of shunning them when they try. We could invite dads as well as mums to the casual coffee mornings organised at the school gate. We could stop assuming, when it comes to group chats or school correspondence, that female parents and guardians are the default contact. We could stop treating fathers as loveable but incapable afterthoughts instead of what they actually are: a vital, essential part of the parenting equation. There are plenty of Kevins (and Daves and Seans) all over the country only too happy and willing to free up some headspace for “all that stuff”.

The pandemic has been a disaster for gender equality with more women leaving jobs and taking on additional family and domestic burdens. This is not only bad for women, it’s bad for everybody. Yes, it’s only a stupid WhatsApp group. But if we don’t make a conscious effort to share the parenting load we’re as lost as poor Sorcha’s jumper.

roisin@irishtimes.com