LONDON — Paul Morgan-Bentley doesn’t look like a Rachel. Neither does his husband, Robin. But when the couple took their son to the local hospital’s emergency room reception desk, they were greeted with the question: “Rachel?”
There was no malice or homophobia involved and Rachel, the surrogate who gave birth to three-year-old Solly, is still very much a part of their son’s life. Nonetheless, the incident showed the manner in which Britain’s National Health Service doesn’t usually link fathers — gay or straight — to their children’s health records.
It also illustrates, believes Morgan-Bentley, the multiple inequalities between moms and dads which bedevil new parents — inequalities that are bad for couples, their children and wider society.
In his new book, “The Equal Parent,” Morgan-Bentley seeks not only to offer ideas for redressing the balance, but also to challenge some deep-seated myths about parenthood. It’s a beautiful, touching and, on occasion, funny account of how the Jewish couple fulfilled their long-held dream of becoming fathers, as well as a deep dive into the latest academic research about how we can best bring up our children.
“I think what’s quite helpful being a gay couple is that it frees you from those traditional gender stereotypes in terms of parenting roles and you can just approach everything as two adults,” Morgan-Bentley tells The Times of Israel.
The book is neither prescriptive nor judgmental. Instead, it seeks to show, through the experience of two gay dads, “what happens when gender is taken out of the equation.”
The couple, who met in 2014, began exploring options for having a child soon after marrying in 2017. Despite initial skepticism, they were attracted to the idea of surrogacy after speaking to friends who had formed a close bond with the woman who was carrying their twins.
Through a not-for-profit surrogacy organization, they met Rachel, a married mother with two sons of her own, who agreed to carry an embryo created by an anonymous egg donor at a fertility clinic.
Rachel’s act was one of pure altruism. Surrogacy is legal in Britain, but the law bans any payments to women beyond expenses, such as train tickets to medical appointments and maternity clothes, so as to prevent exploitation.
She compares holding Solly after giving birth to “cuddling a nephew, or the baby of your closest friends.” The two families have become “incredibly close,” says Morgan-Bentley. In honor of Rachel, the couple gave their child the middle name of Ezra, Hebrew for “help.”
“It was unbelievable watching her in labor and it was impossible to comprehend she was going through that pain for us,” says Morgan-Bentley. “These women are literally creating families for other people. It’s amazing.”
Morgan-Bentley, head of investigations at The Times newspaper in London, is clear at the outset of the book that none of his ideas are “a call to erase motherhood or women’s experiences” and that he doesn’t claim to be able to speak for women or mothers.
“I totally appreciate that there are lots of experiences that women have that we didn’t have. Neither of us was pregnant, neither of us gave birth, neither of us breastfed,” he says.
But, he believes, while women’s bodies mean they have a unique role, that’s no excuse for fathers not to share the responsibility.
“You don’t need a uterus to puree a carrot,” Morgan-Bentley quips. “When it comes to weaning, why is it the mothers always take responsibility for that? There’s nothing about their bodies that means that should be the case.”
Equal parenting, in Morgan-Bentley’s telling, is not about each parent doing half of everything, but about sharing the load fairly. “The key to it is equal responsibility,” he says.
But while traditional gender stereotypes have rightly been chipped away in many aspects of society, he says, women, including working moms, are still expected to take on the lion’s share of parenting.
These expectations are set soon after mothers give birth, with hospitals keen to usher dads out of the maternity room as swiftly as possible and then treating them like visitors. It’s evident in the manner in which — despite their legal rights to parental leave — so few fathers take time off work to help care for their newborn babies. And it’s apparent in the way mothers often have to give up their careers to bring up children. Indeed, while many moms go back to work, women are still expected to do most of the parental heavy lifting. Nurseries and schools, Morgan-Bentley notes, invariably seem to call mothers when their children are unwell, despite the child having two parents, both of whom are frequently at work.
“Often it seems as if the institutions that we lean on as parents — the healthcare services, schools and workplaces — are failing to keep up with how society is already evolving,” he writes.
Morgan-Bentley is keen to stress that he is not arguing that fathers are either lazy or shirking their responsibilities. There’s a paradox in the way society views them, he argues. On the one hand, they’re frequently presented as being a bit hopeless and dispensable when it comes to parenting. On the other, they’re showered with patronizing praise and labeled a “hands-on dad” for undertaking simple tasks — taking their child to a vaccination appointment or picking up a prescription from the pharmacist, for instance — that nobody would comment on a mother doing.
“It’s all part of the same thing which is the general low expectation of fathers,” he says. “Fathers are now doing much more childcare than their fathers or grandfathers did, but institutions still expect this to be, primarily, a woman’s job. Women cannot ever achieve equality in the workplace if fathers are seen as a rare and wonderful thing at their own children’s doctor appointments, at children’s play groups or at the school gates.”
Women cannot ever achieve equality in the workplace if fathers are seen as a rare and wonderful thing at their own children’s doctor appointments
Morgan-Bentley assembles an impressive array of evidence from leading experts that men are both biologically capable of equal parenting and that it is good for their children.
He cites, for instance, the research of Ruth Feldman, director of the Center for Developmental Social Neuroscience at Israel’s Reichman University. She and her team have spent decades measuring hormone levels and scanning the brains of new parents. They have found that so long as they spend enough time with their babies, fathers produce levels of the bonding hormone oxytocin which are identical to new mothers’.
“Fatherhood is biological. It’s as deep as motherhood,” Feldman told Morgan-Bentley.
Similarly, the “mother’s instinct” which seems to lead moms to wake up first when their baby starts crying at night isn’t quite what it seems. As Feldman discovered, the parts of the brain that cause alertness change in mothers after birth, causing them to be more vigilant of their baby’s needs. However, she also found that when a baby has two fathers, the mens’ brains change too, leading to them to respond in the same way as mothers do to their babies.
Moreover, as Morgan-Bentley shows, research indicates that children benefit from having more than one person — whether they are parents, foster carers or grandparents, for instance — committed to, and actively engaged, in their care.
But these benefits — which include greater self-confidence and empathy — aren’t tied to whether or not children have a genetic link to those caring for them. As extensive research into the outcomes of children in non-traditional families carried out by Cambridge University’s Center for Family Research shows, it’s the quality of the relationship between parents and their children, not the genetic relationship, which matters most.
These findings and others are central to the case for equal parenting, writes Morgan-Bentley, proving that “anyone can take on primary or equal responsibility as a parent and do a good job of it if they put in the time and effort, whatever their sex.”
“I am obviously biased,” he adds. “But I could not believe more strongly that parenting is about what you do, the day after day of showing up to love and care for your child, rather than the proportion of genetic material you share with them, whether you are a man or a woman, or what some sperm once did with an egg.”
So how can equal parenting best be supported and encouraged? Morgan-Bentley is full of ideas. Some are relatively small-scale. Health services should ensure fathers are invited to pregnancy and new baby appointments if mothers are happy for them to attend. Baby-changing facilities should be provided in the men’s, as well as women’s, toilets. (One of the few times Morgan-Bentley has seen this was when the couple were on holiday in Israel with Solly last year.) Morgan-Bentley is also a fan of projects for dads which teach practical skills, such as how to feed, bathe and change a baby.
Others, however, are more ambitious. Britain, for instance, needs to address its sky-high childcare costs — parents in the UK pay the second-highest amount in the world — if mothers are to be able to split caring responsibilities equally with fathers and continue their careers. Morgan-Bentley holds up the examples of Estonia, Finland and Canada which have pioneered high-quality, heavily subsidized and affordable childcare policies.
Parenting is about what you do, the day after day of showing up to love and care for your child
But it is shared parental leave that Morgan-Bentley believes is key to realizing the goal of equal parenting. In the UK, couples are legally entitled to 50 weeks of parental leave — split however they see fit — after having a baby. But fathers rarely take anywhere near as much leave as mothers, government financial support is limited, and companies vary hugely in both the amount they top-up what the state pays and whether they extend that support to dads as well as moms.
This, the book argues, is a massive missed opportunity given the mountain of evidence that, done right, shared parental leave smooths the negative impact of childbirth on women’s careers, gives fathers the opportunity to bond with their children, and sets a pattern for men sharing domestic and childcare responsibilities long after their time at home has ended. Mothers, fathers and their children are all happier as a result, research shows.
With Solly just reaching his third birthday, Morgan-Bentley and his husband are facing the inevitable questions about when and whether they plan to have another child. For now, they’re not sure. However, one thing they are sure about is their love for their little boy and their ability to parent him.
The couple has the occasional tough day, as do any parents, but, writes Morgan-Bentley, “We are fully involved primary parents and Solly is a smiley, sociable, funny kid who is doing brilliantly. We are not in any way exceptional. Men can, and should, do this.”
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