Aviral Rungta, a 31-year-old Delhi-ite welcomed home a daughter in 2021 at the height of India’s Covid-19 crisis. As a new father and a curious one at that, he went looking for literature, articles, WhatsApp groups, and advice available for young fathers like himself to do a good job of raising a child. What he found instead was advice on how to be a good partner while the wife tackles the more child-focused parts of early parenting, or tips on taking the baby for a stroll, and how to hold them correctly – as striking for its banality as for its condescension.
“It would have been nice to have found some more reading material online which was verified by a professional for support, as it is important to have a good positive mindset during this time,” Rungta says.
Non-fiction literature is full of narratives of new motherhood, starting from pregnancy to the nuanced documentation of postpartum struggles, joys, pressures, and changed identities and priorities. But when it comes to new fatherhood, there is little to be found. This gap suggests the momentousness of fatherhood is not recognised – neither by publishers, nor by readers, but most of all, by society.
As a literary genre, memoirs have much to offer in terms of the personality they lend to an experience and the concrete insights they offer to an abstract moment in time. When it comes to new parenthood, memoirs can offer a much-needed deep dive into the unknown, helping men and women deconstruct the practical, emotional, difficult, and often isolating experience of having and learning to love and nurture a baby.
But memoirs require first-hand experience as fodder – that Rungta was unable to find resonant resources and narratives on fatherhood is a testament to the societal lack thereof. Our conditioning, the internalisation of gendered parenting roles, and the design of families, workspaces, and norms all limit a father’s experience of his new role, says Zainab Ibrahim. Ibrahim is a feminist researcher and practitioner based out of Sri Lanka, whose work focuses on gender and masculinities. Men have to surpass at least three levels of existing patterns, she says, in order to partake in parenting to the degree arguably necessary to write about it: their internalised shame instilled by norms regarding child caretaking; societal and familial expectations around who is the appropriate person to care for a child; and the sheer structural and logistical barriers presented by employment.
India does not have a universal paternity leave mandate; while paternity leave is allowed for government employees, the length is only 15 days, compared to the six months all new mothers get to spend with their child. As Zainab says, when structures and systems are not designed for it, being an involved father “comes at a price” – personally, familially, and financially. Given that the primary, societally approved function of a father, in a traditional sense, is to be the provider, the choice between having the kind of involved experience of fatherhood one could write about versus doubling down at the office is, for many men, not a choice at all.
Employment isn’t the only obstacle to a fuller, more literary experience of fatherhood. Social barriers abound, too. A question about memoirs and literature on the experience of fatherhood posed to a mixed gender reading and writing WhatsApp group with 250+ members prompted an eruption of conversations. Fathers who had taken up primary child care-giving roles spoke of having to force themselves into delivery rooms just to witness their own child’s birth, of trying to convince unbelieving neighbours of their happy marriages and genuine desire to care for their own child. Mothers shared tales of their attempts to administer ‘Parent WhatsApp groups’ instead of ‘Mommy WhatsApp Groups,’ to no avail. Co-parenting and a fuller, more tangible involvement of fathers in their children’s lives faced resistance at every turn.
No wonder then, memoirs of fatherhood are practically absent for Indian men. Which could, in another world, present an opportunity.
“Technically speaking, a niche [like fatherhood] should be more rewarding to any businessperson,” says Dipankar Mukherjee, founder of Readomania, an independent publishing house in Delhi. But the same norms that limit men’s experience of fatherhood also govern what makes it to the printing press. There are gendered expectations around the kinds of content that come from men and women writers, Mukherjee says. Emotions, and a depth of narrative around these emotions, are largely considered by both readers and publishers to be the domain of women.
When conversations around fatherhood are more nuanced, they tend to tilt towards the experiences of men who are home makers, men who are single parents, or LGBTQ+ men. As these men fall outside the strict, conventional structures around masculinity, discussion (and literature) around emotions are perceived as more palatable, Mukherjee says.
It is interesting that what allows men to be acknowledged in their full role as fathers, is the absence of a mother. Women in India still shoulder much of the burden of childcare, doing on average 134 minutes of child- or elder-care a day, compared to men’s 76 minutes. It seems they shoulder both the burden and privilege of talking and writing about it, too.
This all-or-nothing version of fatherhood leaves men, especially Millennials and Gen Z-ers on the cusp of fatherhood, uncertain.
Harshdeep Singh Kohli, 28, is a self-described feminist man who lives in Gurgaon. A young man used to excelling, he worries frequently over his abilities as a feminist boyfriend, future husband, and – the scariest possibility of all – a father responsible for a life taking shape. “With no intimate role models, limited literature, and no experience to rely on, the scope for self-doubt is immense,” he says.
Dipankar sees emerging LGBTQ+ (specifically gay) experiences of family and parenting as a gateway to expanding narratives around heteronormative parenthood and widening the scope of emotional accessibility for heterosexual men. After all, the same professional and societal structures that keep heterosexual men from accruing more hands-on experience as fathers arguably bind gay men just as much – and likely more.
And of course, literature is not the only place men can turn for guidance, validation, and insight into fatherhood. The accessibility of digital media and the democratisation of content production mean it matters less and less whether there’s a shelf for new-fatherhood memoirs at the bookstore. Podcasts, Instagram posts, blogs, and newsletters are, perhaps, even better and farther-reaching when it comes to sharing experiences and connecting.
Still, there’s something about a book in the hand. It’s as much a physical weight as it is a cultural barometer.
There is a section on parenting in Bahrisons bookstore, in Gurgaon. It is merged conveniently with the mental health, Yoga, and Ayurveda sections, all aimed at nurturing happy and healthy Indian families. As I started my research for this article, I strolled through the shelves for a little over an hour, looking for memoirs penned by and for fathers.
I left the bookstore with Everyman’s Pocket Classic: Stories of Fatherhood, an anthology – of fiction.