Gatecrashing a female preserve;Another voice;Opinion

27th March 1998 at 00:00
I can remember seeing a man waiting outside our school once. The headmistress rang the police and had him chased away. But that was in the 1960s, a different world: a time when Crossroads was considered chic, when Red Indians were still the bad guys and our Royal Family was held up as a byword for domestic harmony.

How things have changed. These days any shifty-looking male who hangs around the school gate is most likely to be a father detailed to collect his children. Society has moved on and yet men still look distinctly uncomfortable as they scan the horizon for emergent offspring.

They don't, on the whole, chat in the way that mums do. They don't admire each other's babies or arrange to buy old items of uniform off each other. What they do instead is to stand with their hands in their pockets and give every impression that this really isn't where they're supposed to be.

A similarly forlorn sight may be encountered outside changing rooms during the January sales. What we have here is a prime example of Man out of His Environment. Anyone who has watched polar bears at the zoo pacing relentlessly up and down, or disgruntled apes with their backs to the cage picking out fleas, will recognise the signs immediately. Men simply do not feel at home at the school gate.

It's nothing to do with how much we love our children, it's much more about the fact that the school gate represents a supreme existential challenge for the male psyche. Having collected my son and daughter for six years now I have come to three important conclusions about why this should be.

Firstly, schools in Britain open and close their doors during the week and at 3pm on any weekday most British males believe they should be in work - or out to lunch, which amounts to very much the same thing. No man likes to be suspected of not having a job to go to which is why some collecting fathers actually don a suit before padding down to school.

The second reason why we men look so uncomfortable is that the school gate is still a predominantly female preserve. We lope around while all the women seem to know each other and have their networking skills finely honed. While they discuss dropped wombs, thrush and breast pumps we men get to feel like intruders at some impromptu Well Woman Clinic. Indeed so relentlessly gynaecological was conversation at my local school gate that for several months I believed SATs to be a pregnancy-related illness.

"But why don't you men talk to each other?" my wife used to ask, bringing me neatly to the third conclusion in my study of School Gate Man. Men are not naturally social creatures. We need an external stimulus to help us feel at home with each other. It can be alcohol, work or the kind of mindless tribal loyalty you find at football matches, but without such stimulants we just don't know how to make the first move. Left to our own devices we remain isolated figures, dotted round the playground, hands in pockets, as cold and friendless as figures in a Lowry landscape.

Fortunately not all dads react so badly to the School Gate challenge. I've noticed an increasing number of New Men who are taking on the nurturing role. These are dads in trainers who arrive on foot and carry the new baby in a sling. They're so centred and fulfilled that they make the routine mothers sick with inadequacy. New Dads never yell at their hyperactive offspring and they always know how to say something encouraging when little Jemma arrives with a painting that manifests all the grace and consistency of diarrhoea.

Another man who is extremely happy in female company is the School Gate Lothario Dad who patrols the cluster of mums with wolf-like glee.

But for most of us men it's a disquieting time and we cope in different ways. Some dads bring a newspaper to read, others sit safely in their cars until the very last minute. Me, I carry a mobile phone in the hope that I'll get a call and all the mums will murmur "ooh look at him, a dad at the gate with a job" but only rarely does it go off. All of which leaves me feeling like a spare part, wishing we were back in the good old days of Sitting Bull and Noele Gordon and praying for a nice friendly policeman to move me on.

Adrian Mourby is a novelist and freelance writer

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