The Mermaid and The Minotaur

"For the hand that rocks the cradle / Is the hand that rules the world," wrote William Ross Wallace in his poem The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, written almost 150 years ago.

Many adult men might disagree with this celebration of mothers' influence on our lives, considering it's we blokes who largely bestride the planet's thrones of power.

Yet, if you pause to ponder the point of Wallace's much-dissected verse, it's hard to deny most people - dictators, doctors and derelicts alike - are as their mothers made them.

As infants, our most powerful desires, as well as our earliest and most earth-shattering disappointments - with their resultant rages, are first given shape at our mother's breast.

It's a strong thread in modern psychology that this is also the crucible of misogyny "because woman was first experienced as the ultimate power ...  man needs to subjugate her. What is essentially the human condition, comes to be seen as the fault (and danger) of women," writes Janice Porter Gump in The Psychology of Women Quarterly.

It's not surprising then that many psychologists, sociologists and feminists have speculated one of the keys to gender equality is men becoming more actively involved in early childcare.

A neglected masterpiece in this field is Dorothy Dinnerstein's 1976 book, The Mermaid and The Minotaur, in which she argues misogyny and aggression are "both inevitable consequences of child rearing's being left more or less exclusively to women".

She theorises that, because both infant sons and daughters envy their mothers' ability to provide all the children's needs, that envy and powerlessness later drives us to destroy the "bad breast".

It's a thought-provoking book and those who reflexively disagree with Dinnerstein - a professor in psychology at Rutgers University before her death - may want to reflect on the fractured state of racial and gender relations on the planet as a possible hint we're still doing something profoundly wrong as humans.

This is certainly not to criticise the job mothers do raising children but, it follows if we're to encourage true equality between the sexes, then men as well as women must embrace the other's traditional roles.

Speaking at America's Stanford University in January this year, the influential US feminist author and activist Gloria Steinem concurred with Dinnerstein, saying "she always argued men raising children ... and developing their whole human selves, in the same way women develop their whole human selves by being assertive and daring ... was the key to world peace".

"Nonetheless, here we are and gender roles are still confused with 'nature', just as racial differences were once falsified by pseudo-science," Steinem said.

Thirty-five years on, real science might well have caught up with Dinnerstein's ground-breaking work, with a well-regarded study, released last year, confirming testosterone levels in men - long associated with dominant and aggressive behaviour in males - fell by about a third when they cared for children.

"The real take-home message," Peter Ellison, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University told The New York Times, is that "male parental care is important. It's important enough that it's actually shaped the physiology of men".

Dinnerstein foresaw the backlash such views could stir - even without the benefit of science to support her - noting "it's easier for women than for men to see what's wrong with the world that men have run".

"Not all women who see this, however, are ready to understand their collusion in that process. It's easier for us to see ourselves as the relatively guiltless members of the species," she said.

I guess we truly are in this together.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.