For almost a quarter of my baby’s life, both his parents were off work. My husband and I started out trying to find our feet together, hoping to end up on an equal footing. When they made him leave the hospital that first night, I felt panicked (dear hospital, change that policy please, it’s stupid – partners should be allowed to bunk in). When he went back to work, I felt huge trepidation. Don’t leave me alone with this little alien, I don’t know what to do!
That was just over three months ago. We’re now in the swing of the at home mum, at work dad dynamic. For me, the hardest parts of the week are Saturday morning and Monday afternoon. I have my weekday systems for making things work well, then on Saturday it’s all different. By Monday I’ve gotten out of the weekday groove, but then I’m back in the deep end. I worried a bit while pregnant about how being at home would affect my sense of self, my future career possibilities, the division of labour within our marriage, and our parenting roles. The take-turns parental leave option didn’t seem like a good fit for us; my husband started a new job when I was six months pregnant, so wouldn’t have been eligible for extended parental leave. I also wonder whether the take-turns set-up perhaps presents a false equality, because each month is easier and more fun than the last – and, no apologies for this, I feel like I deserve this time at home with my baby as a reward for making him in my body then giving birth to him! Having both of us be full-time parents that first month was awesome though, there’s no replacement for starting out together. I really wish Mr Daddy could be part-time at work now, and next year we could split work and childcare between us and opt out of daycare until bubs is a bit older, but that’s not financially feasible or career-savvy.
Which brings me to a “tips for male feminists” list that is currently circulating on Facebook. I think it’s a great list, but I want to add a bit more discussion around the points that address equal division of labour and power within heterosexual couples with children. This is touched on in several points, and while I agree with the specifics, the suggestions combine to give the impression that, of all men, fathers in heterosexual relationships need to do the most work to support feminism. And I’m not sure that’s quite true.
First though, can we all just pause and applaud point 34 – says it all really.
34. Get in the habit of treating your maleness as an unearned privilege that you have to actively work to cede rather than femaleness being an unearned disadvantage that women have to work to overcome.
So point 1 basically says, do half the chores blokes c’mon ffs seriously do half the goddamn chores and stop whining! Point 2 says be an equal parent: “Be willing to take paternity leave and to stay home and care for them when they are young. Divide childcare responsibilities so that you are doing at least 50% of the work, and ensure it is divided such that you and your partner both get to spend an equal amount of ‘play’ time with your children too.”
Point 13 presents an additional aspect: “if you are in a domestic partnership where you are the primary income earner, educate yourself about the gendered wage gap, and work on dividing labour and economic resources within your household in a way that increases the economic autonomy of your partner.” There are some issues with the assumptions behind this. The wage gap is only part of the problem. There might also be a job status gap, a flexible working-hours gap, a career advancement gap, an availability for taking time off in the school holidays gap, an expectations of availability for work travel gap, or an ability to take sick leave at short notice gap. Not all paid work is equally valued, not all paid work is equally family friendly.
Following on from this, here’s the point I suggest needs to be added:
36. Whether or not you have children, negotiate for working conditions that would be compatible with being an actively involved caregiver.
Employers compare women with children to men with children, and hold us to that standard of availability for work responsibilities (tacit assumption: if the men can do it, so can you). But, employers compare men with children to men without children, and hold them to that standard of availability for work responsibilities (tacit assumption: your wife will look after the kids, right?). So it follows that people without children have an important role to play in changing work expectations. Even if you’re in a junior role with not much bargaining power, start with the basics: don’t volunteer for overtime, for example. If you’re more senior, take it a step further – actively seek additional leave, shorter hours, the ability to work from home. If this is normal, parents will be able to combine work with caregiving without asking for special “family friendly” working conditions. And non-parents can do other things they enjoy! Win all round!
Without reduced hours, it will always be a struggle for two parents to have equal time with their kids. It’s easier to negotiate one flexible job than two. That’s a shame, but let’s not put the onus solely on fathers to address it.
And yet, there’s also more to this equal split thing than equal time. Parenting is a partnership. It’s not like doing half the chores. There is no set list of parenting tasks that you can stick on the fridge and tick off – or at least, people who do that are weird. Parenting is about creating a relationship with someone, and that relationship is ever-evolving. The child will shape the relationship too. The things you enjoy doing with your child might be different to the things your partner enjoys doing. When you decide on the person to have children with, you’re not just choosing someone with whom to share the workload, you’re choosing someone with whom to create a network of family relationships. You want your child and your partner to adore each other.
I say this partially as a new parent, but partially as a child of an involved father who nonetheless didn’t meet the point 11 criteria. He was an equal influence in shaping the adult I am today, but it was nearly always mum who took me to the doctor. I had a lot of one-on-one time with my mum, and less so with my dad. Yet I remember some of those one-on-one occasions very vividly. Children don’t measure parenting the way parents do. I remember the time we went out for dinner together when I was about 12, and had a long discussion over what we thought “reasonable” meant. I studied law and philosophy, and I still think that conversation was one of the most profound and thought-provoking conversations I’ve ever had. We did the Tongariro crossing together one Queen’s birthday while I was at high school, it snowed overnight, it was so so beautiful; we forgot gloves, we put socks on our hands; we got to that bit where it’s all downhill but not a proper path and took our packs off and sledded down to the next orange marker. You can’t measure that, you can’t keep a score of “really awesome experiences that my kid will tell at my funeral.”
When I think of what makes a strong partnership, I think of the lovely words my bridesmaid said on our wedding video: enjoy life, and keep helping to make each other better people. This needs to go both ways, supporting each other in careers, in parenthood, in leisure activities and community involvement. Being an equal parent to me means supporting each other to flourish as parents, while also flourishing as people and enjoying life together. All parents, regardless of gender and relationship configuration, need to try and make sure the work and play and everything else is split in such a way that this can happen. For the men that the list is targeting, this means making sure that you prioritise your partner’s enjoyment of life equally with your own.