A parenting equality etc post on international women’s day

The husband has been putting in some fairly long hours lately – basically since the start of the year. Classic generic corporate law firm stuff, no-one likes to say no to new instructions, team gets squeezed, etc. 

This is my last week before my maternity leave starts. I’m planning to take nine months off this time. For the past year, our division of paid vs unpaid has been uneven. I do more unpaid, he does more paid. I like that I get to spend more time with the little dude, but actually I’d rather spend an hour at my desk job than an hour cleaning the kitchen and doing the laundry. Right now, he’s working from home and I’m writing this but he’ll probably log off at around 11pm and the dishes still need to be done. The baby is being very uncomfortable and managing to press on my diaphragm so I have to breathe shallowly and it feels weird. My feet are super swollen and I have no inclination to get up and do the dishes.  

On Sunday night at about 7pm, my husband said “wow, I’m so exhausted. Just from the day. That kid is just… all go.” We’d had a nice day, though yes, tiring. There was a festival in our suburb and we sat on the road while the little dude danced to the music, he ate dumplings for lunch and then devoured an iceblock, we came home for his midday nap and in the afternoon went back out with my brother and his friend. We listened to more music on the street and perused the stalls, and wrapped the day up by watching a very very very cool three person acrobatic troupe called the Biggest Little Circus, who performed at the local primary school. The local primary school is also where the fruit and vegetable market is on Saturdays, and the little dude kept saying “nemetrine? nemetrine?”, confused at the conspicuous lack of nectarines, but appeased by the presence of a bouncy castle. It was about as nice a day as it’s possible to have, and we still found it exhausting because of the caregiving component! 

Last night Mr Daddy stayed late at the office, and didn’t get home until well after the little dude went to bed. We had a series of minor disasters throughout the evening. First, the cat popped the little dude’s blue balloon he’d gotten at the festival. Little dude was very upset by this – kinda hilarious because adult perspective is that it’s minor, but also kinda understandably awful for him because it was a balloon and he’s two and it was his balloon and it was still full and bouncy and he’d carried it all around the festival all day and brought it home and it was his balloon! Then he helped me put some clothes in the tumble dryer and somehow I managed to shut his finger in the door. It was ok, I was a bit worried I’d done serious damage, but actually it was just the very tip and I released the door quickly and the nail protected the finger, and we ran it under cold water straight away, and it was ok. It’s not even bruised today. Then we had the bath, got dressed, did stories, etc. Oh no, we couldn’t find Peter Rabbit, one of the three toys that he takes with him to bed! He was all ready to have a major meltdown until I said that Peter Rabbit was hiding – and thankfully he bought that explanation and accepted that we’d look for Peter later. Still haven’t found Peter. 

When my husband works late, I do a full evening’s work too. It’s just that no-one notices. 

I’ve also been busy at work lately, because of trying to get stuff finished before I go on maternity leave, and also because the whole team is working towards a deadline that is fast approaching (the reason I was put on the project was the serendipitous deadline alignment with the maternity leave). At the beginning of last week, the guy leading the project made some comments around how possibly people might need to put in a few extra hours, and I sat there a bit awkwardly because… when? No really, when? Then it dawned on him that one member of the team was heavily pregnant and the main caregiver for a toddler and he said something about “subject to other needs – looking after yourselves – um, especially you” The previous week, I’d put in some extra hours and the general manager approved overtime pay but I can’t really do that two weeks in a row because there’s too much other stuff to be done in the “parenting” and “home” categories (usually the expectation is that I manage my own hours across the pay period to smooth things out, which works well both for me and for the organisation). This is directly related to the split between paid and unpaid work in my relationship. There’s no room for me to pick up extra hours and still keep the household stuff going. We both work hard, just different work, and yeah I have to sometimes remind him that the unpaid work is essential, yeah he tends to take it for granted, and yeah that’s a bone of contention, but I don’t think it precludes us having a good relationship so long as we can talk about it, and nor do I think it’s unusual for hetero couples to be in this position. 

In a facebook comments thread on this article I read today, the issue of equal parenting came up. I considered commenting but decided to write this blog instead. There were too many things I wanted to say. 

Some said that their husbands do 50/50 and they find it offensive when men are spoken about as useless, when actually, “there are so many amazing dads out there”. I agree – but I also think that what society calls an “amazing dad” is roughly equivalent to a “standard level competent mum” or sometimes even a “not totally useless mum”.  

I’m part of the first generation of adults to have been raised by parents for whom equal sharing was the stated goal. My parents’ friends were disproportionately also two-income couples, and while some of them made a fairly decent fist of equal sharing, most were more like my parents – the dads did way more than their own dads had done, and were actively involved enough to be crucial figures in their kids’ lives, but they did way less than half, and in particular, way less than half the boring household stuff. In some cases, where the split was more even, it was because the mothers did less parenting and household management, even though they knew the dads weren’t picking up all the slack.  

Ultimately, when my mum had to choose between our needs and her career or her leisure time, she choose our needs. Lots of women do. There is a subtle power imbalance here – many women find that their male partners are less willing to make this choice, and push comes to shove, you can’t force him to do more childcare and housework (especially when the message he receives from the rest of the world is “you’re such a great dad!”) So if you think it needs to be done, you do it. You find there’s less time for everything else. You know it’s not equality, but life is full of compromises and meanwhile the creche bag needs to be packed for tomorrow, and someone needs to go to the supermarket for cat food and toilet paper. It’s not sexist for women who have this experience to discuss it, it doesn’t feed into stereotypes of men being useless when we say that actually in our relationships, the split of labour is not even, and we think this might be a bigger issue than our individual male partners. 

When I was sixteen and my brother was fourteen, my dad took a promotion that required him to commute from Auckland to Wellington two nights a week. And he still played golf every Sunday morning. I don’t fault him as a parent, but I do think that he should be grateful to my mum for doing more than half of the parenting and the household management: she never got a half day off every weekend! We need to separate out the discussions about how each parent measures up as a parent from discussions about how each parent measures up as an equal contributor to the relationship. Otherwise, we’re making heaps of problematic suggestions. We’re suggesting that the mum is the benchmark for parenting, and the dad needs to do the same level – rather than creating a gender-neutral standard of what we think parenting should involve, and holding all parents to that standard (so, your relationship is equal but your kids are with a nanny for an hour before school and four hours after school – yeah, nah, you’re not my role model). We’re suggesting that equal parenting is the only measure of relationship equality – rather than acknowledging the unpaid work women more often do in other areas too. I know women who are the sole earners and have stay at home partners, but find themselves cooking the week’s meals in advance on the weekend and doing all the laundry and house cleaning and life-admin. In contrast, I know many men who have stay at home partners and do close to none of the household work. We’re suggesting that the problem is man vs woman within hetero relationships rather than family vs society in a capitalist economy with a focus on freedom of contract and insufficient statutory protections for workers. That’s so unhelpful. We’re leaving women to try and undo years of socialisation through “explaining how you feel to your husband”, while also allowing the same problems to occur in the next generation. I read somewhere that mothers are more likely to encourage their preschool daughters to help with chores than to encourage their preschool sons. I’m trying actively to be conscious of this. It’s easier and faster to tell the little dude to play with his toys while mummy does the washing – but what message does that send? So instead we get the step ladder out and he helps me put things in the machine, and then he gets to press the button. Etc. I think this is important feminist stuff. Except when his finger gets caught in the tumble dryer door. Then I think I should give up on everything and let Elmo do all the parenting. 

The big issue for us is simply that my husband’s working hours preclude an equal parenting relationship. I am more attuned to the little dude’s needs because I’m around more. I also had the enormous benefit of spending much of my teens and 20s in part-time jobs that involve childcare, as do many many young women. The skills advantage that this generates needs to be acknowledged. The ability of a man and a woman to take on equal parenting starts well before they have kids together. We’re up against so many barriers, and everyone’s experience is a slightly different microcosm. We need to hear as many stories as possible, broaden out the narrative, and discuss openly how this affects our relationships with our partners and kids.  

A final thought – when I get the little dude from creche at around 4pm, and he asks for his dad, and my heart aches a little because it’s still two and a half hours until we’ll see him, and I say “daddy’s still at work”, I wonder if that affects how he will see paid vs unpaid work. I wonder if his little mind thinks “working must be really important because obviously if daddy had a choice he’d choose to hang out with me.“ 

Later comment: I should perhaps mention that my husband’s salary gives us the ability for me to take nine months off work and still make the mortgage payments. This demonstrates how lucky we are that our only problem is a shortage of time, and it also demonstrates how much bigger this issue is than the individual couple. If, blessed if, we had paid parental leave for longer and at a higher rate, and childcare subsidies kicked in earlier, the whole paradigm for figuring out work/life/parenting allocation between couples would be completely different.