I haven’t been feeling well recently for one reason or another, and naturally haven’t felt up to getting my Nigella on every night, or trying to coax my sticky, sweaty toddler into or out of the bath. Even attempting the super-wordy-rhymey works of Julia Donaldson has been too much at times, and don’t mention the cleaning of cloth nappies… Just nope.
But of course this is okay because I have a ready, willing and able husband to almost 100% take over and sort out dinner, bathtime, laundry and a bedtime routine that involves more running around and screaming than two out of three of us would like.
There’s a slight problem though.
This is a typical exchange after Big T has put Little T to bed while I relax with a book or endless lost lives on Farm Heroes Saga –
Husband: Finally asleep! Just couldn’t switch off as usual.
Me: I’m sorry…
Husband: Why are you apologising?!
Me: Because you had to do it.
Husband: I didn’t have to do anything, I love spending time with him at bedtime, especially if I’ve been at work all day.
Me: Are you sure?
Husband: Positive. Relax, you deserve some time off.
*five minutes later*
Me: …I’m sorry.
Now I don’t know precisely what it is that makes me apologise and set feminism back 50 years in the process. It could be that being a mother and looking after my son is my ‘job’ and Big T taking over feels tantamount to me going into his office and designing a thingumy on the whatsajig while he puts his feet up with a magazine and farts the Game of Thrones theme music (I’m not entirely what he does for a living which makes the analogy tricky, but you get my meaning). I couldn’t do that and nor should I, but when he gets home it’s expected that he should roll his sleeves up and dive head first into the dribbly ocean that is parenting. And he should, I know that, but in a modern society where mothers often work to provide for their families I feel that as a stay at home parent I should be working just as hard, giving 100% even when there’s only a trickle in my tank, to keep up with these amazing women who do it all, and the men like my husband who pick up where they left off that morning with rarely a second to themselves.
There’s also an element of my upbringing at play. When my parents were still married they each had their specific, often stereotypical, roles within the family. My dad went to work and earned money, my mum stayed home and cooked, cleaned and wiped the snot from our noses. It wasn’t inherently a bad thing; roles were clearly defined, no one seemed bent out of shape, and although I’m certain my mum wished for more help I doubt she was surprised that it wasn’t forthcoming. Things just were and that was mostly okay. Within the white, middle class, suburban community I grew up all the families I knew looked much the same.
Fast forward 30 years and, at least on paper, my relationship with my husband mirrors that of my parents. He earns money while I stay home and bake cakes and make stuff out of shoeboxes and dried lentils. It’s hard then to separate our situation from the one I grew up in, where all expectation fell on my mother to take care of absolutely everything, from shopping and nit removal to bedtime and diarrhoea. I’m in a 21st century marriage but I feel all the pressures of my mum’s 20th century role, and because I do less than she did, and rightly so, I sometimes feel as though I’m getting a free pass and my struggles aren’t valid.
It’s not specifically about my parents of course, they’re merely the nearest example; I see the same dynamic in many couples their age. Lots of wives and mothers I meet from older generations are often keen to point out to me how wonderful, caring and involved my husband is, how rare that is and how lucky I am to have him. The problem with that kind of rhetoric is that all it serves to do is convince me that what T does is somehow above and beyond what is expected of him, yet again reinforcing my belief that I should be doing more.
I’m not blaming other people for my reactions to any of these influences, that’s all firmly on me, but it’s an internal battle I rarely feel like I’m winning. I find it hard to shake the sense that T is doing me a favour by parenting our son. How messed up is that?
In taking on all responsibility for Little T I’m not only denying myself the support and help I need, I’m also impeding the partnership that defines my marriage to my husband, and perpetuating the outdated idea that men aren’t capable of being exceptional parents. No one wins. T is an excellent father, objectively, without my input, and more importantly he should be, because the decision to bring another human into the world was 50% his. And what kind of example am I setting to my son by openly modelling draconian ideas of female roles? Hearing me apologising and gratuitously thanking his father will not help nurture him to be the man he deserves to become.
It’s time to let go of the apologies and the guilt. It’s time to respect my husband’s role as a parent as well as a provider, and it’s time to congratulate myself on the mostly-great-but-sometimes-just-okay job I do as a stay at home mum. And it’s probably time to sit back and eat cake, just because.
I owe it to my son to show him the meaning of equality.