My partner and I both have full-time paid jobs and our one-year-old daughter is in nursery four days a week. I work a compressed week (five days’ work in four days) and do about two thirds of the childcare and half of the housework and cooking. T. works five days a week and does the rest. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve been told how lucky I am that he does so much. No-one (apart from me) has ever told him how lucky he is that I do even more, or for that matter how unlucky he is to have less time with little A. Instead, he gets told how unusual he is.
What’s not unusual is, unfortunately, this discrepancy in how we’re judged. Take the disapproving reaction to my friend’s announcement that she would have to spend a few nights away for work when her daughter was 11 months old. “But what will happen to the baby?” she was asked – not once, but repeatedly. “Err – she has a father.” T. spent five weeks abroad when Little A. was five months’ old, and not once were we asked who would be looking after her.
Or take this mother’s article, which the same friend posted on Facebook. The author had attracted cyber-fury for daring to say that looking after children can be boring, but what horrified my friend was the casual way in which this liberal, professional woman described her husband as ‘helping’ her with their young children.
And that’s the particularly depressing thing: it’s not just men who are using this vocabulary (although particular mention should go to the two male friends of friends who describe themselves as ‘babysitting’ when they look after their own children, especially the one who demands a day playing golf to recover). It’s also women, including intelligent, modern, well-educated women for whose opinion I generally have a lot of time.
I have no problem with saying I am lucky in some of the things my partner does. I’m lucky that he’s a great cook, that he is a ‘morning person’ happy to do breakfast and the nursery drop-off most days, and that he has become so obsessed with vacuuming (a task I hate) that he doesn’t trust me to do it properly. I’m less lucky that he thinks sheets should be left to fester on the bed for at least a year, regards his mountain bike as second in importance only to our daughter, and is apparently incapable of putting washed clothes away or taking out the recycling.
But that works for him too. He’s lucky that I have juggled my working hours, starting early and foregoing lunch breaks, so that we can keep Little A. out of nursery one day a week. He’s less so that I never do the washing up, and am so monumentally bad about getting out of bed that every one of those early starts becomes a whirlwind of rushed crossness which I somehow make into his fault. We are both lucky in having an enchanting, affectionate and good-natured little girl (5am rage aside), which tips the balance in the delight/endurance see-saw that is looking after a toddler.
However, I do have a problem with being called ‘lucky’ for the mere fact that T. takes on any of these tasks. Yes, there’s one sense in which I am, if ‘lucky’ means ‘luckier than most’ or, for too many of the mums I know, ‘luckier than me’. A recent mumsnet survey confirms what plays out among most of my friends and family: that even working mothers still do the majority of household chores and childcare. But using terms like ‘lucky’ (me) or ‘good’ (him) implies that a father who does more than nothing (although less than half!) is going well beyond what can be expected of him. Subtext: childcare and housework are a mum’s job. Even when she has another one as well. (Or, for the stay-at-home-mum, even in weekends and evenings, when other people’s ‘day jobs’ come to an end.)
This infuriates me. But then I can hardly criticise when I do something almost as bad myself: incessant micromanaging. It won’t help to correct any gender imbalance that dads are so often written off as incompetent carers. (My friend, asked who would look after her baby when she was away, was not only outraged on principle but also insulted on her husband’s behalf.) And it will be hard to do anything about that impression if even those of us who don’t believe it are incapable of handing over the baby without a list of detailed instructions.
Of course, stopping is a lot easier said than done. (I’m saying it, but I’ve so far failed completely to do it. Just ask T.) The very fact that mums do more childcare tends to make us the experts – plus we are often more risk averse – and it’s almost impossible to leave anything to chance when it comes to your little one’s well-being. But maybe we should bite our tongue sometimes. Is the baby actually in danger? No, then let it go. Because every time we explain to a father how to feed, dress, or entertain his own child, we only reinforce the archaic idea that it’s our role to do all that, and we are just temporarily delegating.
I realise that for some women that’s not necessarily a problem: two thirds of working mums are happy with the way things are, according to mumsnet, or at least don’t want their partners to do more. I certainly don’t want less time with my little daughter. But I wish the women surveyed had been asked not just whether they wanted their partners to take on more childcare or housework, but whether they would have liked them to find more time to do things together as a family. I have a feeling the results would have been different.
Where the current situation suits both partners, great (although that still leaves us with the question of why dads are so much less likely to ‘choose’ time with children rather than at work/exercising/in the pub). But for the sake of those mums who aren’t so happy (and there are plenty), perhaps we could all rethink some of the signals we send. It won’t solve anything: we need social, legal and cultural change to do that, starting with Scandinavian-style parental leave. But it would show that we don’t buy into a set of stereotypes our grandmothers would recognise.
So let’s try to trust our partners a bit more when they are looking after our (and their!) children. And please can we have a ban on terms like ‘lucky’ or ‘helping out’ when it comes to dads and housework or childcare. If you wouldn’t praise a mum for doing something, don’t praise a dad for doing it. Or better still, praise them both.