As far as blokes go, mine is up there. He does the childcare drop off, mops the kitchen floor, cooks (when I don’t) and is handy with a washing machine. He’s the first to get up in the night when a child cries out. He changes nappies too, and takes the boys swimming on Saturday mornings. He never calls it babysitting.
This is how we assess men in the parenting stakes: a task based appraisal of how much they pull their weight. Their domestic prowess and child rearing efforts are tallied up as a reflection of whether they are a Good Man. Or not. We express patronising gratitude and surprise when they do their bit (“He dressed both kids himself!”) and exasperation when they don’t (“Wet towels all over the bathroom floor!”) whingeing about how utterly hopeless they are. Men’s shortcomings are a topic of conversation bound to get a rise amongst women fed up with holding the fort. “Let’s get together and bitch about our husbands”, a friend suggested recently. Had I taken up her offer I could tell she would have been unstoppable.
And rightly so. Because while our menfolk might be all over the nappy thing these days and much more likely to do the supermarket dash than their own fathers were, they remain the masters of token gestures. Yes, they are more hands on than ever before – as they should be – (eternally indebted, we are, when they step up) but that’s not the bit that’s exhausting. It’s not the doing stuff that drags women down but the expectation that we will be the ones to keep across it all: soccer practice, Aboriginal Heritage project, defrost lasagne, book babysitter, dry tears. Drop one ball and little worlds can crumble. Like my friend who sent her child to school dressed as an echidna on Indonesia Day.
This generation of men may have accepted, thank goodness, that they are not passengers in family life, thanks to many of them growing up with working mothers. But still it is women (mainly) – even those in paid work – who hold the blueprint for family life. On top of still doing the great bulk of child raising and chores (not much has changed there) we’ve also self-nominated for household CEO, the visionaries, keeping all the jigsaw pieces intact. And that’s the toughest gig of all.
The List, women call it: the endless and precarious litany of Little Athletics, birthday presents, Australian Mammal Days, new shoes and a shortage of sausages and milk, for which she’s solely accountable. It requires a sophisticated excel spreadsheet to keep the family in check. Everyone has a system: beeping reminders on the phone, post-it notes on the front door. A colleague – with a high pressure gig and two kids – has erected a whiteboard on the kitchen wall. Overlook something and there’s no one to pick up the slack. It’s not that men don’t help. It’s just that it’s not his shoulders it falls on. As one woman bemoaned, her husband might cook most nights. He just forgets who he’s cooking for.
“What’s he having for dinner?” Matt asks in Time of Our Lives. “You don’t know what your own child likes to eat?” his estranged wife retorts.
“It’s far more complex than shopping lists”, says Social Researcher Rebecca Huntley, whose research indicates women are overwhelmed by so called “wife work”. “They’re responsible for the social and emotional maintenance of the family unit. Responsibility falls to her for how relationships are managed. As one woman said to us, ‘I’m the family cheerleader’. This stuff can’t be outsourced”.
“The myth of co-parenting”, US writer Hope Edelman calls it in The Bitch In The House, as she laments the absence of an “imagined parity” in her married life. “We start out with such grand intentions for sharing the job.”
Bitch about it all we like but we bring it on ourselves. Despite our best feminist generation intentions (“I won’t be one of those women”) something happens when babies come along. It’s as if mother feeding baby sets the stage and we inadvertently slip into comfy gender roles of nurturer (us) and provider (them). My man readily admits he sees his primary role as outside the home. “It’s a hunter-gatherer thing”, he explains conveniently.
He also knows I will fill the void. Because we do. Admit it or not most of us take righteous pleasure in taking charge, a smug satisfaction in calling the shots. “Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself”, we sigh, chopping up Vegemite squares, and he’s happy for the leave pass. For all our frustration we’re reluctant to relinquish The List because we think we’re better at it. We are multi skilled after all, a convenient talent to justify a disproportionate workload. “The woman truly believes that if she had gone to the supermarket she would have made better choices”, says fictitious (but not so much), overwrought working mother Kate Reddy in I Don’t Know How She Does It.
“Maternal gatekeeping” it’s called, women unwittingly shooting themselves in the foot by nitpicking so much that men become disheartened. No wonder they skirt off to play golf. Most woman wouldn’t dream of it.
But apprehension is no excuse. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg suggests in her book, Lean In, just as women need to “lean in” to their careers, so should men at home. “We need to encourage men to be more ambitious in their homes”, she writes. “It’s not about biology, but about consciousness,” said feminist writer Gloria Steinem.
“Absent yourself as much as possible”, advises Huntley who’s seen the “end consequence” of women not fighting for equality, resentful in their later years.
That part too is up to us.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and DailyLife.com.au on 7th August 2013