I grew up in what you might consider a fairly traditional family. My father worked, my mother stayed at home with me and my sister.
She cooked our meals, she drove us to school, she helped us with our homework. That was the sort of family that I saw not only in my house, but in the houses of most of my friends, and in the households that were depicted on TV and on radio ads.
It was only as an adult (after reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin in my gender and sexualities class at university) that I began to question assumptions I had about the roles played by mothers and fathers within the family.
Cut to 2018. Mid-term break. I’m at my local swimming pool, and there are lots of parents here, men and women, accompanied by their children.
Afterwards, when I have a shower, I notice the women’s changing room is over-run with children.
Afterwards, I ask my boyfriend what the men’s changing room was like. Were there many babies in there? No, he answers.
I wish I could say I was surprised.
Let me start off by saying that I know plenty of straight couples who seem to split the childcare fairly evenly. I see fathers around my hometown with a gaggle of kids in tow, or with infants strapped to their chests in baby carriers.
However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the act of caring, whether for children, elderly parents, or sick neighbours, is still, on the whole, seen as the preserve of the female partner in the relationship.
In the household, this can take the form of the woman being in charge of remembering anniversaries, communions, and confirmations, buying presents for birthday parties, ensuring everyone has taken their vitamins with breakfast, going to parent-teacher meetings, buying more soap and dishwasher tablets, spending the run-up to Christmas exhausted as they run around getting batteries and wrapping paper and trying to find the Christmas card list from last year.
It’s like a full-time job, and for many women, it is.
A friend of mine recently told me that besides women in education (which is inherently more flexible due to a shorter working day and school holidays), she only knows one other mother who is working full time.
When I thought of all the women that had surrounded me in school and at university, how bright and ambitious and driven they had been, it seemed a shame that we still haven’t found a way of restructuring the workplace to ensure we could prevent that loss.
Of course, for many women their decision to stay at home with their children is just that — their decision.
I’ve never had a child so I have no comprehension of what that’s like on a purely biological level, particularly if you’re breastfeeding.
It’s essential that we respect and protect the right of parents who want to stay at home — raising the next generation to be decent members of society isn’t something any of us should take lightly.
We need to have better and more varied childcare options, and at more affordable prices.
Every woman and every pregnancy is individual, and different women will have different experiences healing post-birth; I’m not expecting mothers to hop off the delivery bed and immediately put on a business suit, singing ‘9 to 5’ as they skip back to work.
And it must also be acknowledged that not every couple has the luxury of living off one salary — in many cases both parents are required to work in order to pay the bills.
But in cases where the decision is made that one parent will stay at home, why is that parent usually a woman? Why are we still not seeing more house-husbands?
Does the gender pay gap necessitate that the parent with the lower income (ie the woman) give up their job first?
Is it about the construction of gender in our society, which might make men feel ‘emasculated’ and women guilty about ‘abandoning’ their children if they swapped roles?
Or is it because women, handed dolls to take care of, encouraged to act like mini mothers when they are little more than infants themselves, are still seen as instinctively more nurturing and maternal?
We need to move away from these Victorian ideas about differences between male and female brains — those have been debunked by legitimate scientists.
I’ve often heard women say dismissively of their husbands, “Oh he wouldn’t be capable of it, he’s like a big child himself ” despite said husbands having jobs that entail a great deal of responsibility.
Apparently it’s only men who have the psychological makeup to succeed as presidents and CEOs, but childcare? Sure, they wouldn’t know where to begin!
How do same-sex couples decide which of them should take the primary care-giving role?
Do they — gasp! — decide by virtue of individual skills rather than by gender?
What a novel idea…
WATCH: Elite on Netflix. This teen-drama is set in an extremely wealthy Spanish school. Sex! Murder! Money!
This show is trashy but eminently bingeworthy.
LISTEN: Rosemary MacCabe’s How to be Sound podcast is consistently one of my favourites. She gets excellent guests and she asks them excellent questions.
(Full disclosure, I have been one of those guests - but I’m not biased, I promise!)