I had the perfect post-feminist life. My husband and I did not “do” gender in our equal relationship. He cooked. I washed up. We worked. He appreciated my mind — an exciting thing. And he was not intimidated by my, ahem, forceful personality.
I was aware of the proto-hoary cliché: that the best career move a woman can make is her spouse. And I’d made a killer choice. My husband supported my career as though it were his own. He pushed me to be more ambitious than I was sometimes inclined and served up a soothing cup of tea whenever it was needed.
But then, almost a decade into this idyll, we had a child. And a few years later, another one. Gender roles in parenting reared up and ran amok. Parenting is the graveyard where many a couple has buried their feminism, and I found ours rapidly making its way six feet under.
The man-woman gulf is evident from the go of procreation. In the best-case scenario, some sperm-meeting-eggs later, it is the woman who finds herself not only regurgitating her meals but also developing a physical kinship to the least attractive variety of blowfish. The man, meanwhile, finds himself much feted and in full abdominal possession of his food. And, unless particularly unfortunate in genetic inheritance, he does not look related to bloated sea creatures.
The aches and deprivations of pregnancy, and the quite brutal physicality of labour are but a teaser of the more insidious gender-gaps in post-partum life. I’d been prepared for the biology, breastfeeding and so forth. I’d made it clear that equality in diaper changing was expected. What snuck up on me were the more ephemeral asymmetries: of guilt, distraction, human resource management and to-do lists.
Unlike me, he wasn’t tormented by feelings of culpability and failure.
Over the years (my boys are 5 and 8 now) no matter how I struggled to insist on more equal parenting, there was a qualitative difference in the experience that remained stubbornly resistant to equivalence. Like everyone, my husband failed as a parent all the time. He screamed instead of patiently explaining why it was dangerous to play with knives for the quintillionth time; forgot a dentist appointment; handed over an iPad to keep the brats quiet. So did I.
But, unlike me, he wasn’t tormented by feelings of culpability and failure.
Even in the all-consuming early months of infant care, as our colicky first-born screamed into the night, he read newspapers, and had hot showers, and thought non-baby thoughts. He got on with his life, which now happened to include a cranky baby. But my life had become unlocatable. My brain was invaded, the space for adult pleasures like reading and politics occupied by the infinite minutiae of caregiving.
As children grow up, a pale semblance of pre-baby life reappears. But the marital equilibrium once knocked off-kilter proves hard to regain. Men overwhelmingly assume less responsibility for the time-sensitive, human resource side of child rearing. So it’s mothers who come under attack by what sociologists call ‘pressure points,’ or non-negotiable demands that make life feel more frenetic. The experience of these is not captured well in quantitative measures like the amount of time objectively spent on a task. They are rather about how that time feels.
It’s the sense of near-constant urgency engendered by years of simultaneously supervising a 3-year-old’s bowel movements, helping with a 6-year-old’s school project, working out the structure for a report with a looming deadline and trying to remember whether you’ve eaten lunch. The feeling that, even in seemingly calm moments, you are forgetting something important and just can’t remember what and a pot is about to boil over somewhere.
It’s the timekeeping, the making of lists, and relentless reminding (Did you flush?). This distracting mix of apprehension and organization is possibly the hardest gender gulf to tackle because it is so intangible.
Biological equality is impossible, everyone agrees. The sharing of housework – cooking, cleaning, and the physical aspects of childcare, like putting a baby to bed — is possible, everyone agrees. But regarding the prospect of equivalence in the psychological and emotional responses to parenthood, the picture is muddier. How much of these behaviours are learnt and how much are they are hard wired into our DNA?
It’s a tough knot to unpick. Fathers’ emotional makeups might change to match that of anxious, guilt-ridden, detail-oriented mothers everywhere, but we may never know, because they generally have something most mothers don’t: wives.