Note to readers: My Family and Other Globalizers is a weekly parenting column on bringing up global citizens.
My spouse is the perfect example of a modern, and well-intentioned, husband and father. In our pre-parenthood years, both before and after marriage, I was hard pressed to sniff even a whiff of patriarchy about him. He cooked, I did not. He did not expect me to clean up after him. He appreciated my mind – an exciting thing.
If the most critical career decision a woman can make is her choice of spouse, I had made an excellent one. My other half supported my career as though it were his own. He dreamed big for me and was never jealous of any success that came my way.
And yet, once we became parents, gendered divisions reared up like bucking broncos running amok. A dozen years into the parenting gig, my spouse is the financial mainstay of the home. I freelance and earn the equivalent of pocket money. I fill out the children’s lunch forms and make sure their snack bags are packed. I get their school uniforms ready every evening in preparation for the next day and make sure they wear matching socks. I know which child loves bananas, and which one hates them.
My spouse loves them dearly. He makes them breakfast. He is a well-spring of cuddles. He’s changed a few diapers in his time and attended a string of parent-teacher meetings at school. But he does not do admin. He does not make to-do lists in his head before going to bed.
Ultimately, even the most feminist of husbands often fail the equal parenting test because they assume less responsibility for the time-sensitive, human resource side of child rearing. It is mothers, working mothers included, who come under attack by what sociologists Annette Lareau and Elliot Weininger call "pressure points", or non-negotiable demands that make lives feel more frenetic.
The experience of these pressure points is not captured well in quantitative measures as in the amount of time objectively spent on a task. They represent rather, a qualitative dimension of time use; how that time feels.
The sense of near-constant urgency engendered by years of simultaneously supervising a three-year old’s bowel movements, a six-year old’s teeth brushing, meeting work deadlines and trying to remember whether Cake Stall Day at school is this Friday, or the next, creates a feeling of adrenaline-fuelled urgency even in when everything is objectively under control.
Were my spouse and I to spend an equal number of hours doing childcare, (which we don’t, but let’s assume this for argument’s sake), we’d come out of the experience feeling very different. If he has an hour to spend with the kids, he will read the newspaper or scroll through his twitter feed. His claim to childcare will be that the children have been in the room with him. He emerges from the hour thinking about his stock portfolio and perhaps ready for a snack.
I would spend the same sixty minutes questioning the children about their friends and activities, adjudicating their fights, reminding them to pack their items for their weekly show-and-tell sessions and remembering to reschedule the older one’s swimming class the following Tuesday because he’d accepted a birthday party invitation at the same time. I would come out of the hour with my nerves on edge and mind racing to accomplish all the tasks without forgetting any.
I am, like most mothers, the timekeeper, the maker of lists, the chief reminder-er.
One reason women like me get stuck with the micromanagement of family life is that we don’t see it coming at first. One day you’re doing more of the admin because you’re still on maternity leave while your husband has returned to work. You probably think this is perfectly reasonable. I did. But the next thing you know, you’ve been dumped with the pulverizing minutiae of primary childcare, even though this was never the plan.
Even the most well-intentioned and otherwise fair-minded couples can find their feminist principles undone by parenthood. There is no easy solution to this unedifying state of affairs, which is why it persists with such remarkable stubbornness. The best one can do is to try and be forewarned.
Don’t allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security. That way lies an ambush. Fathers need to be enlisted as co-human resource managers from the word go. The cartography of parenting is demarcated early on. Put your partner in charge of finding matching socks asap. Renegotiating the borders at a later date is harder than arriving at an equitable arrangement from the outset.