The Great Divide

grandcanyon

Ok I’ve enjoyed the first two months of new-motherhood but now I’m ready for some time off. Maybe a week’s holiday? Or a two? Perhaps I’ll tackle a fresh project now, or return to an old one – get back to my German lessons maybe… What’s that? I can’t? No leave can be granted? Well maybe I could just chuck a sickie? Nope, not that either. What… not even one day to myself?

Sigh – just one of the many laments of early motherhood – it’s relentless and there’s no holidays in sight. Especially at this stage. Feed, sleep, poo, repeat. And the baby doesn’t do much more than that either.

It’s got me thinking about the roles of mum and dad (in general) again. I say “again” because the last time I properly contemplated this was the first time Himself and I became mum and dad (specific). And let me tell you, nothing highlights the Great Divide between the genders* much more than having a new baby. This huge change in the status quo of your relationship is something I’m yet to see listed in all those “Why I’m never having children” articles, but it should be right up there. Alongside the zero-holidays policy.

When you’re the one parenting a new baby at home while your partner is back at work, there’s no getting around the fact that in these early months, you are doing the motherload of childcare (pun intended) and dad is, well, working. In other words, you’ve suddenly taken on very traditional gender roles. And it makes your day-to-day lives very different indeed. Granted, this was more of a shock to the system the first time around when we went from the relatively equal footing of both being full time working “people” to a Mum-at-home-with-baby and a full-time-working-Dad (as opposed to just full-time-working person).

But in a funny way, the gender gap is gaping even wider now. Because I’m also a “trailing spouse”, I currently exist in a weirdly segregated world. The only new people I meet are other women, mostly mothers and other expats who are also usually trailing spouses. The facebook groups I join are generally populated by females and are parenting-focused. I never come across males in a social capacity, unless they’re the partners of mums I’ve met. It kinda sucks.

On the flipside, I chose this.  And I’m lucky to be able to spend this time caring for my kids and not having to work for money outside the home. Himself would love to be home with them more often. If money were no object, I’m sure he’d quit work in a nanosecond (although how long it would take him to reach the boredom/resentment/need-a-break threshold I’ve just bumped into is hard to say… and I guess we’ll never know). If only it were easily possible for me to go out and find employment in this foreign country that pays as well as a male salary…

Not that I even want to work full time. Do I? I’d be lying if I said part of the appeal of this move to Switzerland wasn’t the sweet notion of being able to QUIT formal work indefinitely. Of course nothing is ever quite as good as it seems. And this is an almost entirely female problem. Not many men even get the choice of whether to quit or take a break from work to stay home and look after their babies, although it would be great if they had real options for this**.

As the kids get older, stay-at-home Dads become slightly more common. Slightly. [ASIDE: You don’t hear the male voice in parenting very often so I found it really interesting what Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard writes in his semi-autobiographical book A Man In Love about the mind-numbing mundanity of life as a primary parent. It’s basically several chapters of Toddler Time but more brutal! I can’t imagine many mums admitting the “job” bores them so starkly although it certainly struck a chord with me.]

Then there’s the money and value factors. Of course, rationally, we’re equal partners who are both contributing valuable work so we can afford to live and raise a family. But in reality, it can be hard to see it as entirely “our” money or perhaps more importantly, half “mine”, especially when it comes to the more frivolous purchases I might want to make. And in terms of valuable work, sure I’m doing a very important job but, well, no one’s flying me business class to Boston to be a Mum for 8 hours then back again.

So it’s an odd conundrum. A paradox of feminism? We have the choice but we have no choice. And things aren’t equal, but how can they be? Parenting, at least in the first year or so, is not really an equal opportunity playing field.

In some ways I can see it’s actually worse for the dads – slogging away at a crappy job (all jobs are a bit crappy right?) and missing out on time with the babies that goes so quickly. Plus, he has to do a big chunk of childcare and housework too – particularly putting in the hours with our first child in this second-baby situation. And yet, and yet… he also gets to go out of the house every week day, he gets to talk to people who aren’t obviously involved in their own childcare battles about things that aren’t to do with kids, he gets validation for skills that have nothing to do with parenthood. And he gets the chance for 7-8 hours unbroken sleep per night. It’s not a competition, but if there were a ledger of achievements and sacrifices, I’d say sleep is a biggie.

Likewise, I’ve been wondering about breastfeeding and feminism. Is breastfeeding a feminist issue? Feminism is about choice and equal opportunities. So Bfing is another paradox. Sure you have a choice, but there’s also no choice, as in, no one else can do it for you (with rare exceptions), well, your partner can’t anyway. And, like giving birth, it’s in no way an equal opportunity situation between the sexes. So I’m stuck. But I chose this. But, only by dint of being a woman was that choice possible. And, based on where we are at as modern, first-world people and parents, it was in many ways the only option. So therefore I had no choice. But still… I chose this. Argh.

I’d really like a day off.

 

 

*I suppose this is true for same-sex couples (assumptions, assumptions!) if you substitute “mum” for “primary carer” and “dad” for “the one who continues to go to work”.

** I’m a total advocate of The Wife Drought theory articulated so well in Annabel Crabb’s book – for society to move on, men need a life and women need a wife.

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7 comments

  1. I don’t feel I can add anything, though I really enjoyed reading it. Given it’s a situation in which most of my friends currently find themselves, it’s interesting hearing the different perspectives.

    What did you think of Karl Ove Knausgaard overall? I keep seeing his name and think I should start reading.

  2. Agree, motherhood and transitioning from professional life into a domestic one is a big transition and there are such varied feelings around it! Very difficult for many of the women I know! I enjoyed my first child very much but found myself itching to get back to/involved in something not child-focused quite shortly after the birth of number 2!

  3. GREAT post, Claire!

    I chose not to seek equality because I think there can’t be. We’re different, for better or worse.

    Hahaha, “no one’s flying me business class to Boston to be a Mum for 8 hours then back again.” That would make for a post of itself. Just imagine. The limo picking you up at Logan airport, taking you to an airconditioned meeting room, I mean playground, where there’s an unlimited supply of OJ, coffee, water, sandwiches,…

  4. I didn’t make a true transition to SAHM until my daughter was almost 3. (I only had 10.5 weeks at home with her when she was born.) But I have definitely had a lot of these feelings since we moved to CH.

    Although, to be perfectly honestly, there’s a lot of resentment hanging around. I wanted to work here; I was “supposed to” have help finding work, but that hasn’t happened, and so here I am. But then when I think about all the logistics for child care in Switzerland considering that school is not an all-day affair, I don’t know that I will ever really be able to work here.

    1. It’s really difficult, isn’t it? And I think it’s probably what most parents have discovered… I mean, even if kids were at school like in UK/US/Australia until 3 or 3.30pm – how could you work? I went back to my job 3 days/week after my first kid was 13 months but it’s almost impossible for me to find a similar part-time role here. Now that my second child is nearly 2, I have kind of given up the idea of finding a “proper” job here and I’m trying to make the most of this time. It is weird when I think about it though – I do wonder if I’ll have an office job ever again and that makes me feel a little unproductive. I always thought I’d be someone who “worked”… so maybe I do need to redefine what that means.

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