On Men, Impending Parenthood and Gender Roles Within the Modern Home

Steve and I are on holiday this week but our original plans of doing DIY and leaving the house now and then have been scuppered by me putting my back out.

Me putting my back out isn’t a huge surprise. I’ve been having trouble with it since the first trimester; I’ve been to the pregnancy physiotherapist; I’ve got support clothing and special exercises but the professionals have never pretended that it would get anything other than worse as the pregnancy progressed.

Three things are getting me through this:
  1. An awareness of how lucky I am to be pregnant at all.
  2. The knowledge that, at this point, I have no choice but to grit my teeth and wait it out.
  3. Steve.
It’s Steve that I want to write about today. Steve, and fathers-to-be in general. I’ll moan about the aches and pains some other time.

Because the fact is: as hard as this is for me, it’s hard for Steve, too. He’s the one having to get up in the middle of the night to help me out of bed (because I need to pee; because I need to walk off the worst of the hip pain). He’s having to dry my legs after I shower and help me get dressed. He’s having to make me cups of tea and hot water bottles (because I can’t lift the kettle) and give me seemingly endless back rubs.

More than that: he’s having to do all the housework. Not some. Not half. Not a sizeable chunk. All of it.

And he’s doing it all without moaning.

This doesn’t surprise me, of course. I wouldn’t have chosen to have a child with him if I didn’t think he was a good, stable, patient person. But, still, it’s a lot that he’s taking on and I’m hugely grateful to him for doing it without either complaining or preening.

But I wish that all of the pregnancy and parenting advice thought as highly of him as I do.

Pregnancy information is, understandably, largely geared towards the mother. It focuses on the changes happening to her body and her choices when it comes to labour and the reasons she may or may not choose to breastfeed. There’s not a lot there for the dads.

And now that I’m reading up on pregnancy-related hip and back problems, I’m finding out why: because a lot of the information providers are harbouring some (hopefully) outdated notions about men.

“Avoid doing the dishes!” they tell me. “Show your partner how to do housework! Train him to pull his weight!”

Show him how to do housework? Train him to pull his weight? What decade were these information websites written it?

It’s 2014 and Steve knows how to scrub the shower.

Steve

To be totally upfront here: I do do most of the housework, most of the time. This is because Steve works much longer hours than I do and, to me, it seems only reasonable than the person spending four to five more hours a day in the flat gives up ten more minutes of each day to keep the place clean and tidy.

Steve would also admit that his tolerance for mess is a lot higher than mine. I’m more likely to be bothered by the misplaced shoes and the denuded toilet roll tubes and, therefore, to put them away.

But he knows how to do the dishes and how to clean the toilet and how to put the bins out. He does his own laundry. He does almost all of the cooking. He is perfectly capable of doing every bit of housework that ever needs doing. And he does it without prompting and without expecting gratitude or praise.

Because that’s what grown ups should be doing, regardless of their gender.

The majority of the couples we know are in similar situations. They both know how to take responsibility for their home. They have devised a routine and a division of labour which suits their own circumstances. They each take responsibility for what they have decided is their fair share and they do it without making a big deal about how modern and considerate the man is for “helping the little lady” put the bins out.

Of course, I realise that there are exceptions. There are a handful of women I know who complain about their inefficient partners, who do all of the housework and who loudly resent it.

Their partners are partly to blame because their partners are adults now and should know better. It’s difficult to recognise lazy behaviour in ourselves and it’s difficult to change those bad habits, even when we do see them, but, as grown men, they have a responsibility to ask themselves whether they are playing their part in the relationship and to alter their attitudes as appropriate.

Their parents (or their parents’ generation) are partly to blame. I know several people who were brought up in traditional households, where the mother stayed at home to clean and nobody thought to teach the boys how the washing machine worked. Those sons have had to make conscious choices to learn how to take care of themselves; those daughters have had to make conscious choices to build different family structures. And the majority of them have done so.

But women – and society as a whole – are also partly to blame. Because when we talk about our lazy partners as though their behaviour is typical, when talk about “having” to do their ironing for them, when we act as though they should be thanked and babied every time they make an effort, we reinforce our own acceptance of the situation.

I don’t have easy answers here. I’ve had lazier partners and I’ve despaired of them and I’ve not worked out the best approach for addressing the issue.

But I do know that talking about it as if it’s normal is not effective.

Saying, “Well, that’s how it is in my household and lots of other households,” doesn’t help to improve things. It doesn’t prompt the men to question their behaviour; it doesn’t push the women to expect more; it encourages us to shrug and think, “It’s not fair but what are you going to do?”

I like to think I’m preaching to the converted here. I like to think those of you in couples have worked out how to share the housework in ways which work for you; I like to think the women never find themselves thanking the men for their efforts or feeling guilty for asking them to put their own socks in the wash; I like to think your male partners do their share without ever stopping to feel smug about it.

But I wanted to rant.

Because why am I reading professional, sometimes official, guidance aimed at mothers-to-be which implies that their male partners are useless, lazy, inefficient apes who don’t know how to scrub a pan and have to be guilt tripped into taking good care of the woman they presumably love?

Why, when those couples are about to enter into a stressful, exhausting, total upheaval of their routines, are they being told that the men are hopeless and the women will, effectively, be mothering both father and child? Who does this benefit?

It’s time to ditch those lazy stereotypes. It’s time to update our notions of normality. It’s time to not only include fathers-to-be in the future of their family but to talk about them – and to them – as if they have recognised and accepted responsibility for their own partner and their own child without being patronised or prompted or pleaded with.

It’s time to start talking as though men are capable and conscientious.

It’s time to stop talking as though the good men are the exceptions.

And that is me ranted out. But, for a new father’s take on life after birth, I recommend reading my friend, Dave’s, blog post over here.

14 comments

  1. This is something I've thought a lot about since having a baby. I've been thinking about writing a post about it so here is my brain dump about it (sorry in advance, haha).

    We've always been pretty independent of gender roles-- I'm the breadwinner and Rob has always done the cooking and now does the bulk of the housework. I will say, though, that when the baby came I was surprised at first how uneven the labor was when it came to the baby. While Rob clearly loved the baby and held her and snuggled her, and completely took over housework and cooking, I was definitely the "default" parent. Part of that was breastfeeding, but I've had formula-feeding friends with similar issues. Another part of it was that I saw myself as the baby's primary caregiver, and felt uncomfortable leaving her with anyone (even Rob) because I felt like I was burdening them; I also didn't ask Rob for help, expecting him to sort of anticipate my needs without telling him (which, spoiler alert, never works...haha). I tended to have much more patience with calming her down whereas he was more comfortable letting her cry if he couldn't immediately make her stop crying. It led to a lot of resentment that I was unprepared for, especially during 2am feedings when he was comfortably asleep. I think that's something of a testament to how ingrained this message is. Especially for the first few months, we were both trying to figure out our new roles as parents, but in a lot of ways I think it was somewhat harder for Rob. As a woman I'd been expected to be a mom for my whole life--I babysat, I spent time with other moms at family gatherings--whereas that expectation just isn't there for men. Even though he had a much younger sister, Rob hadn't spent a lot of time around babies and it wasn't until Amelia started interacting more (3-4 months) that he really took off as a dad. That period of transition was something I didn't expect. Just one more thing to get through together I suppose.


    I totally agree with you that the infantilization of men in all spheres is tired and silly. Another side of it is that you have praise for men that is not given in equal parts to women - a single dad is seen as a hero who's praised for wiping his kid's butt whereas a mother is constantly judged (often by other moms) for not being "mom" enough if they don't constantly breastfeed/cosleep/babywear. The bar is lower for men because we see them as completely non-functional children, which is only going to continue to perpetuate a broken system.



    I'm sorry if none of that made sense. Thank you for writing this, I really enjoyed reading it. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. It is ridiculous, I occasionally read things about domesticity and think "What century was this written in?" And "Why are they acting like it's cute somehow for men to continue to shirk household chores?" Thanks for reminding me we are at least lucky to know what works for us and to have partners who aren't afraid of a little scrubbing (I feel a bit guilty for grumbling about husband not helping w/Christmas cards now though!). Steve looking after you so well is no doubt an indicator of what an amazing and nurturing parent he will be. I hope your back pain recedes soon anyway :-(.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yep, Steve's going to be an awesome Dad. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. It totally makes sense! A lot of the couples we know with kids have been through similar experiences. With the way the current system works (it's actually changing before our due date), fathers in the UK are entitled to two weeks off work after the birth and mothers are entitled to a year (albeit on vastly reduced pay) - the result is that the mums spend a full year, full time, bonding with the babies and the dads plod on with their normal life of office hours, trying to provide for their new family; I've seen dads feel left out because the babies inevitably value the mums more; I've seen them feel like glorified piggy banks; I've seen mums feel bored and lonely, home on their own all day; I've seen both sides feel like the other isn't doing their share in one way or another. It seems like the trickiest thing to navigate.

    ReplyDelete
  5. In the US there's no standard maternity or paternity leave - it's a company by company thing. My company is small and has no maternity policy, so I had to take all 3 weeks of my vacation (Rob took a week of his paid leave that he'd saved up). Luckily I work from home, so I still got to spend time with her, but I think it was weird for him to have to go back to work so quickly. It's hard too because it's something you can't prepare for at all until you're actually going through it. I had so many plans about how things would go and then Amelia came and blew them all up, haha. It's a really stressful, beautiful, crazy time.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I love how your 'rants' are always a zillion times more articulate and well written than most bloggers' carefully considered posts (which is not to say that a rant can't also be carefully considered, of course!).


    Anyway, back to the subject... I find myself interrogating this within my own relationship. Like you, I have more time at home and therefore find myself doing more of the general housework. But I really dislike my own habit of treating Thomas like he's a bit incapable and getting on with it myself. He's hugely capable but a bit of a stereotype of the oblivious academic; he just needs prompting (sometimes a few times!) before something is done.


    On the parenting advice, I also take umbrage with the assumption that the baby's other parent will be a father. I know a number of lesbian couples who either have kids together or who are in the process of getting pregnant. Heterosexual parents might be the majority, but they're not the whole story, and official advice that doesn't reflect that is hugely exclusionary.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is true. Some advice is better worded than others but the sections specifically for the parent who isn't pregnant are generally titled "For Dads".

    I do find myself pointing out mess to Steve sometimes because he openly admits that, if he notices it, it doesn't often bother him enough to prompt action. I don't really like that dynamic but we both understand why it happens - we have different standards and occasionally mine are unquestionably correct! There *may* have been some discussions about how the floor cannot be used as a storage area for valuable items when there's a baby crawling around our home...

    ReplyDelete
  8. I honestly don't understand how new parents can be expected to focus on work so soon after the birth! I expect to be an absolutely exhausted, distracted mess for... well... quite a bit longer than three weeks, anyway...

    ReplyDelete
  9. A very interesting read, and I found myself agreeing with a lot (everything..)

    A lot has to do with the media and how they portray these things. And when I say media, it's generally print media and TV we're going to be talking about.

    A lot of people unfortunately believe everything they read/see and will regurgitate this tripe like its gospel. Take a walk down the magazine aisle and you see dozens upon dozens of womens magazines which reinforce the trope that men are idiotic beings with no use in life other than bringing in an income. Then you go to the dark little corner that has the mens magazines and well, they are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

    Nothing out there can prepare you for parenthood other than having a really good support network (and an industrial sized pack of nappies and baby wipes...). I found my support network through a gaming website. Nicola already had her's through having been brought up here and a supportive family.

    You and Steve are going to be amazing parents because you are two amazing people. You'll make mistakes along the way but that's all part of the fun.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I discussed this post with Thomas last night, when he took the bin out with great fanfare ("holding the bag up and going 'look!'") and THEN left the bag by the front door cos it was raining, with the words, "ah well you can put it out in the morning, can't you?" Suffice it to say, I could not. Honestly, he usually does his share, but we both contribute to the idea that if he does something, he's being 'good': if I do it, I'm just doing it. It doesn't help that it was my house for so long, so my default is doing everything myself.

    ReplyDelete
  11. It's so tricky, isn't it? I think one of the hardest things about moving in together is figuring out the housework!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Aw, thanks Nick! The many grandparents have already stocked us up with baby wipes. :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. Great rant! I'm similar to you in that my tolerance for mess is quite low so I know I do more than my fair share of the housework, plus I'm very impatient. And its not that Adam can't or won't, its just that things often bug me before they bug him, and usually its easier just to do it than ask him - he'll do it at some point, but I want it done *right now*. And if I want it done, I figure that I might aswell just do it.

    As for parenting, I'd never really considered the fact that these stereotypes still exist in pregnancy literature. I'm sure there are indeed men out there who would fit that stereotype but on the whole, most men I know - fathers or not - muck in and get on with housework/baby changing/cooking/whatever needs done, and some *shock, horror* even enjoy it, and *more shock, horror* are better at it than their other half.

    Hope your back pain eases soon, its great that you've got such support from Steve (you've obviously 'trained' him well, haha!!)

    ReplyDelete
  14. The suggestion that Steve could be "trained" cracks me up.

    ReplyDelete

Please play nice.