At a wedding over the weekend my other half got chatting to the very pregnant lady on our table about parenthood. Overhearing him describe himself as the ‘primary carer’ to her provoked an unexpected reaction. It’s a term I throw about at work myself, and one which used in respect of my other half fairly describes the balance of care in our home set up, and yet…I didn’t like it. I use it myself at home, but out loud and in public? It barbed me to think that another mother might think of me as the ‘secondary carer’. I was suddently very conscious that the term implied some sort of hierarchy of parenting. I felt somehow diminished as a parent, guilty. Perhaps even potentially a little bit competitive.
This I suppose is the guilt of the working mother. But it’s also something more specific: we are all used to the scenario where both parents work to make ends meet and professional childcare is a necessity. That is one thing, but somehow when economics permit one parent to stay at home and it is the mother who goes to work, leaving the father holding the baby – it is harder for society to understand (in fact my other half works part time and we do use some childcare, but he is the one responsible for the balance of care in the working week and I flit in and out as my unpredictable job permits). I am, I now realise, torn between being incredibly proud of my other half for doing the ‘Mr Mom’ thing, proud of us as a couple for not feeling constrained by gender stereotyping, and subconsciously ashamed that people might think I have opted out of what I ‘ought’ to be doing, namely raising my child. Whatever I might think intellectually, as I inadvertently eavesdropped on the conversation between my other half and the pregnant woman I imagined her wondering what kind of mother would choose such an arrangement, and concluding that such a woman must be very selfish or somehow not a proper mum.
Of course it’s not so straightforward. We set up our particular home arrangements because of what work was available to each of us and what made economic sense. It would have been financially foolish, indeed impossible, to have worked the roles the other way around. And one of us had to be reliably able to drop and collect at childcare – which is pretty much impossible in my line of work. So it’s not like I couldn’t be bothered. And as many fathers will tell you being the breadwinner is not an opt out of responsibility – I feel the weight of financial responsibility very heavily as I know my own father did when in my shoes. And it’s not like I don’t do the mummy bit either – of course I do my share whenever and wherever I can. But why do I feel the need to justify? Shouldn’t it just be ok that this is the way we do it in our family? Evidently it’s not quite so simple.
I am clear in my own mind that I have nothing to feel guilty for, but it’s both impossible and undesirable to strip out the emotion from such issues – parenthood after all is about love and emotion not philosophy or intellectual argument. But I will be more aware in future when bandying about the term ‘primary carer’ that such terms can raise powerful emotions, and engage complex issues about how we still continue to understand and articulate our roles as mothers and as fathers and our value as parents through the prism of gender. We might use ‘primary carer’ as a gender neutral term to avoid the limitation of role inherent in traditional usage of the terms motherand father (is my other half the ‘mummy’ or just a daddy who does the majority of the care?) but those underlying social issues and prejudices are still there, even for those who have embraced non-traditional set-ups.