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.
Just found this post which I began to draft some months ago having read something or other in the Times. No longer have the original article or any recollection of what I was on about, but the blog post looks interesting (if I do say so myself) so I guess I'll post it anyway, in its unfinished state....
The phrase 'daddy wars' seems to have first attained currency in the US in 2006 (see this article on ABC for example), where it was used to remind the world that it was not just mommys who had to struggle to combine their working and family lives - daddys were doing that too. The media had been talking about 'Mommy Wars', and the dads actively involved in childcare were saying - hey - we also have to struggle with stereotypes and work out how to survive in the workplace and combine this with our non-traditional caring role. Time called this 'the missing half of the work and family debate'. And similarly rebeldad complained that 'plenty of family reporting that tells half (or less) of the story'. That website aims in large part to redress that imbalance and to provide a resource for stay at home (rebel) dads.
And then, before Christmas Judith Warner wrote a piece in the New York Times which draws out some of the inevitable tensions arising from the changes in how we raise our children, and how we view our (gendered) roles. Her article highlights the difficulty we have in talking about these new roles or in critically analysing what is going on in less traditional families - in particular the notion of the reactionary stay at home dad. The comments arising from this post are particularly interesting and show a range of quite polarised views. So now the phrase 'Daddy Wars' begins to look like it might contain an element of conflicting perspectives as between genders rather than simply highlighting the fact that both types of parent face conflict between home and work lives. And for my part, like Judith Warner, I think that the stay-at-home choice of Charlie Le-Duff about whom she is writing is great, the tendency to moralise about other people's choices and to crow about his self-sacrifice as if it is somehow greater or more significant than the very same sacrifice women have been making for years irks just a little.
The Charlie Le-Duff article was picked up in the UK by Eleanor Mills in the Times. She also makes some insightful points about the double standards that operate, often making it tougher for dads to combine work and childcare responsibilities because they are not expected by colleagues to require the same flexibility of a working mum.
I picked up a little pocket card marked with the words 'dad info' today, whilst out at the baby weighing clinic (he put on almost half a pound if you're interested). It led to an interesting little sojourn around the web this afternoon (and a rather meandering blog post...):
Dadinfo is a really useful and well put together resource for dads - and mums - and its section on relationship breakdown and legal rights gives a refreshingly balanced and plain english explanation of the position for dads who are worried what will happen if their relationship breaks down and they need to go to court. It doesn't perpetuate the myth of judicial bias but simply acknowledges the obvious reality that cultural assumptions that we are all prone to rely upon about parenting sometimes play a part in judicial decision making. And of course those cultural assumptions about what it is to be a mum or a dad are being broken down every day. It promotes positive communication and attempts to resolve matters out of court - hurrah. I commend this website to you. I am going to add it to my blog roll now...
One of the authors of dadinfo is a chap called Gavin Evans (he must be alright 'cos he lectures for Birkbeck) who writes intelligently about the issue of gender and parenting roles on his blog. Posts and comments on that blog have led me to this book, which is now on my list of books to read just as soon as I have a mo (i.e. when I retire).
It's been nice to read these bits and pieces, and when I'm just about to go back to work and 'abandon' my little one to the one with the beard its particularly nice to hear about dads who have been involved in equal parenting ventures and made a success of it (not that I didn't know they were already out there) without being bombarded with father's rights style militancy. Although I don't have any trouble with abandoning traditional parenting roles and chopping and splicing 'mum' and 'dad' roles to suit, you'd be surprised how many odd looks we have had when people hear about our plans for childcare.
By way of example, last week whilst I was doing a half day at work, my other half was looking after the sprog in a coffee shop, and was told by a middle aged woman: 'Oh you're so good with him - my husband never did that with my kids', as if his ability to sit and hold a 2 month old baby without being supervised by me was something to be marvelled at. Whilst it was obviously intended as a compliment about the modern dad, on his behalf I'm a little insulted all the same. Of course he's good with him - he's his DAD. Its not a freak show, lady.
Anyway, the point is - you might almost believe from dad.info that being a hands on dad was normal....We need more of that positivity about fatherhood. Dads are gRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEAAAAT! (NOT an endorsement of tooth-rotting-Frosties which are not grRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEAAAAT for teeth) RANT ENDS.