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“Is dad babysitting?”: The gender parenting gap is the biggest enemy of equality

By March 14, 2020March 5th, 2022No Comments

Working mums and stay-at-home dads — post-kids even the most progressive couples can fall into prehistoric gender roles. Sophie White talks to three couples navigating the baby years in different ways…

A few years ago, I was meeting a group of women for dinner to celebrate Nollaig na mBan in a clattering restaurant overlooking the Liffey. We’d arrived in dribs and drabs, ordering drinks and debating shared starters. The waiter arrived and I was about to ask him for a few more minutes as we were still short one of our number when my pal cut in.


“I know what she’s having. She checked the menu online and texted me earlier.”

We went around the table and settled back into our conversations. I leaned over to my pal.

“Is she okay?”

“Ah yeah, she just needed to do bedtime before heading in. You know the way… he doesn’t do bedtime.”

He doesn’t do bedtime.

“Like at all?” I pressed.

She shrugged. “According to her, he wouldn’t know where to begin.”

Their kids were eight, six and nearly three. In eight years and three kids, he’d never attempted a bedtime.

Lest you think I’d stumbled into a time machine, this was 2014. Our friend and her husband both had demanding careers and were on an equal standing in terms of what each brought to the family with regard to time, care and financial support. Though this revelation certainly challenged that.

I was fairly new to the parenting game myself at the time but I had already noticed with creeping unease that aspects of our relationship were being eroded by the new status quo of co-parenting. While my husband was hands-on — a phrase only ever used to describe fathers it seems, women don’t really have the option of being hands-off and hence our hands-onness is never praised or commented on — he had lapses when it came to parenting, lapses I was required to fill.

Awareness of this ambient additional labour dawned gradually. We had a tiny baby requiring the usual sterilising rigmarole. We had a tub of Milton that required changing every 24 hours. When the baby was six months old, I learned that my husband had never once changed the Milton. In six months, it had never crossed his mind to investigate what the deal with the Milton was. Similarly I asked him recently how many times he’d cut the kids’ fingernails since they were born. “I’d say seven times,” he answered seriously without a hint of sheepishness. Our oldest is six-years-old.

Admittedly, he does other things like managing the bills and anything car-related and I feel nitpicky sometimes when asking him (repeatedly) to remember to put away the surface spray in an out-of-reach cupboard. Then I remember I’m only asking that he put it away to keep any of our kids from chugging it down with… ya know… fatal consequences.

I realise what really gets to me is I’ve allowed a situation to evolve where I must do the thinking for both of us. I can’t trust that he’ll just do the thing so even when it’s not my thing to do, I must check that he’s done it. Meaning, I may as well just do it myself in the first place.

This unseen labour has been well-catalogued in recent years. In 2017, the Guardian published a comic by French cartoonist, Emma, called You Should’ve Asked outlining this ‘mental load’ that women often carry in their relationships and stirring a hornet’s nest of opinions. The ‘mental load’ spoke to women and, perhaps understandably, riled many men. It is after all a fairly damning sweeping brush to tar men with but then it is a dynamic women recognised playing out in their own homes, at least on an anecdotal level.

“It’s the maternity leave I blame,” says Rachel* who lives with her partner, Andrew*. “It sets up this status quo at the beginning where the mother initially assumes, not only most of the baby-care but, as she’s at home, most of the housework, and then admin/research/appointment-making. I was lucky in that I had my salary covered on maternity leave but I imagine this sense of being unequal is exacerbated for those that don’t.”

In her 2019 book All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, Darcy Lockman analyses the stalling of equality in co-parenting. In the New York Times, she wrote:

“Sociologists attribute the discrepancy between mothers’ expectations and reality to ‘a largely successful male resistance.’ This resistance is not being led by socially conservative men, whose like-minded wives often explicitly agree to take the lead in the home. It is happening, instead, with relatively progressive couples, and it takes many women — who thought their partners had made a prenatal commitment to equal parenting — by surprise.”

Rachel wonders if the problem is women taking on more of the burden and therefore enabling men to take a backseat.

“Men generally resist so quietly and subtly it’s almost intangible. Andrew will never argue about doing a job; he will say ‘of course’ and then, simply forget about it! I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle here. Andrew tries but he is never going to have the same standards as me. I’m working on trying to value what he does bring to the table and making sure I look after myself as much as I can – taking time out, treating myself, getting shopping delivered and whatever other shortcuts I can do to make life even a little bit easier.”

Rachel’s theory of women being inclined to take on the burden chimes with one of Lockman’s explanations which is rooted in workplace dynamics:

“Studies show that male employees sit back while their female co-workers perform the tasks that don’t lead to promotion,” she says. “A series of lab studies… found that in coed groups, women are 50% more likely than men to volunteer to take on work that no one else wants to do. But in all-male groups, the men volunteer just as readily.”

So are women their own worst enemy? Many of the women I spoke with for this piece did ponder whether the root cause of their issues wasn’t their own high standards. I even ventured down this path of self-blame until I remembered that one of my main points of supposed ‘nitpickery’ was the bleach spray storage – motivated not by my unreasonably high standards but merely a wish to have my children… not die.

Many studies suggest that women’s integral role at the early stages of a child’s life sets the dynamic. The mother is so essential in the early days — in many cases literally providing the food source — that the children continue to seek her out primarily even after the father is just as capable of making toast as she is.

“The kids flock to me like bees to honey,” Rachel laments. “Even when we’re both in the house, Andrew can sit and relax, or do whatever jobs he might occasionally do, in peace. I don’t get to cook in peace or even do housework in peace, never mind relax,” she laughs grimly.

It’s an imbalance that is also played out in our culture’s narrative. Who recognises the nagging wife trope? Or worse the “useless bumbling dad”? It’s a lazy characterisation of fathers seen everywhere from Daddy Pig in Peppa to sitcoms to ads and it essentially hands dads a “hapless dad” script to read from. It is, in fact, such a prevalent stereotype that UK advertising standards have, in recent years, pledged to eradicate damaging gender stereotypes recognising that the media we consume is enabling these narratives to continue. The language a culture uses is also important in shifting attitudes. How often has a woman out and about been asked is ‘dad babysitting?’”

In their 2018 book, Dads Don’t Babysit, two fathers, James Millar and David Freed acknowledged this societal attitude to fatherhood and argued that the parental inequality is the final piece of the feminist puzzle.

“The word ‘babysitting’ means temporarily looking after someone else’s children. No-one would tell a mum she’s babysitting her own kid,” says Freed. “When someone tells me I’m babysitting my own kid, they’re unwittingly buying into the idea that I’m doing it as a favour to the child’s mum. I’m actually just looking after my own kid.”

The fact that women and men are both feeling this pervasive and, frankly, annoying attitude is heartening as at least recognising it is a step towards changing it and to have men like Freer and Millar leading the charge will be massively impactful. However, the wider culture is still playing catch up as Karen* and Ed* found when they deviated from the traditional male and female roles.

“All along we both worked full time,” says Karen. “When my maternity leave came to an end on our last child, my husband out of the blue suggested that he apply for a year’s parental leave and I’d go back to work. To be honest, the thoughts of not having to organise childcare for three kids while I went back to work made it an easy decision for me,” Karen laughs.

It made sense financially as Karen was the slightly higher earner. Both work in corporate environments and Ed was able to take three paternity leaves consecutively.

“Thinking back on his childhood, he realised he didn’t see a lot of his dad, it was all his mum. His dad was gone a lot for work.”

Despite the progressive set up however, Karen noticed the family admin and household management still fell to her.

“I feel a lot falls to me 100% of the time regardless of who’s where… Even tonight, I put the two bigger ones into the shower and I thought, ‘if I wasn’t here would he ever think of washing them!’. Making sure they have their homework, changing the sheets, it all falls to me and maybe I’ve made it that way… I continued to do all that stuff when I worked and he was at home. Nothing changed in terms of the running the household. And he was brilliant with them, bringing them places, but I was still organising everything.”

As many couples find in these inequitable situations, resentments can fester.

“I swore to myself that I wouldn’t come home in the evenings and make a face at the state of the place. But I’d come in and I couldn’t hide it! Now, I will say that when I was at home it was no different! You forget so quickly how hard it is minding three kids on your own all day. When you’re at work and having your coffee and nice salads for lunch you forget the chaos that’s going on at home!”

“I didn’t have any jealousy. I was happy for him to have that time with them but I couldn’t get over the reaction when we told friends and family about our arrangement. I sensed sympathy from some friends about the set up. And my husband felt people were confused by it, a bit uncomfortable. Lots of intrigue about what was the catalyst and not many saying: ‘oh, great idea’ or anything. My father-in-law was quite outspoken about it. He didn’t get it, saying to Ed ‘you should be out there earning!’”

It seems no wonder these gendered roles take such a hold. Even in same sex couples, the discrepancy can exist.

Before Ranae and Audrey had children distribution of household was quite equal:

“We both like to cook and clean. We were both working. We always shared the housework. Then post-kids everything changed,” says Ranae. “Because I’m the primary caregiver for the kids and I’m not working in a nine to five, I have the traditionally female role and Audrey has the traditionally male role. And I – but the other side of things, the household management has changed a lot. I carry the heavier burden and she would agree with me. I mind the kids and I keep the household rolling and I’m also trying to keep myself as a person. When you are at home and you’re the primary caregiver, it never stops, you never check out, you don’t get paid. It’s just an entirely different scenario.”

“I do think there is an element of men being wired differently sometimes,” says Ranae regarding the point that men don’t seem to see needs arising around the house — such as the need to not give kids bleach I rage internally. “But sometimes that is purely a person who is not around the kids all day, every day and not seeing what needs to get done. And that’s not a gender thing, that’s who is with the kids all day.”

The fact that even same-sex couples experience inequality in this area suggests that there is wisdom in Rachel’s theory that the root cause perhaps lies in the division, or lack there of, of parental leave. In previous years, with parental leave being pretty much only maternity leave, the role of mother as primary caregiver was established and rarely deviated from. This is why the concept of shared parental leave is possibly the most pertinent solution.

In the UK, parents can opt to share 37 weeks of paid parental leave and a further 13 weeks unpaid mimicking policies that have been hugely successful in Nordic countries. Thus far uptake has been lacklustre, most studies suggest people are pro equal parenting at least in theory, however less than 4% of new dads take any shared parental leave and some surveys suggest as many as a third of new fathers don’t even use their two weeks of paternity leave.

This was addressed in the Dáil as part of the debate of the proposed shared maternity leave and benefit bill 2018. Fianna Fáil’s Fiona O’Loughlin stated:

“Studies… have demonstrated that fathers who play an active role in their children’s lives in the early stages of life are more likely to share in child rearing duties later in life. This, in turn, reduces the imbalance between men and women in terms of responsibility for domestic duties and supports women’s participation in the workforce.”

“Furthermore, we believe this bill will go a long way towards changing the status quo, removing the assumption that women will take on the bulk of domestic work, a belief which is harmful both in terms of how employers see female employees and which also places an unfair burden on women,” she said.
The shared maternity leave proposal was ultimately rejected and instead the amount of leave that parents could take was increased from 18 weeks to 26 weeks but, except in particular circumstances, parents can’t opt to divide the leave as they see fit. The extended leave is a relatively new development so perhaps time will tell if men do indeed lean into the opportunity to share the burden of the mental load and family admin though MenCare, a group that promotes equal involvement in caregiving, offered depressing stats indicating that at the current rate of change, it will be 75 more years before men assume half of the unpaid mental load of family life.

Main image by pexels

*names have been changed


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