My husband and I didn’t take the decision to have a baby lightly. We had many enlightened discussions about how we would care for our child, believing that it was important for us to have equal baby responsibilities and equal time allotted for our respective careers. Everything was going to be divided 50/50.
What a load of crap that turned out to be.
My husband’s a good guy. He’s always willing to pitch in and help out. But I still feel like I’m the head parent in charge! I know I can’t help having the boobs and everything, but I’m tired of pointedly observing that our daughter’s diaper is full, clearing my throat, and finally just asking him to change her. I get annoyed at his presumption that he can check email or take a shower anytime he feels like it. If I do any of that stuff, I have to announce my intentions, basically ask his permission, and remind him to watch the baby.
Worst of all, our daughter seems to prefer me over my husband at all times and cries pitifully whenever I try to do anything without bringing her with me. Even if it’s just going onto the next room to get a tissue!
How do I fix this? How do I talk about it? I don’t want it to sound like I’m accusing my husband of being lazy or a bad parent—he’s not. And I’m not exactly sure how to explain my feminist ideals to my six-month-old daughter. Am I in the wrong? Do I just accept my womanly burden with good grace? I’m starting to feel like maybe parental parity is a pipe dream.
Aching to be Equal
Pretty high up on the list of things my parents did right is what I call my “gender education.” It was awesome. I was the second of three daughters, but you might not guess it looking at old photographs. I always had my hair cropped short, close to my head. I liked to dress in my dad’s old clothes. I had rippling muscles on my back and thighs from long summer nights playing cops and robbers and running bases with the neighborhood kids.
One year, my parents bought each of us a Big Wheel. My sisters’ were pale pink and mint, decorated with Cabbage Patch dolls. Mine was black and orange with a snarling green dragon head mounted on the handlebars and red streamers trailing behind it like flames. My parents never gave me the impression that anything I wanted was “just for boys.” I could have and do and be anything the boys could and no one ever told me anything different until I was old enough to tell them they were full of shit.
Except, of course, my son. My partner and I had the same long talks you guys did. We also agreed that we’d split everything 50/50. If I was doing most of the feedings, he’d do most of the diaper changes. We’d take turns getting up in the middle of the night. I would never be one of those mothers whose husbands merely babysat. We’d co-parent.
But we failed to realize one important thing during our marathon planning sessions: the baby was going to want a vote.
And vote he did, for me. Every morning, every afternoon, every 1am and 3am and 4:48am, he voted for Mom. Until, finally, it seemed ridiculous for my husband to spend an hour and a half frantically trying to bounce our son back to sleep when I could sedate him with my amazing breasts in under five minutes. Dividing the wake-ups 50/50 no longer seemed “fair.”
Then one day I realized that it was always me changing our son’s crib sheet, that sometimes my partner had to ask me where to find the hats, and that he never even seemed to think about the diaper bag.
Much like you, I felt “in charge” of the baby. I also asked permission to shower or leave a room, while it seemed like my husband never did. I felt deeply unsatisfied with the situation and, for the first time ever, I felt that my dissatisfaction was a direct result of my gender.
So what can you do about this? I don’t think there’s any convincing your baby that she needs to apply her demands more equally to the two of you. But I do think you can make your situation better. Here’s what worked for us:
- We stopped thinking of “fair” as a 50/50 split and started running our marriage like a socialist country. Our new motto: From each according to ability, to each according to his (or her!) need. Whoever could calm the baby, calmed the baby. Whoever needed sleep got to take a nap. When I adjusted my expectations for what “fair” needed to look like, everything got a lot less frustrating.
- I let my co-parent parent. He might feel fine letting our son play in a dirty diaper for a few minutes longer than I would, and that’s OK. His approach doesn’t have to be identical to mine to still be good and competent parenting.
- I asked myself what was really restricting me. Why did I feel like the rules about who could shower or leave a room were different for me and my husband? Who did I think was writing these rules? What would happen if I stopped following them? It sounds like your husband is onboard with trying to make things between you as equal as possible. I bet if you asked him about this he’d help you feel more empowered to make time and space for your own needs, too.
- I started interrogating our automatic behaviors. When we’re heading out to the playground, I ask my partner to pack the diaper bag instead of just doing it myself. If the baby needs a bath, I assign that to him and unload the dishwasher (usually his job) instead. Yes, it’s a little bit annoying that these tasks are on my list unless I purposefully take them off, but that’s no reason to give up completely. Whenever I use my words and ask my partner to take on a job, he always does. And we’re consciously working on trading responsibilities with greater frequency.
More often than not, the lopsidedness of our labors had more to do with our parenting styles than our genders. I’m a slightly fussier parent. I want that crib sheet changed. I want that baby bathed. And, after so many days and weeks and months of me jumping in to do it, I accidentally taught my husband not to.
I’ve learned that a parenting relationship that feels fair isn’t something that you “decide” to have before conceiving a child. It’s something you build slowly, over time. I know it feels like you’ve been doing this forever, but your daughter is only six months old. Her whole life is ahead of you and these first few feverishly hard months are an eye blink.
Keep at it. You guys are going to get there.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch