Gender roles? Do what feels good

Nora posted a question asking me to talk about the relative roles to be fulfilled by mother and father, in the family dynamic. She says:

“I am wishing for an entry about the parenting issue in regards to gender, feminism and equal rights to care and parent your child. Being the swede that I am :) It is something that is debated wildly here in Sweden, should the father be home with the child just as much as the mother? Should he be there from the start? Or is the first time assigned to the mother alone? And so on…”

Here is my (current) take on it. I fully expect it to evolve:

I should start by saying that I am a difference feminist. By the time my generation got its hands on feminism we had to slap the prefix ‘post’ in front of it. Yes, that is right, I am of the post-feminist era. I don’t need to burn my bra – others did that for me. In a way, I am even of the post-post-feminist era. I don’t feel I have to do it all. I am a twenty first century woman and I have choice.

So, with that as a starting point, I should say that my feeling is that there are no ‘shoulds’. I don’t think the father should stay home or that he should stay the h*ll out of the way. I think it is all about finding what works for you, as a family. I have seen many different approaches work for different families. The only thing I think should happen is that you should work out what works for you, honestly and openly. If any arrangements are based on assumptions (that she ‘should’ stay home or that he ‘should’ help more) and those assumptions go unexpressed, that can lead to problems.

My other finding is that the balance you find is a dynamic one. You would do well to discuss it, reveal what is in your heart, what works for you and what doesn’t… and then keep discussing it, over time, whenever there are new developments, new feelings to be aired. Discover together what works by uncovering how you react to the different approaches you take. Hmm… I don’t mean to preach. In fact that is my whole point, that I don’t know what will work best for you.

How we are working it at the moment: I stay home. I quit my job because, living in America, I would have to go back far sooner than I feel ready to. Plus, in all honesty, I always fancied the idea of being home raising my own children. Okay, okay, since I got here I realised that my ‘idea of staying home’ ain’t much like the reality of it but still I haven’t changed my mind. I want to take care of Anya and can’t face the idea of handing her over to childcare. For one I want to breastfeed her – yes, the old fashioned way, straight from the breast. Secondly, who else is going to hold her and rock her as much as we do? We have what the experts term a ‘high need baby’. For the first three months she cried when we put her down on any non-human surface. Who else would bounce her like we do>? Who is going to play with her and kiss her belly each time they change her? Who is going to do a little baby massage for her, every day? No childcare can begin to do that. They have, at best a ratio of 1 adult to 3 babies. Anya gets 1:1 attention all day long. That is a luxury not even second children get from their parents (sorry guys) let alone kids in day care. Nope, not ready to let her go. So, somebody has to stay home with her and I want to. Yep, I WANT to.

So, from here on in, if we are to have any money, any income at all the balance of who does what is already going to be pretty skewed. And we do want an income (yes, please – thank you, God!). So, K still works.

The fact that he works carries other implications. For example, wherever possible I try and let him have a full night’s sleep. Don’t get me wrong. I know many women who lean heavily on their partners for help at night. I don’t blame them, at all… but I found, given some of our other parenting choices such as breastfeeding and co-sleeping and given that Anya pretty much only wakes up to feed (or to pass gas… and in which case she is still most rapidly appeased by breastfeeding which soothes her) that is easiest if I just turn over and feed her. I don’t even have to get out of bed (‘cos baby is already there and I can feed her lying down). Most nights I don’t even fully wake when it is time to feed her. If she needed to be burped or changed or rocked back to sleep that would be a different matter. And, when she occasionally does have a more challenging night, sure, I ask K to help out. And in the early days, too, he was more involved at night. But I have found my stride a little more and at the moment at least, I am pretty much on night duty. So it is a case of: ‘no boobs, no help’.

However, it really depends on the baby, your sleeping arrangements and whether you are breastfeeding or bottlefeeding at night. It also depends on your temperamens and priorities – is sleep the most important thing for you? Or if you chose where your partner can best help, would you rather he was energetic and enthused about making dinner for you, tomorrow? Again, do whatever works.

I know one couple where they took shifts: the father got up every time the baby needed comforting between midnight and four a.m and the mother took him any time he woke up between four and eight a.m. There are couples where the dad takes all the night calls (and feeds the baby either formula or pumped milk) so the exhausted mom can get a full night’s sleep. And couples in which the baby sleeps in a separate crib and the dad will go get the baby and bring him to the bed for breastfeeding. The mum just has to feed, but not get up. Some just take it in turns.

With us, we are finding we are growing into roles. For example, dad often takes care of the bedtime routine: changes Anya before bed and then rocks her to sleep, often while I am cooking. And then we take it in turns. Next night perhaps I will feed her in bed to help her to sleep, while K. cooks. We also take it in turns if she wakes up: sometimes I soothe her, sometimes K puts her back to sleep.

With regards to who stays home, as I say, the starting point is that I wanted to stay home. Plus, as in many families (though certainly not all) K. earns more than me. How much leave we had was also out of our hands, really. Living in the US meant that neither of us had ANY paid leave. Any time off we took was unpaid. Disgraceful, really, for a country that talks so much about family values… but anyway. On the plus side, K does work from home once a week, which is pretty nice. He is working those days, as he always reminds me, but it does mean I can have a shower, go to the loo, prepare lunch and leave Anya with him for a few minutes. Plus, because he works near by, he often comes home for lunch, which is nice for me socially (an adult to talk to) and practically as he can help me get ready to go out of the house in the afternoon, when I go to my mothers’ groups and the like.

Finally, ‘cos I have been home all day, on baby-watch, K generally hangs out with her for an hour or two each evening. He loves playing with her. A lot of the time he does Karaoke with her in his arms – he should enjoy it now, while she is too young to be embarrassed by that :p

On weekends, too, K will take Anya for a couple of hours in the morning, between feeds. That is my time. I can sleep in or go out. My time… might not sound like much, but to me it is sanity, me-time.

There are many models that work – not just one way of doing things. And, even for one couple, I very much think you should not find one approach and set it in stone. The best is to keep experimenting and experiencing what each way feels like. Keep checking-in with yourself: ‘does this feel good to me’? Keep it light. Keep talking. Keep giving. I find the more I give in our relationship, the more I receive. Not in a mean, calculating way. Just that I find if I do the washing up or clean up, for example (without it being ‘my turn’ necessarily), the more K is motivated (by guilt or gratitude, not sure) to catch up. But hey, I know I am lucky. Not all men would be sensitive to that. K is. Still the rule applies: the more you give, the more you can receive (if you are open).

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2 thoughts on “Gender roles? Do what feels good

    • Thank you. That is very sweet – glad to have you here. Do feel free to leave comments or make questions. The beauty of blogging is that it can be a two-way conversation.

      Cheers,
      Gauri

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