This past June I became a mother. I’m also an educated professional. I took the maximum amount of maternity leave available to me (about five months), and about three months in, I came to grips with the fact that I’d actually be returning to my job. Just to clarify, I actually wanted to return to my job—but I think that there’s a phase of the postpartum period where many new parents just believe they will always stay home with their babies (or live in the fantasy that they will), because parent-baby attachment is just that kind of intense love explosion. But I digress.
Once it was time to buckle down and actually figure out childcare, My (male) partner and I decided, for many many reasons, that he would leave his job to stay home with our baby son, while I returned to work full time. While financially it’s not super-comfortable, we are privileged that this is an option for us, even if it’s temporary. The decision feels to me like exactly what I want in a family—baby gets to be cared for by a beloved parent, and parents both understand the intensity and joy of being full-time with baby, as well as the intensity and joy of balancing a working life and family life (my partner worked full-time during my maternity leave). It also felt like an incredible way to counteract crappy gender dynamics, by letting our son be nurtured and comforted by my partner as his primary caregiver.
The problem arose when I began to share this decision with my community—instead of rejoicing in news that I was clearly excited about, people asked “How does your *husband* feel about that???” They also assumed that we were forced to this conclusion by economic circumstances (we were not), because why else would a MAN choose to be a nurturing parent FULL TIME??? In any case, this common response to our huge and celebratory life decision is beginning to wear on me—I find myself telling coworkers that my partner is doing consulting from home (which is true, but the consulting is very very very part time), as if THAT is the reason he left his full time job. I’m too weary to assert that this is exciting and wonderful, only to be met with confusion and judgement.
How do I maintain my confidence and enthusiasm over our full-time dad arrangement, in the face of so much gender and parenting BS???
Mom with a Radical Househusband
Dear Mom with Radical HH,
First off, congratulations to you and your partner on becoming parents. Having a kid is like the biggest event in your life that just keeps going. And it’s also a learning experience: there is so much you don’t know that you don’t know—and you know that more every day. It’s hard, it’s humbling, and it’s beautiful.
One paragraph in, and I’m already dropping cliches onto your situation. As a mom myself, I’m part of the problem. Admittedly. I can’t help it. I am part of this demographic that includes mommy bloggers from all points on the spectrum, parent forums which range from helpful to nightmarish, and thanks to Michelle Tea (also a new mama!), a feminist/inclusive look at parenting (check out MUTHA Magazine—it’s fantastic). The point is, this is one saturated market, with millions of voices contributing to the conversation. Loudly.
I realized this, first, when I was pregnant. When I began to show, strangers would ask me how far along I was, sometimes touch my belly (!), and slightly recoil when I told them my due date. “Oh! Really? But… you’re so small!”
Now, I am not a “small” girl by any means. But my pregnant belly was, by others’ standards. My pregnancy was also a little complicated, and as a result, I was monitored multiple times per week at the hospital. My baby was growing perfectly, everything was fine, and I was grateful for the continuing good news. But every time I heard an “Are you sure?” “My goodness, what a little belly!” “My daughter was twice the size at seven months!” I’d feel a lump in my throat. Was I really not quite right? Could there be a problem? Why wasn’t I meeting people’s expectations?
The bottom line is that I had countless medical confirmations that all was well—I was steadily gaining weight as was the baby growing inside me, I was healthy and active—but I began to internalize the comments and reactions of others to the point where I began to doubt. And then my confidence sank. And then I got worried and stressed that maybe I had no idea what I was doing. Suddenly, all of my cautious behavior, rational thinking, and intuition went right out the window.
In thinking about your question, and about the experience of so many mothers (and I say mothers because for some reason, these comments and criticisms seem to be most often directed to women by other women, at least in my and my friends’ experiences) I think that one of our undertakings, one of our challenges, is to know how to listen, really listen, to others and then to develop a firm resolve to follow our own instincts, and respond in kind. This is extremely difficult because there is a tendency to apologize and to defend. And when we take that position, that’s what gets us down! It’s a detour from a hard-won path, it’s a place in the hot seat, it’s suddenly having to explain why we’re the right person for the job, why we should be taken seriously, why emotional thinking is an intelligent gesture, etc. Once again, we’re explaining ourselves, looking for affirmation or confirmation of our actions. It’s so exhausting to live in a world where so much of women’s lives must be repeatedly protected and defended. Add that to negotiating life with a new baby and a changing partnership… holy eff. Hugs and love and solidarity to you, lady.
Please, please, do not explain away your decision by assuring your co-workers that your husband is doing *very important* consulting work from home. Even if that is true, it’s, as you said, not the reason you made the choice you did. In questioning your husband’s feelings, these coworkers are being insensitive and somehow missing the fact that your relationship is a partnership and this decision was a joint venture. It’s unfortunate that this is their knee-jerk reaction, but don’t succumb to the pressure to have your own knee-jerk response in defense—it just validates this cycle.
Perhaps try out some reciprocity: if someone is offering an opinion or makes a veiled critique of your situation, why not ask them to explain instead? Respond to an “Oh, really?” with “Yeah, it works out great for us—what did you do?” or “What do you think you would do if you had kids?” Having an actual conversation often makes it difficult for judgment or confusion to persist.
Just like commenters seemingly do not realize the insensitivity of their actions, nor do they have knowledge of the intimate circumstances of the people they are commenting on, we too do not know the circumstances of these offenders. The truest piece of advice I’ve ever given is one I’ve given many times: those who criticize you are often revealing more about themselves than they are about you. People constantly project their own disappointment or expectations onto others. And we are also often quick to criticize things outside our own experiences. Perhaps those in your community didn’t have the option of a husband who would stay home—either for economic reasons or emotional reasons. In your letter, you yourself make the realization that even if you aren’t super financially well off, you did still have the privilege of making this choice. Or perhaps some in your community have relationships that are more heteronormative when it comes to parenting and otherwise. So there is the distinct possibility that those eyebrow raises, those “huh, why?” questions, and most especially the “what does your HUSBAND think about that?” question is coming from a place of 1) My husband or partner would never consider that arrangement or 2) There must be a purely economical reason for this arrangement because that’s the only situation where I can imagine this would happen in my house… and let’s not discount the possible 3) I wish I could/had been able to rely on my partner and have some more independence after having a child.
I know I might be getting a rep here as the Empathy Advocate. Guilty as charged: this perspective helps me move through the world with more happiness. It’s a practice, and I strive for it. But let me just say this: it is not your job to be a therapist and deconstruct a person’s possible worldview every time someone says something that hurts your feelings or second-guesses your decisions. If these people are strangers, acquaintances, passers-by in the hallway at work, then honestly, I’d just give a smile and say, “he’s thrilled, of course!” and move on. Not their business! You didn’t ask for their input. But if these people “in the community” are friends, people you talk with about life regularly, etc., perhaps realize that their relationship situations or life decisions don’t offer the same choices yours have. Be patient but firm. Listen and then tell the truth—”we thought out a lot of different scenarios and decided this one was the best for our family.”
A note on that last statement. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that what makes your choice radical, in my opinion, is not that your husband stays home and takes on primary childcare. What makes your decision feminist to me is the fact that your needs were at least equally considered with your husband’s, and the two of you made the choice that was best for your growing, evolving partnership. I say this because there are plenty of radical feminist moms who are primary caregivers. And obviously there are same-sex parents who have the same process of figuring out what works best/who will make more money/how will childcare be divided. The issue here is choice, agency, and making decisions without defaulting to assumed, hegemonic/historical roles or identities. These choices involve considering one another’s feelings, situations, and the potential for your child’s increased happiness and comfort. You’ve done all these things already, Mama. Enjoy the decisions you’ve made and know that by making them thoughtfully, (and standing by them!) you are setting a great example for your child.