"Make sure you leave the house when they're a few months old. I waited three years to leave my kids alone with my husband, and now he refuses to babysit," one mom insisted. My initial response was confusion. I was planning to leave the house the first week. I had written my doctoral dissertation on equally shared parenting for frig's sake! Caught totally off guard, I responded, "That's not going to be a problem for me." Several of the women chuckled sweetly, shooting me the pitying "you'll see" glance I would receive time and time again.
What was this strange land I was entering? These were smart, accomplished moms — some working, some stay-at-home — all of whom swore that when kids came into the picture, roles changed overnight. Were the brilliant, creative, feminist women I'd known in college really now accepting such arrangements? My twin terror was quickly compounded by the fear of losing the egalitarian marriage I so valued.
Well, fourteen months into motherhood my marriage is as egalitarian as ever. However, the "our husbands suck and don't do anything" motif turned out to be rampant at the mommy meet-ups and play-dates that were supposed to help maintain my sanity during the first year with infant twins. Now don't get me wrong, my husband can be an ass. Then again, so can I! But the truth is — (hushed whisper) I like my husband. He is a fantastic husband. No one has the perfect marriage, but it was the gendered aspects of the husband-bashing which eluded me most — husbands not "helping" around the house, never "watching the kids," oblivious to routines and childcare tasks.
Despite my relief that my own marriage hadn't followed this path, my own parenting experience felt utterly erased during these conversations. I would feel like a total asshole if I sat there repeating, "My husband does do that," and adding obnoxiously, "My husband cleans more than I do." So instead I just passed, keeping my identity practicing equally shared parenting hidden. I was also a queer mom passing as straight at these gatherings, but amazingly, stating, "My husband taught me how to swaddle," or "Sometimes Seth is more comfortable with our kids than I am," felt more threatening than announcing I was queer.
When I really examined my fear, I realized it felt like I would be "coming out" as a bad mom. Had we somehow gotten the message that fairness and equality were okay for us to enjoy in our marriages but to be good mothers, we had to be the ones drastically rearranging our lives to make room for children? If my husband was parenting as well as me, must I not be parenting well at all?
I desperately want to be accepted by my peers. After all, this mothering thing is hard, and I am going to need them. Then again, am I really even there if I just hide out at playgroups, nod and pass, not only as straight — but as June Cleaver? And the truth is husband-bashing isn't the kind of support that I need anyway. What about adult stimulation? What about moms who can talk politics, who are activists? What about discussing how the hell we are going to give our kids the space to explore flexible gender identities and orientations toward love and sex while media and culture steer them onto narrow, limiting paths? What about the massive, profound transition that is becoming a mother? Let's talk about the guilt, the ecstasy, the terror, trying to find balance, trying to hold on to ourselves! Some moms I've met seem so burdened with the lion's share of childcare that they've had to lose the rest of themselves to manage it. Is this the culturally-accepted ideal of motherhood? No selves allowed?
I'm still trying to work out why my husband and I never walked through that time warp back to the 1950s that all those couples who "swore it wouldn't happen to them" walked through. I ask myself if these women complaining about their male partners' traditional responses to parenting were themselves willing to be flexible in their own gender roles. As long as we have the attitude that we can do it better, men probably won't step up, because what man enjoys feeling incompetent?
That mom who didn't leave the children with her husband for three years obviously didn't see him as a competent caretaker, but now seems bitter that he's not one. We have to believe men can care for children and manage homes, just as we believe we can run companies and nations, rather than expect them to "help" while we maintain control over the private domain. How would we react to that kind of attitude toward our work in the public sphere? Imagine men expecting to supervise and micromanage our works as CEOs?
So why are moms so hesitant to view their male partners as full, competent parents? Is it just that hard to picture? I don't think so. I think it's because deep down there is a part of us that believes if we demand equal parenting, if we demand holding onto ourselves — as our husbands do when children come into the picture — then we are not good mothers.
I can understand this fear. When I really sit and think about it, I have it, too. When I work, when I take time to write, when I keep up with friends, go out with other adults, and spend time fantasizing about things I'm passionate about, there is always this little nagging feeling that a "good mom" would have let go of these things.
I've held onto my egalitarian marriage and my sense of self, but I haven't managed to not beat myself up about it. So my husband has all the parenting skills and responsibility I do, but I still look at him and he seems unburdened, free of the guilt and self-doubt that plagues me. But no more: if he can be a full person and also believe he is a good parent, I can be out and proud as an egalitarian mother.