It’s a truth universally acknowledged that upon taking delivery of a newborn baby for whom you are responsible all pre-conceived ideas about parenthood shall be revealed as futile.
“It’s like suddenly being asked to re-sit your final school exams. In Russian,” is how Esther Walker put the experience of arriving at home with a newborn for the first time. It remains the most accurate analogy I’ve ever read.
In the days, weeks, months and years after bringing your own baby home you will invariably, and continually, be struck by how little you knew – and know – about rearing children. My eldest is ten, my youngest is four, and it still happens daily. I’m rarely not shocked by it.
Which is why a column penned by Vicky Campion, published in The Daily Telegraph over the weekend, didn’t surprise me. In it Campion outlines the myriad ways trying to combine work with parenting two small boys is the ‘mother of all battles’.
There is no underplaying the physical, logistical and emotional demands of parenting, particularly babies and toddlers, and I’m not interested in denying any parent that reality. The fantasy that staying at home with little children is exclusively blissful has had its run.
It’s some of the hardest labour you could ever undertake and, contrary to popular belief, the demands are not lessened by a woman’s biological composition.
Which is why I’m equally uninterested in denying that parenthood can – and ought to – be a shared endeavour.
In describing the difficulties of combining the care of her two toddlers with her return to work Campion specifically highlighted the difference between her reality and that of her partner, the former Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, when it comes to their children.
He sleeps past dawn while she gets up to meet their boys’ early demands. Later, while she’s navigating a toddler with a bleeding face, covered with peanut butter, he’s asking which is the nappy bin and which is the nappy bin liner.
It begs a pretty pertinent question when the subject is an elected representative.
If a man is unable to distinguish between a bin liner and a bin, is it not reasonable to question his capacity outside the home too? Or are we expected to believe that’s just a form of learned hopelessness confined to the domestic space in a bid to evade additional responsibility?
Neither option is particularly reassuring.
Painting men as domestic Neanderthals and incompetent parents in need of handholding and instruction at every turn is as desperately tired as it is wrong.
And far from just selling men short, it’s a disaster for women too. It leaves them – literally – holding the baby. From birth right through to adulthood.
Competency and proficiency at any task, in any field, is generally developed via undertaking the job at hand. By practising. Parenting is no different. Proficiency is directly linked to hours worked.
Pretending otherwise is frankly a mighty convenient escape route for any parent looking to avoid responsibility.
The reason it may seem that women are inherently “better” at parenting is because women still undertake the lion’s share of caring. They’re not good at it because they’re handed a secret instruction manual upon falling pregnant or delivering a child. (If only!) It’s because they’re still, by and large, undertaking the bulk of the labour.
Australia’s woefully inadequate Paid Parental Leave policy, the stubborn gender pay gap and a lack of affordable early childhood education and care, all conspire to ensure women continue to undertake the bulk of the unpaid labour we all depend on.
Men undertaking less of the caring work is not because they lack the capacity or aptitude for it.
It seems awfully reductive to even say that dads are not just capable of occasionally ‘baby-sitting’ their own children but it’s true. Men are capable of parenting in the fullest sense of the word.
In Campion’s column she laments the lack of female representation in parliament – an increasingly urgent problem as COVID continues to disadvantage women – and describes the constraints mothers face in juggling family responsibilities with the demands of parliament as a factor.
In a bid to create change she urges more men and women to consider the roles that their own mothers played in their lives. To recognise the work that mothers undertake and the obstacles they face in combining caring with paid work.
It’s a worthy ambition but if the lived reality at home is that one parent does everything, while the other is free to work unencumbered by expectations on the home front, what exactly is likely to be represented at the latter parent’s place of work?
If in our own homes, co-parents are totally left of the hook, there is no reasonable basis for assuming that workplaces will be any different. What we permit we promote.
If we permit the tired trope about men being hopeless at home, women will have no hope of finding workplaces that accommodate caring responsibilities as a legitimate reflection of the human condition rather than an inconvenient quirk associated with hiring women.
Equality starts at home. And if it doesn’t? It sure as hell won’t start anywhere else.