Meet Neela Janakiramanan. She is a reconstructive plastic surgeon married to a ‘unicorn husband’ — he does more than his fair share of the unpaid work so she can pursue her career.
Other people, it seems, can’t cope. Neela shares a day-in-her-life below.
Monday 9 am
I wish I could claim credit for the clean and tidy children, but their father did all that.
He also made their lunches, and signed the forms that needed to be returned today. Including the one which required a parent to watch Child 2 perform in French class. Yes, he also watched that.
I just took them to school, a drop-off that only happened because I swapped my morning-off sleep for a morning-off coffee with a fellow school mum, a friendship that was initially developed and nurtured by … my husband.
In 2009, we had our first child, and in an extended delusion of ‘the baby will just fit right in to our lives’, neither of us took much leave from our jobs. I took the six weeks I was allowed and he took a couple days. Me, because I had no choice in the male dominated profession of surgery before the 2010 Equal Opportunity Act in Victoria strengthened provisions for women like me; my husband because it didn’t occur to either of us that he should or would take more time off.
My mother came in to help for the first six months. The plan of leaving her alone with a newborn didn’t go quite as expected, and as I was still in that male-dominated profession with no recourse, my husband underwent a crash course in parenting, and working while parenting.
We shared the night feeds. At the time, I was working 70 hours a week and studying f or an exam while he was juggling part-time work while doing a PhD full time. His PhD crawled along. I recall being told I “didn’t smile enough’”during a formal assessment. If I’d had the energy to be angry, I would have been, but I was still trying to pretend that I didn’t have a baby.
Monday 9:30 am
I receive a text message from the GP practice. Child 3 has an appointment for his immunisations tomorrow and can I please reply Y or N to confirm or decline the appointment. I have never taken Child 3 to the GP. I once took Child 1 to the GP.
My husband has taken the kids to every appointment, every immunisation, every health check. I’ve always been at work. Still, we cannot get the GP practice to change who is recorded as the primary parent, and, therefore, who these text messages go to.
I regularly have to call my husband in between performing operations to make sure he can still go, so that I can then reply Y or N to the text message.
My husband is often asked how he can bear to be a “stay at home parent”. Apart from the sexism inherent in this question, it is amusing because he is not actually a stay at home parent. He has always worked and often also studied in some capacity.
In a world still getting to grips with the idea that men can care for children, he is an even bigger anomaly –a father who is not simply “involved”, nor a stay at home parent, nor a single parent, nor a parent in a same-sex relationship.
In a world where men are assumed to either assist women, or take on primary caregiving only when there is no woman able to take charge of the role, there is simply no category for him. The implication, of course, is that those who do not work outside the home have no importance.
We occasionally sympathise and/or judge women who simply don’t have the structural resources (or inherent interest) in undertaking the Herculean task of juggling work and family; we sympathise and /or judge those women who struggle through. But we rarely consider it even a possibility that a man might step into that role, unless he has it forced upon him by a woman who is no longer involved.
Monday 2 pm
“Are those your children in that photo dearie? Who’s taking care of them?” Another of the usual question at the end of many patient consultations, or put to me by my male colleagues.
I am polite to my patients. Often, they are older and the notion that a man can change a nappy is as foreign to them as the idea that my husband might take time off from work to care for our first born was to us.
My male colleagues, however, should know better. “Oh shit, I left them in the car” tends to both amuse me, and provide a reason for a hasty exit from an inevitably misogynistic conversation.
My husband and I underwent a crash course in negotiation when our first son was born. But some of those lessons occurred simply because I wasn’t there.
We didn’t have a lovely little introduction to family life where mum takes the first year off to breastfeed and bond and do ALL the housework while battling mastitis and no sleep and thus prove that she can in fact do it all without her husband’s help — and that she can continue to do it all once she returns to work.
After I took a year off to have our second baby, he continued to do his share of housework, and then picked up all the pieces again when I resumed working full time.
He is the unicorn husband. But it hasn’t been easy. The greengrocer thinks he is a drug dealer because he is “around a fair bit” — apparently the only men who get to do that are drug dealers.
Any number of people have wondered if he is gay and our mixed-race kids were born through foreign surrogacy. People have asked if he has his children for the weekend, or if I am even alive.
He has had to learn to cook. I have had to learn to let go of controlling how the family runs. We have both destroyed any number of ‘delicates’ in the washing machine. We make major decisions together. We now both work part time because we have the privilege to do so. But it has been a lonely process.
Dinner with a senior colleague. “When is your husband going to get a job”. He asks this question every time I see him. “I mean, has he ever worked? Has he ever contributed?”
“Well, he has worked for the whole time you have known him, and me. Or studied,” I reply. “ But what do you mean by ‘contribute’? Even if he wasn’t doing research and writing papers, is raising children not a contribution?”
“No, I mean contribute financially,” he says. I wonder if he asks this of his male colleagues who have a spouse who is currently caring for a baby under the age of 1 while studying.
This senior colleague is one of the kindest men I know and a genuine female ally. His question comes from a place of concern rather than judgment. When we read that men who can’t do something masculine face a masculinity crisis, then that makes people worry about men in non-traditional roles. In a way we don’t, but probably should, worry about the women who fulfil these roles to no fanfare every. single. day.
Feminism is about more than enabling women to “do it all”. As Prof. Gillian Triggs, the former Human Rights Commissioner, has recently pointed out, Australia is going backwards on many measures of gender equality, except education. We have the most educated women in the world, who are becoming less and less equal.
Because education doesn’t make it easier to get up in the night to a squalling baby. And education sure as hell doesn’t make 13 loads of laundry go faster. And education doesn’t make the thought labour of running a household easier. The active participation of men can achieve all those things.
And yet, as a society, we make it as hard as we can for men to fulfil these roles. We shame them for not being masculine enough because of strange archaic notions of what masculinity even means. We throw practical barriers in their way.
And while we have been fighting the discrimination and harassment and bullying and assault that stand in the way of women achieving parity in ‘masculine’ roles, we haven’t fought the other half of the battle, which affects men and putsw them into boxes too.
Three missed calls from the GP to let me know the nurse is running late, while my husband sits in their waiting room with our baby.