The other morning I was working from a cafe close to my home. The tables at this café are arranged in such a fashion that in twenty minutes I came to learn a lot about the life of the family sitting next to me.
The mother was dressed casually with a small baby, not more than a month or so old, strapped to her chest and a chatty toddler sitting opposite her. I could relate to the scene well because this time last year I was her, on maternity leave with a tiny baby and a 2 year old. Her toddler was funny, asking lots of questions and making just as many requests. ‘Can I please have a drink of water?’, ‘Can I use your spoon?’, ‘But I don’t want that spoon’, ‘Uh-oh I spilled my water!’ Each time the mum attempted to raise her flat white to her mouth she was interrupted. All of it was – and is – very familiar: just the ordinary pace of daily life with little people.
About ten minutes later her husband, the kids’ father, arrived wearing a suit. I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping but the proximity of our tables meant I was privy to their conversation. At some point the mother explained she had a request to make for Saturday. The way she prefaced it gave me the impression her request was a big deal. It turned out she wanted to attend a yoga class at 8am on Saturday around the corner from their house: “I will leave you instructions, the kids will be fed and dressed, the baby will be asleep, I’ll leave at 7.55am and will be back just after 9am.”
His first question was where would the toddler be. The mother explained their toddler would be home with him. She re-iterated that the baby would be sleeping and that if he followed her instructions everything would be fine. He didn’t seem enthralled with the idea but she explained it was something she really needed to do.
The exchange surprised me. To me the idea that a father would need to be lobbied to look after his own children for a couple of hours on the weekend is radical. When Peter Hitchens claimed with authority on Q&A the other night that everyone knows mothers are better than fathers at looking after small children I didn’t disagree with him purely on principle. I disagreed with him because it’s not true.
I disagree that men or women make superior parents: the quality of any parent depends on the individual. Mostly though it depends on that individual’s willingness to do it. Being ‘good’ at looking after children requires actually looking after children.
If a father never rocks a baby or changes a nappy or negotiates with a toddler or attempts to get them dressed, chances are that when he is first required to do one of those things he won’t be much good at it. In the same way that until I had a baby I wasn’t any good at swaddling or putting clothes on a tiny bundle of tightly curled baby. But with practice I learned and so did my husband.
There are absolutely institutional barriers to gender equality; normalising caring responsibilities and flexibility that enables those to be met in the workplace is a critical one. But equality in the workplace requires the same attitudinal shift in the home too.
The exchange I overheard reminded me that the domestic component is not as simple as I sometimes like to hope. Every household has to run the way it has to run. That might mean the mother works full-time while the dad stays home or vice versa. It might mean both parents work full-time or one works full-time whilst one works part-time. There are a myriad of options but whichever option a household chooses, it shouldn’t entitle either parent to entirely absolve themself of any responsibility for caring for their children.
When two people choose to have children it is a joint endeavour. Which is why I hope the mother I sat next to goes to yoga on Saturday and that afterwards she stops for a solo coffee somewhere, reads a paper or stares into space, and then dawdles home slowly. Because the longer her husband is alone with their kids the better he will get at looking after them. And that’s a win for everyone: mum, dad and the kids.