Why mothers must let go of domestic empires
We may bemoan the lack of domestic help from our partners, but we’re our own worst enemy
Stop! You don’t put it on like that. It’s too tight,” I hissed at my husband, bustling him out the way and changing our new-born son’s nappy in silent, self-pitying fury. Such moments became a hallmark of our lives in the first months of parenthood: my husband’s desire to actively care for our child being met with my criticism and rebuffs. We were normally a very happy and calm couple, so what was going on? Why had I become so unpleasant and petty — so very angry?
The exhausted fug of despair that characterised my early experience of motherhood was occasionally broken by intervals of clear thinking. At these times I was able to identify exactly what was happening. I loved my son but I felt anguish and disbelief about the loss of autonomy that motherhood had brought, the relentless drudgery of childcare and, above all, the chasm that had opened between the daily lives of my husband and me.
Having been an independent woman in a partnership of equals, I became my son’s main carer while my husband went back to his career. Like a throwback to a time I’d only ever read about, I’d been transformed into a housewife while he took on the burden of chief hunter-gatherer. Feeling stripped of any status outside the home, I resolved to build a powerbase within it. Nappy changing, clothes washing, weekend activity planning — all were now within my domain and I was determined that they would be done my way. While I resented being lumbered with domestic responsibility, I, perversely, rejected my husband’s attempts to take on more of it.
In speaking to other parents for my book, Shattered, about modern motherhood, I discovered that this reaction is very common. Jane, a teacher from Leeds, said of her transition to being a mother: “I remember thinking, ‘I’m powerless, I’m not earning much money, I’m not part of that whole world of work. So I will be in charge of my sphere and if my sphere is the house then so be it.’ ”
Yet, although women hoard the domestic power, we declare ourselves put-upon at the same time. Becky, from Newcastle, acknowledges that this approach can be discouraging and confusing: “I want to be the person that brings my son up but I don’t want to do everything myself.”
With the erosion of our old identity, we attempt to erect a new one: the selfless domestic drudge whose only fault is to allow ourselves to be taken for granted, thus permitting us to wallow in our own martyrdom. This attitude contributes to the semi-detachment of fathers from family life, setting patterns for years to come. Matt, a father-of-two from London, explained to me how alienating it can be: “It does add to a dynamic where [my wife] is shouting the odds about what needs to be done and is resentful about having to do more than her fair share and I’m pissed off with her for trying to run such a tight ship. I’d do [more childcare] if I had to but I tend to think that if I did I’d still be under orders from my wife, who’d be directing things from the office.”
Unhappy with the situation in which we find ourselves, women retreat, all too easily, into the comfort zone of contempt for male efforts, described by another mothers as “the rolling of the eyes, ‘men are all so hopeless, aren’t they?’ type of s***”. Yet, although we may feel a brief surge of superiority, casting fathers as useless exacerbates our problem. It excludes willing men and provides the recalcitrant with the perfect excuse to bow out.
This phenomenon of shutting out fathers even has a name. Social researchers dub it “maternal gatekeeping”. I know from my experience — and that of others — that it exists. But I also believe that it’s an understandable, if irrational, response to the entirely rational frustration that women feel as the equality that they had understood to be at the heart of their relationships falls away.
Maternal gatekeeping is a side-effect of the unequal division of domestic labour: this may worsen the problem but isn’t its primary cause. That is down to the myriad ways in which our society, for all the fashionable chat about sexual equality, persists in framing mothers as carers and fathers as breadwinners: from one of the most unequal parental leave systems in Europe, to antenatal care that ignores men, to the pay gap between the sexes.
If the Government really supports “shared parenting”, as it claims, these issues must be urgently addressed. Yet there is much that women and men can do themselves to tackle the imbalance in their lives. One way is for mothers to encourage rather than criticise the efforts of fathers. This is something that Fran, a full-time mother from Cheltenham, tries to bear in mind: “I am conscious of trying hard not to fall in the trap of going, ‘Do it like this, do it like that’, when [my partner] is here. Because I have watched other couples and I cringe. I think the woman is not helping herself by undermining somebody’s different way of doing things.”
Fathers too can change their behaviour, fighting back against the remote role imposed on them rather than falling in with it. As Bill, a father-of-one from London, puts it: “Mum has to let go and dad has got to do things properly and not just say, ‘What do you mean she hasn’t been fed? She’s had a crisp!’ It’s working together as a team, sharing it so that more people enjoy it.”
Like Fran, I, too, now try to bite my tongue when I see an apparent domestic infraction being committed by my husband. Perhaps he has dressed our son in an outfit I wouldn’t have chosen, served up a breakfast cereal that falls outside my own list of permitted brands or let him tackle a climbing frame that, to my mind, is perilously high. Despite my best intentions, I still find myself starting sentences with the self-important: “If I were you . . .” more often than I — or he — would like. And I have to remind myself that our son is emerging unscathed from these infringements, which proves that they are not infringements at all, and that, in fact, it’s good for him to experience different parenting styles.
There is now much evidence to show that it is of psychological and educational advantage to children to have involved fathers. It is, of course, of emotional benefit to fathers too. And it’s certainly good for mothers, who are freed up to pursue all their other commitments and interests.
As with so much to do with parenting, trying to work through this pattern of behaviour has taught me a great deal about myself, my husband and, most importantly, our child who I hope will look back at his upbringing and feel that his parents shared in this great adventure and that he’s glad that we did.
Shattered, Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality (Harvill Secker, £12.99) will be published on Thursday, April 7
‘Even the way I did the shopping was wrong’
I remember to this day how my ex used to complain about the way I unpacked the shopping. Why did I insist on taking it from the Sainsbury’s bag and putting it on the kitchen surfaces before storing it in the fridge, freezer or cupboards?
Something as banal as that became symbolic of the problems we were having as a couple. It’s a small step from being told that you don’t know how to unpack a supermarket bag to being told that you don’t know how to shop in a supermarket because you take too long. And it wasn’t only the shopping; it was the route I took to the supermarket. And eventually pretty much anything to do with domestic life.
So I found myself living something of a schizophrenic existence. At work I was considered an effective and capable manager, while at home I was considered a hopeless case. The consequence, inevitably, was that I spent more and more time at work where I felt appreciated, and less and less at home where I felt criticised.
I don’t blame her. I blame myself. I should have confronted her and talked it through. But, perhaps because I was not really aware of what was happening and because I wanted to avoid conflict, to my shame I bought into the dynamic. I played the role of the hopeless case and allowed her to infantilise me. It was bound to end in tears. In the end, we split up.
How to let fathers get a look in
Denise Knowles, a family counsellor for Relate, suggests several ways for women to encourage fathers to be involved in family life:
Your partner may assume that, because you are the mother, you are the childcare expert. Dispel this myth by soliciting his input about family issues. Refer to “our children” and ask “what should we do?” so that it is clear it’s a joint enterprise.
Allow your partner to spend time alone with the children: from bathing them as babies to taking them to dance and football classes as they grow older. This will enable him to be confident in his role as a dad and encourage your children to see you as equal parents.
Help your partner to build up a network of other dads who spend time with their kids together. With other families, you could arrange for the mothers and fathers to alternate in taking the children to the leisure centre, the local park or a museum.
Suggest that you take it in turns to accompany children to routine dental, GP and optician appointments.
Make time for your partner. Don’t focus on your children to the extent that you lose sight of each other.
The golden rule is communication — talking, listening and negotiating. This sets the tone for shared parenting.
Meanwhile, dads . . .
Don’t assume that your partner takes ultimate responsibility for your children.
Consider how you might make practical changes in your life so you can spend more time with your family.
At home, anticipate children’s requests and jump in: don’t wait to be directed by your partner.
And remember, being closely involved in your kids’ lives is good for you, your partner and most importantly children themselves.