It was a mom’s night out, and I was late. My daughter, unsurprisingly, did not want to go to sleep, and it seemed that every time I approached the door, she would start wailing. My husband was “babysitting,” but putting the Nugget down wasn’t in his repertoire. Neither was giving her baths, and although he was a pro at using our blender to make protein shakes and pesto, he didn’t know where to begin when it came to making baby purees. So I’d completed a full night’s work by the time I took the last empty seat at a long table full of women who, despite their exhaustion, sipped vibrantly-colored cocktails and radiated fierce energy. The mom next to me was talking about a friend who was newly pregnant, and had come to her for advice. “I told her, be prepared to hate your husband after baby comes. She thought I was kidding, but I told her. You’re going to hate him. Really.”
The nods of assent were unanimous, and the stories poured forth. Husbands who pretend to sleep when the baby woke up crying at night. Husbands who are able to put on headphones and drown out the agonizing cries of a tantrum, then carry on eating dinner as if everything were OK. Husbands who don’t understand how someone could be too tired for sex for six consecutive months. Husbands who don’t consider caring for an infant to be real work, who come home and bitch about the stress of the real world and when you yawn, ask you why you didn’t nap when the baby napped.
I say husband, not partner, because I imagine that in same-sex unions, there is a greater sense of balance, and a more equal well, partnership. Maybe I’m idealizing, but I imagine that gender stereotypes don’t have such a vicious hold on the relationship dynamic. What I do know is that even in 2018, in a fairly progressive community in Brooklyn, the problem of gender expectations still prevails among parents.
All the women sitting at our cocktail-addled table were well beyond the fourth trimester. Things hadn’t changed.
Is it biological? While that’s certainly not the whole picture, it would be dishonest to ignore the fact that for the first few months, dads often feel useless. The boob is everything. The smell of mom, the sound of her voice, is the familiar, the singular comfort in a world of unknowns. But I didn’t feel very wanted either, those first few months. My daughter didn’t care who was giving her the milk, it just so happened to be me. I felt used, and my husband felt useless; I resented his 10 hours of freedom every day and he envied the hours I spent with our child. There was no resolution, and we couldn’t even have sex to reset and reconnect.
But all the women sitting at our cocktail-addled table were well beyond the fourth trimester. Things hadn’t changed, or hadn’t changed much. “He says he can’t think straight at work when his sleep is interrupted,” one mom shot. “Well I haven’t thought straight for eight effing months. When is my break?”
Granted, I have always felt a much stronger pull toward my child when she cries than my husband does, but this sounds more like gender expectations than biology to me. I was rather surprised at how easily my generally unconventional self fell into a very conventional gender role when my daughter was born. I took a ton of time off work, my husband seemed to be working more than ever, and I was doing oh, I’d say 90 percent of the childcare. Even after I went back to part-time work, I continued doing, oh, I’d say, 90 percent of the childcare. I was the one who put all my projects on hold. I was the one who devoted hours to reading about sleep training and disciplining and how to make baby food using spices that will expand my child’s palate. Don’t get me wrong — I wanted to do all that. I’m still driven to do everything for my daughter. I guess what surprised me is that my husband could maintain an existence that was so seemingly uninterrupted by her birth.
Have you ever heard of a 'working father'? No.
My best friend’s mother came to visit the baby when she was two months old, and laughed when I told her that my husband was at a café getting some work done on a lovely Sunday afternoon. “Get used to it,” she said. “When we had kids, I raised children and my husband carried on living his life.” This, from a woman who’d had a wildly successful career playing with the New York Philharmonic.
It’s not that my husband doesn’t support me and my ambitions. He’s pretty incredible in that regard, and I imagine many other husbands are, as well. The problem isn’t whether or not they read your novel manuscript and clean the kitchen after you pass out exhausted every night. It’s a more subtle, more insidious poison that continues to infect our expectations of women and men once a child pops into the picture. Most of the women I’ve spoken to on this topic are working mothers. Pause. Have you ever heard of a "working father"? No. Because men are expected to enjoy dazzling careers while simultaneously enjoying parenthood, and women are expected to make the big sacrifices. I am sure they are out there, but it’s not often I stumble upon a dad who makes doctor’s appointments, packs lunches, organizes play dates, plans birthday parties.
It’s not really my husband I hate; it’s centuries of gender conditioning that I myself can’t seem to break free of.
So while I love my husband dearly and acknowledge that my life would totally suck without him, I know exactly what that mom meant when she said, “be prepared to hate your husband.” It’s just that it’s not really my husband I hate; it’s centuries of gender conditioning that I myself can’t seem to break free of.
But maybe my daughter can. Maybe I can teach her to fight for her dreams as fiercely as she may one day find herself fighting for her family. Maybe other moms, moms with sons, are out there teaching them that women are their equals in all regards. Maybe one day the phrase “working mom” will disappear from our lexicon and people will stop referring to the hours men spend with their children as “babysitting” and call it what it is: parenting.