Sunday, 28 December 2014

How our struggle to be equal parents damaged our marriage

We're spending the holidays with my family in Germany at the moment, so my partner is doing most of the parenting. My partner and I have this arrangement whereby he is Momo's main carer when we're with my family, so that I can make the most of what little time I have with them. So whenever we do see them, I withdraw from parenting almost entirely. This raises some eyebrows, particularly in the Catholic backwaters of Bavaria which I call "home". I know that some people even think I'm a bad, uncaring mum when they see me lying on the sofa all day chatting to my brothers while my partner is playing with Momo. But we also get pretty positive reactions, usually from young mums who wish that their husbands were such involved parents. Some are even downright jealous.

But here's where I've got to say: wait a minute! Yes, I think it's great how equal we are as parents. But in order to achieve equality, we have fought very hard, and it has done us a lot of harm. And that's what today's post is about. Just how much our struggle to be equal parents hurt us.

Maternal gate-keeping: fathers as glorified babysitters

First, I need to explain a concept called "maternal gate-keeping". Maternal gate-keeping basically means that mothers are in control of who gets do do what when it comes to parenting (hence the image of them "keeping" or "controlling" a gate): they feel they know best and should therefore be the ones who take all the decisions relating to the baby. They may want their partner to also do some parenting, but mums are the ones deciding what they get to do, when they are allowed to do it, and how they need to do it. They know what's right for their child, they know which clothes they should wear today, whether they need their feed now or later, whether or not they need to be changed. So they will tell their partners what they need to do and how, and correct them when they're doing something they think they shouldn't do. Often, other women will also participate in this process. It's surprising how many women feel they can tell fathers what they need to do: their own mothers, their mother-in-law, and even random women on the street. Gradually, this female gate-keeping erodes the father's confidence and all he ends up being is a secondary parent, a glorified babysitter. My partner certainly felt like this initially and was very bitter about it.

As a mum, it's very hard to take a step back and relinquish control of the gate. It's very hard to stop checking what your partner is doing with the baby. It's hard not to take your baby out of your partner's arms when you're convinced that you will be able to calm her much more efficiently. It's hard to stop yourself from saying: "Don't go out like that, he needs to wear a jumper, it's too cold out", or "this isn't the right puree for lunch, she has potato purée for lunch, not carrot". Yet taking a step back and giving up control is what you need to do so your partner gets the space he needs to fully be a dad.

Fighting the urge to stay in control

I strongly experienced this urge to control when I first became a mother. I spent far more time with Momo than my partner during the first three months, and because I was breastfeeding I was more important for her than he was. Because of this natural imbalance, and maybe for other reasons as well (such as: I'm a control freak?), I quickly got into a habit of making all the decisions concerning Momo. Which led to a LOT of fights with my partner. In fact, we had screaming matches every single day for about 8 months. Or 10. Because I didn't want to relinquish control, and neither did he. My partner was determined to fight for his right to be an equal parent. Boy, I hated him so much for that. I just couldn't let go!

But because we're both such stubborn people (our marriage can be like a bull fight at times), we just slammed into each other repeatedly until our heads were completely mushy and we didn't have any fight left in us. My vision's still blurred from all the head banging but I can see that we are coming out of this fight as equals. Tired, hurt, and frustrated maybe, but equals nonetheless.

We both feel that we've achieved something amazing here because we really are equal parents. If one of us just had to leave right now, the other one could take over without a glitch. And neither of us needs to carry the heavy burden of being the main carer. It's relaxing to know that you're not irreplaceable. And it gives me so much more freedom than most other mums.

On the other hand, we've accumulated quite a bit of resentment for each other because we had to fight so much. This says more about our flawed communication style than about equality though, I think. Anyway, I just wanted to say that becoming equal parents is not necessarily easy and it means having to dicuss things a lot.

Taking decisions together = more arguments

Just think about it. If Mum is the only person taking the decisions, then she just makes her decisions. If Dad wants to decide, too, then every decision needs to be discussed. And that's when you realise that there are DOZENS of decisions that need to be made every single day. You don't notice so much just how many decisions you make when you're the only one making them. But believe me, when somebody stops you every time you make a decision and wants to discuss it or question it, then you realise just how many decisions there are.*

So, I really really don't want to stop any of you from trying to be equal parents, but beware that it might not be easy, and please try and be nice to each other, even when you disagree and you've only slept 3 hours and are in a really foul mood!!! Finally, if you are the woman, get into a habit of asking your partner's opinion before taking decisions about the baby. You don't tend to hear Mummy asking Daddy whether he thinks the baby needs an extra layer of clothing, whether he thinks they might be hungry, thirsty, tired etc. Yet, I believe that this is one of the prerequisites for egalitarian parenting.

*when the child should sleep, for how long, what they should eat, how much and when, do you let them cry or pick them up? Can they have their dummy or not, if yes, when and under which circumstances and for how long? Do they need a bath? Does their hair need to be washed, their nails need to be clipped, their ears cleaned, their nose washed, which shoes should they wear, do they need to burp or not, does their hair need to be brushed before you go out, do they need an extra jumper in this weather, do they need a hat, gloves, are they allowed to have a cracker now or not, are they allowed to play with your mobile phone, are they allowed to throw food on the floor and if they do it how should you react, how do you react when they scream....? I could go on all day.

1 comment:

  1. Now, most of the time, you're the one complaining about me checking what you fed Momo... I agree it's equally bad, and I need to stop, but it's not easy!