On Men, Impending Parenthood and Gender Roles Within the Modern Home

Steve and I are on holiday this week but our original plans of doing DIY and leaving the house now and then have been scuppered by me putting my back out.

Me putting my back out isn’t a huge surprise. I’ve been having trouble with it since the first trimester; I’ve been to the pregnancy physiotherapist; I’ve got support clothing and special exercises but the professionals have never pretended that it would get anything other than worse as the pregnancy progressed.

Three things are getting me through this:
  1. An awareness of how lucky I am to be pregnant at all.
  2. The knowledge that, at this point, I have no choice but to grit my teeth and wait it out.
  3. Steve.
It’s Steve that I want to write about today. Steve, and fathers-to-be in general. I’ll moan about the aches and pains some other time.

Because the fact is: as hard as this is for me, it’s hard for Steve, too. He’s the one having to get up in the middle of the night to help me out of bed (because I need to pee; because I need to walk off the worst of the hip pain). He’s having to dry my legs after I shower and help me get dressed. He’s having to make me cups of tea and hot water bottles (because I can’t lift the kettle) and give me seemingly endless back rubs.

More than that: he’s having to do all the housework. Not some. Not half. Not a sizeable chunk. All of it.

And he’s doing it all without moaning.

This doesn’t surprise me, of course. I wouldn’t have chosen to have a child with him if I didn’t think he was a good, stable, patient person. But, still, it’s a lot that he’s taking on and I’m hugely grateful to him for doing it without either complaining or preening.

But I wish that all of the pregnancy and parenting advice thought as highly of him as I do.

Pregnancy information is, understandably, largely geared towards the (birth) mother (apologies - the rest of this post comes from a very heterosexual, nuclear family perspective). It focuses on the changes happening to her body and her choices when it comes to labour and the reasons she may or may not choose to breastfeed. There’s not a lot there for the other parent.

And now that I’m reading up on pregnancy-related hip and back problems, I’m finding out why: because a lot of the information providers are harbouring some (hopefully) outdated notions about men.

“Avoid doing the dishes!” they tell me. “Show your partner how to do housework! Train him to pull his weight!”

Show him how to do housework? Train him to pull his weight? What decade were these information websites written it?

It’s 2014 and Steve knows how to scrub the shower.

To be totally upfront here: I do do most of the housework, most of the time. This is because Steve works much longer hours than I do and, to me, it seems only reasonable than the person spending four to five more hours a day in the flat gives up ten more minutes of each day to keep the place clean and tidy.

Steve would also admit that his tolerance for mess is a lot higher than mine. I’m more likely to be bothered by the misplaced shoes and the denuded toilet roll tubes and, therefore, to put them away.

But he knows how to do the dishes and how to clean the toilet and how to put the bins out. He does his own laundry. He does almost all of the cooking. He is perfectly capable of doing every bit of housework that ever needs doing. And he does it without prompting and without expecting gratitude or praise.

Because that’s what grown ups should be doing, regardless of their gender.

The majority of the couples we know are in similar situations. They both know how to take responsibility for their home. They have devised a routine and a division of labour which suits their own circumstances. They each take responsibility for what they have decided is their fair share and they do it without making a big deal about how modern and considerate the man is for “helping the little lady” put the bins out.

Of course, I realise that there are exceptions. There are a handful of women I know who complain about their inefficient partners, who do all of the housework and who loudly resent it.

Their partners are partly to blame because their partners are adults now and should know better. It’s difficult to recognise lazy behaviour in ourselves and it’s difficult to change those bad habits, even when we do see them, but, as grown men, they have a responsibility to ask themselves whether they are playing their part in the relationship and to alter their attitudes as appropriate.

Their parents (or their parents’ generation) are partly to blame. I know several people who were brought up in traditional households, where the mother stayed at home to clean and nobody thought to teach the boys how the washing machine worked. Those sons have had to make conscious choices to learn how to take care of themselves; those daughters have had to make conscious choices to build different family structures. And the majority of them have done so.

But women – and society as a whole – are also partly to blame. Because when we talk about our lazy partners as though their behaviour is typical, when talk about “having” to do their ironing for them, when we act as though they should be thanked and babied every time they make an effort, we reinforce our own acceptance of the situation.

I don’t have easy answers here. I’ve had lazier partners and I’ve despaired of them and I’ve not worked out the best approach for addressing the issue.

But I do know that talking about it as if it’s normal is not effective.

Saying, “Well, that’s how it is in my household and lots of other households,” doesn’t help to improve things. It doesn’t prompt the men to question their behaviour; it doesn’t push the women to expect more; it encourages us to shrug and think, “It’s not fair but what are you going to do?”

I like to think I’m preaching to the converted here. I like to think those of you in couples have worked out how to share the housework in ways which work for you; I like to think the women never find themselves thanking the men for their efforts or feeling guilty for asking them to put their own socks in the wash; I like to think your male partners do their share without ever stopping to feel smug about it.

But I wanted to rant.

Because why am I reading professional, sometimes official, guidance aimed at mothers-to-be which implies that their male partners are useless, lazy, inefficient apes who don’t know how to scrub a pan and have to be guilt tripped into taking good care of the woman they presumably love?

Why, when those couples are about to enter into a stressful, exhausting, total upheaval of their routines, are they being told that the men are hopeless and the women will, effectively, be mothering both father and child? Who does this benefit?

It’s time to ditch those lazy stereotypes. It’s time to update our notions of normality. It’s time to not only include fathers-to-be in the future of their family but to talk about them – and to them – as if they have recognised and accepted responsibility for their own partner and their own child without being patronised or prompted or pleaded with.

It’s time to start talking as though men are capable and conscientious.

It’s time to stop talking as though the good men are the exceptions.


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