Like many couples that I know, Andrew and I headed towards parenthood with ideas and intentions of equality fairly well assumed. We have been equal in our relationship in every way up until now. Why would anything be different?
The first major challenge, of course, that we and many others faced is parental leave. I got some, Andrew did not. And so, naturally, being with the babies all day while he was not, I learned more about how to care for them and kept up with their changing needs.
The other challenge to equality in parenting that we faced is one that each and every one of us can influence in our daily lives. It is the pervading use, instead of the word parent, or carer, of the word mum.
I have come to hate the overuse of the term so much that I sometimes forget that I actually am this thing, a mum. When someone makes a comment about being a mum, and my scorpion brain reacts expecting them to be making a statement that could just be made about parents, I sometimes have to remind myself that it is true that I am a mum. Even if I might often prefer the word parent.
It’s about more than just a word. Groups are set up, often through WhatsApp or facebook. It might be that these groups get set up for a group of women that are on maternity leave. Or it might be that these groups are set up as general support for parents. Sticking the word mum on it, as so often is what happens, has an impact.
Stick the word mum on a group, and you are telling female parents that it is their responsibility to take on the bulk of the parenting work. Stick the word mum on it and you tell dads that they are not welcome.
Parenting, while of course wonderful and gratifying and awesome, is also really hard work. Made much much harder if living with a partner who is unable, somehow, to contribute to that work.
Loads of groups are set up, beautiful, creative, well intended groups, to help with just that – to help with the hardship that comes with parenting. And here again, so often, it is “mums”. Can’t we see that this is perpetuating the problem?
A lot of shops and businesses get set up with “mums” in the name. It is because, I’ve heard some say, that is what makes up 95% of their customers – it’s the simple fact. That may well be. But if they want to expand their business to a new and broadening group of involved dads, perhaps they should think about a rebrand!
In a heterosexual relationship, dads have their female partners to lean on. “I didn’t manage to pick up that thing today” they might say, “because that shop is just for mums”. Maybe said with a lazy shrug. Maybe said with genuine embarrassment. Either way, seeing the guy go into mumsworld would be much easier if it was called parentsworld.
If you think about a family with two dads, it becomes even clearer how overuse of the word mum is not only perpetuating gender inequality in parenting, but is also creating an exclusive culture. Are gay dads only supposed to talk to other gay dads about parenting? Or are they supposed to act as honourary women to get into the women’s group? Yikes.
No one should have to declare their sexuality in the context of expressing an interest in parenting. Any parent or carer that expresses an interest should be welcomed with open arms to get involved. Wouldn’t that be made all the easier if these spaces and places were named in a more gender neutral way.
It goes further again than those groups, networks and businesses. It is in everyday usage too. “We mums”, someone said to me in a work context recently, “we tend to take on everything.” (I’ve learned to tidy up my reactions quite quickly these days, over zoom barely perceptible at all.)
It’s true that we don’t ever hear about the plight of working dads. It’s all baked into our common assumptions that they are simply not as burdened with the child care as a working mum would be. These may be assumptions that, yes, we see played out before us very often. But when we continue to speak only about that visible majority, the minority is stifled and when it’s a minority that would benefit us all to see grow, then let’s give it a little air.
There are some things that truly do only pertain to women. Bodily stuff, of course. And the reality of being in relationships in the reality of today’s world – yes, that all needs its place.
Very often people say something to me about mums, and I reply just gently replacing the word with parents instead. Shops that sell baby clothes and paraphernalia being called Mothercare – why? These are the things that I’m taking about, the instances where the word could easily be replaced by parents.
So as we head towards 2022, and wave 2021 bye bye, if you’re looking for the easiest New Years resolution ever, simply challenge yourself to stop saying “mums” if you could say “parents” instead. It’s a small thing, but it’s important. Parenting is a huge part of our world, and it’s one where gender inequality is at its most palpable. We can all change that a little bit. #takeithome