Our daughters are now nearly 15 months old. They were born right as the UK was going into lockdown for the first time. Some time in mid March 2020, I left the office thinking I’d be going back in the next day. Then the message came through that women who were pregnant should stay at home. And when the girls were born, I started my year of maternity leave.
I was expecting to have this time away from the office and from work. Having two newborn babies, I was expecting that it would be challenging to get out of the house at all for the first three months. Then suddenly everybody in the world had to stay at home too. Concerts were cancelled, restaurants were closed. I wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was anybody else. In the whole world.
I should mention at some point here that I am not the easiest person. Some might say that I’m pedantic, persnickety, fastidious. I would probably quibble over the accuracy of those descriptions. I am a bit particular, and for that reason among others, when we’ve talked about having children, we’ve often imagined that Andrew, my other half, would take on more of the parenting responsibility.
Not so when it came to parental leave. I would take maternity leave, because that’s what women do. Andrew took the time that he could to be with us in the first few weeks, particularly as I was likely to be recovering from a c-section. After that he would return to work and I would take leave to care for the babies for the first year of their lives. It wasn’t up for discussion. I could get a maternity package, he could not. It was a done deal.
I wasn’t complaining. A year away from work, being so privileged to be able to take a year away, seemed a great once in a life time opportunity. I expected it would be challenging. Work means a lot to me, a lot of my self esteem is wrapped up in my professional productivity, so I planned a bit around that and had a bit of charity work lined up. I tried to prepare myself a bit for the abrupt change that was about to turn my life inside out.
I understood that it was important to take some time to bond with the babies. And if I wanted to breastfeed, which I did, it would be important to be off work to do that too, at least at the beginning. I was aware of the professional impact that maternity leave can have. Stepping out for a year in your mid thirties is not the best way to climb the corporate ladder. What I hadn’t understood was what happens in that time at home.
Let me say that I loved my time away, falling deeply in love with my two little girls, and learning more things, both practical and profound, than I can ever remember learning in any single year before. I was keenly aware that while others struggled to stay in their homes, I lived in a perfect terraced house with it’s own small yard. While others were lonely and at a loss for things to do, I had my two new favourite people with me all of the time and I was busier than ever. I have counted myself very fortunate indeed.
It helped, of course, that Andrew was never far away. Once he wrapped up his few weeks off, he was back to work but working from home. So he was with me and the babies right up until 9 and immediately from 5:30. And during the day between he could join us, give me a break when I needed one. Some people talk about this as a silver lining of the lockdown but I think it is much, much more than that. Him being more present than he otherwise would has helped to shape the foundations of our family dynamics.
While he was in the house, I was still the one caring for the babies throughout the day every day. Through this invested time I got to know my girls. What I hadn’t understood before, though, was how I would also get to know how to run the house around their care. I wore a watch at all times, and would refer to the time constantly, referring to their last feed, sleep and nappy change. I would know when it was crucial for clean bottles to be ready for an upcoming feed. I would constantly be thinking about where the various bits of kit were, to be ready for when needed next. And I got to know the girls’ sounds and signals, to be ready to respond. (This description omits mention of the daily mistakes that were made – you may assume that there were many of those too).
Even though he was in the house, it wasn’t possible for Andrew to learn everything at the same pace that I did. Not to mention that things would change so often, so that once he did learn something it would soon become outdated. Even I would struggle to listen to my droning voice as I gave him frequent updates on the changing nuances of their care. Blended with the constant chatter aimed at the girls, he would have been superhuman to keep track of the regular reports.
As I went back to work three months ago, Andrew dropped his hours to a three day working week, to spend two days caring for his daughters. In the run up to that we had what can only be considered a handover. I told him he had to wear a watch. And we spent a lot of time talking about laundry. After the first couple of training in days, he was absolutely exhausted.
When women are by default the ones taking leave to care for their babies, the work that they end up gaining the responsibility for is the work of domestic duty and the running of the home as well as for the care of the children. There is no reason for this work to belong to women rather than men. But once it does, and once that becomes the dynamic in the home, it is incredibly hard to change.
If men and women had equal parental leave, then this wouldn’t happen. And if it wasn’t possible for both parents to take leave together, wouldn’t it at least be wonderful to have some options? To have some discussion about who would be best suited to do what in the family and to plan the time accordingly?
Now I find I’m thinking a lot about two things. One is if I was returning to work without Andrew changing his work week and taking on more caring responsibilities, how would I ever be able to shift the balance? Now, finally, I understand how difficult it is for many mothers to return to work and balance all of that responsibility that they carry at home. Even though there is no good reason that it’s them that are the ones to carry it.
The second thing is how much worse would it have been if Andrew had not been working from home over that time. If he had been leaving the house at 7am and returning at 7 in the evening, like I know many front line workers have been even throughout the pandemic. In other words, if he had been absent through the girls’ entire waking day. I find it unimaginable and yet this is the norm that thousands of women have experienced for decades.
Now offices are starting to reopen and people are planning to start going back in for at least part of the working week. Meanwhile babies will continue to be born. I’m a bit frightened.