We Can’t Leave it Up to the Lesbians

I was born on the 15th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. They happened 52 years ago today, on the 28th of June 1969, following the funeral of Judy Garland in New York City. The LGBTQIA community experienced a watershed movement towards activism.

We have had 52 years over which pride celebrations have been evolving into the rainbow festivals of colour that we know them as today. It is in this same time that feminist communities and activists have also been speaking out and taking a stand. Many of those feminists have also been gay and part of the LGBTQIA world to boot.

In writing about gender equality in parenting I generally refer to cis-gender, heterosexual parents. I write, mostly, about mums and dads. I am very much aware of all of the parents and families that this leaves out. But I do it on purpose.

Most families across the world include parents made up of one woman and one man. As the majority, it is us who are then responsible for setting the standards. As the majority, we can choose to continue doing things the way they have always been done, regardless of how absurd that may be. Or we can choose to call bullshit and to make things change.

Actually, being a member of the majority is a type of privilege. And I would say that it is the duty of those that count themselves a part of the majority, of those that are privileged, to speak out and challenge the status quo.

Nobody should have to explain their sexuality or their gender in the context of being a parent. When we carry forward the notions that women have to do mum things, and men have to do dad things, we are making things less inclusive.

The more we challenge things, the more we subvert the norms, the more we can normalise dads doing things that they may not have historically done. We can make dads be more present in the parenting scene. And by doing this, we are laying the ground for any parent, regardless of their sexuality or their gender to be as involved in parenting as they want, no explanation needed.

There’s another reason that I write about mums and dads. And that is this: when it comes to achieving this equality, we are talking about a delicate and a tender negotiation that has to happen between loved ones. These are discussions that need to happen between men and women in their homes. When it comes to getting over this part of the feminist struggle, we straight women can’t leave it up to the lesbians to fight for us anymore.

We have to #takeithome.

I Took Maternity Leave But At Least There Was Lockdown

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.

Taking the babies home in the uber and seeing how London had changed since lockdown had begun was a memorable experience

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.

Introducing the babies to friends over zoom

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.

Two sleeping babies was always cause for a smile

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, keeping mental note of 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?

Andrew and his two girls

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.


Becoming a female parent

Of course I’ve always been aware that expectations are different for mums and dads. Of course I’ve known that traditionally mums and dads have played different roles in the family. I really shouldn’t have been surprised, when our two girls were born, that expectations coming from all corners were that I would be the primary carer. But I really was.

I’ve grown up in a time when girls have increasingly been told that they can do anything. Bit by bit over the last couple of decades we’ve seen the gender inequalities in our society falling away. This is often, as I’ve thought about it, relating to work. More and more women are taking on positions that have always been held by men. With no kids, for the last 15 years work has been a pretty substantial part of my life. I’ve been in a bubble.

I’m not under any illusion that in the world of work – in business, politics and the arts – that we’re there yet. But I have believed that we are on the way. Girls need to be educated differently than in the past, to be taught to have confidence and self-belief and I’ve heard that teachers and children’s authors are working on that. Boys need to be educated differently than in the past; I’ve heard that they’re working on that too. Unconscious bias in the workplace needs to be identified and addressed, and all around me I’ve seen businesses and workplaces taking action. So I thought that the right things were happening. And yes, although I really shouldn’t have been, I really have been shocked at how all expectations have been stacked, as a female parent, onto me.

Why aren’t we talking about this? The fight for gender equality is alive and well and yet gender equality in parenting doesn’t seem to feature in the conversation. Is it because parenting is a topic that is so deeply entrenched in the world of women? Is it because biology is so little understood that it is blown out to cover things that really are no more than cultural? Is it because parenting is so personal, and so sensitive, that where the negotiation for equality lies is in the privacy of our individual homes?

In this blog I will share my own ideas, opinions and observations, and I’m looking forward to hearing others’ ideas in return. One thing I’m certain of is, that when it comes to achieving the gender equality that we need, when it comes to feminism, it is time to #takeithome.