Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor

Can Mom and Dad ever be equal?

Last night I hemmed a pair of my son’s pants. The only thing that qualifies me for that is my gender. Why should I know how to hem a pair of trousers? Why is it that I sat, bent over a pair of bright red corduroys, while my husband watched rugby on Supersport?

The answer is simple: I am a mother.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m married to an amazing man, who is also an incredible and involved father. He gets up at night, he changes nappies, he feeds impossibly fussy toddlers, he rides bikes, plays riotously and reads uproariously — and some of his best friends are feminists.

So then why do I nurse little resentments over having to look up how to hem a pair of pants on the internet instead of reading like I used to? Is it because any semblance of equality in my relationship has been killed off by motherhood? Before children, we both had “careers”, split the bond and only ever argued about politics. Fast forward 14 years and I have two children, work part-time, do the grocery shopping and argue about almost everything.

This weekend, the New York Times magazine’s cover article was headlined, When Mom and Dad Share It All? A (ridiculously long but fascinating) piece by Lisa Belkin probes the questions around “equal parenting”:

“Equals and peers. They would work equal hours, spend equal time with their children, take equal responsibility for their home. Neither would be the keeper of the mental to-do lists; neither of their careers would take precedence. Both would be equally likely to plan a birthday party or know that the car needs oil or miss work for a sick child or remember (without prompting) to stop at the store for diapers and milk. They understood that this would mean recalibrating their career ambitions, and probably their income, but what they gained, they believed, would be more valuable than what they lost.”

Yes, this is probably what most people in good relationships aim for when they’re waiting for their first baby to arrive. Who, after all, doesn’t believe in equal opportunities for women and men? My husband certainly has never prevented me from having a career or going after what I want. No one is going to argue against equality in principle. It’s what happens in real life that weakens the theory of what happens between men and women.

Somehow, in between school runs, birthday parties and replenishing cleaning supplies, we keep falling in the gap between our expectations and our realities. Gender very definitely determines the division of labour in our home, and in every other South African home I know. Robert may take the children bicycling on Sunday mornings, but I doubt he knows what size shoe our son takes or how many nappies are left.

In fact, it’s worth remembering at this point how lucky we are in South Africa that the conundrum can really be focused around parenting. God knows what would happen if we threw intensive housekeeping into the equation. In a study quoted in the NYT article, the average wife in the US does 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14. I may bitch about housework, and feel like I do most of it, but, like most of you, I’m lucky enough to have a domestic worker who helps with the laundry and child minding.

So what is to be done? Part of this exercise has been the realisation that although we haven’t moved far from the nursery in the past 90 years, things have changed. My husband certainly does a whole lot more childminding than my “never-changed-a-nappy” father, for instance. And I’m conscious that I live in a supportive enough environment where we make decisions together about how we will live. Admittedly, those decisions are from a limited set these days, but I do feel like I have choices.

I reckon the real challenge is for me to ensure that my children live in a home where parenting is seen to be shared. Perhaps not equally, but definitely shared. I need to make sure that my daughter will expect more and that my son will give more. As parents, my husband and I need to live lives that challenge gender stereotypes.

And, of course, this is about much more than just who takes the car in for a service against who pays the ballet teacher. But I’m hoping that small gestures like that may just make a big enough difference in my children’s lives when they’re working out parenting for themselves.

  • owen

    Consider yourself lucky, I had to work in a job that I grew to hate BUT it paid the way for my family and got my children through varsity. My wife had it relatively easy considering. There was many a day that I would have gladly swopped places with her.

    There are always 2 sides to the coin.

  • Kit

    I’m going to sound like a total prat here but frankly, you choose to not be equal. I don’t hem the pants in my house. I lie, I do sometimes but certainly the last three or four times something has needed repairing on the clothing front, the man did it.

    I do the PTA thing and the liaising with teachers and coaches thing, he hems the pants. We both earn fairly equal money (I earned more than him for a few years, he earns more than me now).

    I gave birth to the children and breastfed them with minimal complaints and took off time to do so but now that our kids are old enough to do the school thing, we’re equal parents. He’s a better one than I am. I’d much rather do the work thing, to be honest. Much less demanding than dealing with small people.

    And ‘unlike most people’ we don’t have a housekeeper so we share those chores.

    The reason that you do most of the childcare work is because you work part-time. Look at it as having two jobs, it helps (only thing that got me through being a stay-at-home mother to very small children). If you were both working full-time and you still ended up doing the majority of the household things then I’d say that’s your own fault.

    People are conditioned to accept some right nonsense. The stats of families with two full-time employed parents show that women still do more housework than men. Idiots.

  • Brent

    All relationships; marriage, work, social etc get into trouble when the word/subject/thought ‘equal’ comes into play. Nothing and this is the truth (wisdom gained the hard way over 66 years) nothing in human interactions is ever equal. We should be striving for fairness that comes from sharing, empathy and especially from the man’s side giving of oneself, one’s generosity of spirit just becuase it is right not becuase it is ones duty.

    Hope i follow that advice having just got married for the 2nd time last month


  • Jon

    Red corduroys?

    Are you a mother or a torturer?

    I’m sending the fashion police over to your house.

  • Consulting Engineer

    I have a different household. Being a single father I have done all the traditional male and female chores since the kids were months old, including nappies, sterilising, taking them to school, bathing, mashing food etc. Ok, I can’t hem or sew etc. But my daughter takes no interest in male chores like woodwork with power ttols etc. I think the female chores are easier.

    When we do chores my son takes his turn at dishes, not just my daughter. He also mops floors etc and he just turned 7.

    But I got a new wife this year. She is short, white, does dishes with no complaints, never leaves the kitchen, will work overnight and never a complaint. She wont even mind when I trade her in on a younger model in a few years and wont ask for the house and car when she is put out. Her name is Dishwasher ha ha!

    She doesnt even mind sharing the kitchen with the other wife in the other corner: washing machine.

    Sorry for the sexist joke, just couldnt resist!

  • Anne Taylor

    @Owen – There are many, many times when I am overwhelmed with how lucky and privileged I am. And I hope your children truly appreciate the sacrifices you made.
    @Kit – Touche! Admittedly, I have a few, er, control issues but I think you’re right when you say it all boils down to choice and the courage to choose.
    @Brent – I think ‘shared’ is a whole lot more healthy to strive towards than ‘equal’. Sounds like you learnt a lot of lessons the first time round. Thanks for passing them on…

  • Maurice

    I hate watching sport. I can cook, but its not something I have an urge to do. I’m an ace at cleaning the kitchen and my partner defers to me when it comes to ironing – she’s hopeless at it.
    My 15 year old son loves cooking and baking – he spent the weekend downloading recipes and then trying two out. He plays tennis seriously and loves watching sport. My 14 year daughter can scramble eggs. That’s it. She’s given up on swimming (she was good) and prefers her cellphone and computer screen to the TV screen. She does enjoy watching cricket.
    I agree with Kit. Too many women accept their ‘predestined lot’ and too many men take advantage of the fact. The struggle for truly liberated people continues.

  • Moss

    Problems can arise from different standards/expectations too. Maybe whether or not your kid’s trousers are hemmed just doesn’t matter as much to your husband as it does to you. Does that mean he still has to do 50% of the hemming you believe is necessary? Equality includes equal input into setting the agenda of the household, a concept many women seem to struggle to accept.

  • marion

    Oh Anne – I can totally relate.
    I also have an engaged and involved partner of 12 years or so – the kind that people say – oh my – he is such a peach – where did you get him –
    But I recently watched my husband collect and sort through a number of shirts and trousers that needed hems mended and buttons sewn on – he worked out what was missing and needed done and made a list. I felt terribly and inadequate that I wasn’t doing that. I had happily done this previously but I have now stopped. But then asked me where he should take the garments to be repaired and for directions – and still got them wrong. But he found another solution and the clothes are back and repaired after a week and some granny in a retirement village did them after he found her name on a slip in the local laundry.
    My husband would not care a toss about my boys trouser hems or whether they leave their shoes at the neighbours house or if they have fish fingers and beans for dinner for 10 nights in a row without veggies.
    He thinks my boys aged 3 and 6 should learn from consequences and if they have no shoes – even – in the middle of winter – that is their learning.
    I feel differently and realise too that I seem to identify the content of decisions that need to made more than he does. My choices still have to be made – but I seem to identify the issues first -and that is the burden that I can relate to. The decisions and choices are then – well what is good enough as I have given up trying to be the perfect parent. Can I live with my children having wonky hems, no shoes as they keep on getting lost etc etc. I have to make these choices daily and that is what is tiring. But essentially my children are well, happy, fed and clothed – my partnership is mostly happy and working and this is a journey and process
    aluta continua

  • shootemup

    Well my wife does not do mending and probably wouldn’t even if she didn’t have a more demanding job than me, which she does. So, the buttons on my shirts stay missing and the zips on my suits stay broken, mainly becuase I am too lazy to find a taylor or too busy doing other chores to find the time to sew on a button – zips are beyond me.

    I still think my wife does more housework than me though, but I do more “outwork” than she does – like dog poop pickups, gardening, woodworking and such like. Gender roles are sometimes inescapable because we tend to use the skills we were brought up with…

  • Jenn @ Frugal Upstate

    Just wanted to say I’m glad that my article on being frugal and hemming pants was useful to you :)

  • BenzoL

    As long as we have female and male toilets and female/male Olympics and Wimbledon’s, gender equality is a myth. Equal division of household tasks is as far away as equal division of tasks between workers in a factory. People ARE different and have different abilities and likes. Brent’s comment is very much to the point.
    When my children were small, I had the night shift simply because I can get up in the middle of my sleep, do the necessary, sleep within 5 minutes and not feel knackered the next morning when going to work. My wife was a professional mother and did most of the other household things except for the weekend when we shared the work. Anything wrong in that. She also hemmed things and put on buttons, cooked (a lot better than I would ever do) and cleaned. Anything wrong in that? One of the problems in the SA scene is the “nanny culture” that creates children growing up with a “tidy up” and “clean up” machine behind them. Things happen miraculously while they are at school. We never had that luxury back in Holland. Yes, Brent, the will to “sharing” tasks is the solution. But it is difficult to share hemming a pair of pants: who starts on which end?
    Could make it a contest though :-))

  • anton kleinschmidt

    My wife stayed at home to look after and raise two sons. There is no question in my mind that this is the most difficult job on earth. In this case “difficult” is impossible to quantify, so stop even trying

  • What from Australia?

    Look at any successful company. People specialise….. your role is more in the house and his out.

    Furthermore you live in cushy South Africa and have just been too lazy to train/empower your domestic servant to hem pants. If your husband had that attitude at work he would have to administer his own accounts; replenish coffee club supplies etc.

    You seem to resent doing things you don’t like – do things you are good at and pay others to do what you are not – don’t ruin your husbands life as well

  • Mike

    Evolved neurological specialisation? Fine-motor co-ordination and nurturing for the women, Aggression and defense (including the rough-and-tumble games) for the men. Our millions of years on hunter-forager presence in Southern Africa must count for something.

    Men and women ARE different at a neurological level. But the wonderful thing about our neurology is that it includes very general capabilities that, with some effort, can overcome the built-in attractors. And further, the attractors themselves are not universal, but seem to be tendencies – some women are aggressive, competitive & athletic, some men love to knit and nurture, though the reverse is more general.

  • Thibos

    Why don’t you take full-time employment and leave the domestic chores to your domestic employee, if it bothers you so much. The truth is that men and women are not equal and never will be. We have different priorities and thought process which are dictated by nature. What feminism has taught women is that domestic chores equal slavery, with the husband as the oppressor. Not only is this wrong but has led to many calamities such as sky-rocketing divorces as a result. But then again this has been the main goal of the feminist movement.