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 Slate.com 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.