Anne Theriault and her husband thought they had their roles all planned out, but parenthood changed those plans.
From the moment when I told my husband that I was pregnant (in a Cabbagetown pet store, while my sister was admiring a tank full of milk snakes), he knew that he wanted to be as engaged and involved a father as he possibly could. And to be honest, while our bundle of joy was still in utero, that was pretty easy; mostly it involved making midnight cupcake runs to the grocery store, and rubbing my feet when they were sore.
We also started a nightly ritual that all three of us (mom, dad and our adorable little parasite) seemed to enjoy: just before going to bed, my husband would rub lotion on my expanding belly, and then he would read to the baby, either something classical (Shakespeare was a favourite), or from a more age-appropriate source.
Our kid (we didn’t know yet whether we were having a boy or a girl) was always pretty active during this time, kicking and squirming at the sound of my husband’s voice. We even joked that the baby had a favourite book, The Going To Bed Book by Sandra Boynton, because the nights when my husband read that particular piece of infant literature always seemed to coincide with some kind of intrauterine dance party. The fact that our baby already seemed to love my husband’s voice, combined with the mad swaddling and diaper-changing skills my husband had acquired in our prenatal classes, made us think that having an equal and shared parenthood was going to be a breeze.
We’ve got this, we told each other. Everything’s going to be great.
Then I went into labour at 34 weeks, spent a week and a half in the hospital on bed rest and gave birth via c-section at 36 weeks. After that everything kind of went to hell.
I was intent on breastfeeding, but our son wouldn’t, or couldn’t latch. My husband, desperate to be an involved, helpful co-parent, could only watch as I cried and struggled to feed our son. I don’t know who felt more helpless – my husband, who really couldn’t offer any kind of aid on the breastfeeding front, or me, with my abundant milk supply and seemingly no way to get said milk into our kid’s tiny belly. We tried everything: suck-training, cup-feeding, pumping and bottle-feeding – nothing seemed to work.
After having failed to have the natural, drug-free birth that I’d wanted, being unable to breastfeed seemed like pretty much the end of the world. On top of that, it felt like it was all my fault, and all my responsibility. I was acutely aware of the fact that if I couldn’t get my son to nurse, there was really nothing my husband could do about it. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a little bitter about that fact.
So much for equal parenting, I thought.
Because we live in Canada, I was able to take a year of paid maternity leave, but my husband went back to work after only a week off. I’d had big plans about how I was going to spend my leave, thinking that with an infant who slept all day I would finally be able to excel in the cooking and cleaning departments. Those of you who have kids can stop laughing now – I definitely learned my lesson about what life with a small baby is like, and quickly. Knowing that it was impossible to get housework done didn’t make me go any easier on myself, though; I beat myself up on a daily basis for not getting the dishes done, not tidying the living room, or not cleaning the bathroom, again.
Even after my son and I had got the hang of breastfeeding, things were tough. All of my friends seemed to have babies who slept through the night at six weeks and would happily sit for what seemed like forever in their swing or bouncy chair. Meanwhile, I had a kid who woke up every hour like clockwork and cried if I tried to put him down.
If I found life with a baby stressful and perplexing, it was even worse for my husband. When he came home I would try to hand our son off to him so that I could take a nap, but more often than not I would hear a knock at the bedroom door after 10 minutes, and would answer it only to have my husband tell me, “The baby’s really upset! I think he wants you!” How the hell was I supposed to tell him that while, yes, the baby might want me right now, I really, really just wanted some time away from my son.
The stress started to take its toll on our relationship. While I felt badly about the fact that my husband couldn’t take cat naps during the day like I did, I was jealous that every morning he got to return to the land of adults for eight hours, while I was still stuck in baby-town. I was irritated with other mothers that I met who described their male partners as “babysitting” their children while they were out, rather than thinking of their what their partners did as just plain parenting. Even more annoying were the reactions that a friend of mine, who had recently become a stay-at-home father, received from friends and family. People kept congratulating him on being such a wonderful father for being willing to give up his career for a year in order to stay home and look after his sons; the way his friends and family acted, you’d think he’d just agreed to donate both kidneys to a complete stranger. Meanwhile, many of my friends seemed to think that I was on some sort of vacation, and didn’t understand why I was so miserable.
Things slowly got better, though. One thing you can say about babies is that they change, and quickly. Sometimes this is to your benefit, like when they outgrow a phase that you really hate, and sometimes to your detriment, like when you finally find a groove that works and you enjoy a week or so of peace and happiness only to have your kid change just enough so that you carefully calibrated routine totally falls apart. After a few months, our son finally grew up enough so that he didn’t feel the need to cling to me 24/7, and that, plus experience, helped my husband feel more secure in his parenting.
Now, two years into this crazy journey, I would say that we parent pretty equally. That’s not to say that we parent the same, or that our son never prefers one parent over the other, but I don’t think that either of us feels like we’re doing more of the legwork than the other person. It helps that we seem to complement each other on a lot of the big stuff. For example, my husband is great at imaginative play, and general horsing around, whereas I’m good at the stuff that requires time and patience, like teaching our son his alphabet and his colours.
Another big one is that our kid will go straight to his dad when he wants to have fun or listen to music, but will more often come to me when he wants quiet reading time or comfort for some hurt or other.
My husband and I discipline differently, too. I’m more of the, hey kiddo, let’s talk about your feelings type, whereas my husband’s style is more like get in my office right now. As much as in the heat of the moment it can be difficult to try to co-parent with someone who has ideas that are sometimes at odds with your own, at the end of the day I think that our son benefits from having both styles in his life.
What seems most important to me is that while our son does get different things from my husband and I, those things are equal in terms of how they’re helping him to grow and develop. My husband plays a crucial role in our son’s life, and so he should.
Why, then, does it seem like society thinks so little of fathers?
You only have to turn on the TV to see how the media portrays fathers – they range from totally absent, like Meredith Grey’s father on Grey’s Anatomy, to unfeeling assholes, like John Winchester on Supernatural, to just plain ridiculous, like Homer on The Simpsons or Peter on Family Guy. The fact that we have such low expectations for dads helps explain why people treated my stay-at-home dad friend as if he was some kind of superhero, whereas I felt like just being a mom all day long without managing to keep a sparkling clean apartment or maintain a busy social calendar made me some kind of failure. It also explains why people refer to their husbands as “babysitting” their children, as if looking after their own kid was some kind of job their husbands had been hired to do.
So how do we change this?
Well, first of all, we need to see more smart, thoughtful engaged fathers, both in real-life, through celebrities and other prominent men, and in the media.
A great first step would be to see more stay-at-home dads.
The problem is, before we take that step, there are a few, or maybe a lot, of things that need to be addressed.
First of all, we have to look at the reasons why more women stay home. Some of it is biology – staying home is definitely easier if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, for example. Some of it is monetary – it often makes more financial sense for a woman to stay home, partly because the gender wage gap still exists, and here in Ontario women who are working full-time, full-year jobs still make 28% less than their male counterparts. Some of it is just plain societal expectations – staying home is still viewed as a woman’s job, and men who stay home with their children are, at best, treated as a joke, and, at worst, thought to be emasculated and dominated by their female partner.
All that being said, how do we fix this?
Biology we obviously can’t change, but we, as a society, can continue to make breast pumps cheaper and more accessible to women who want to breastfeed. We can also encourage workplaces to make themselves into pumping-friendly environments, instead of asking women to pump in the washroom or only during their lunch breaks. We can renew the movement to close the gender wage gap, which seems to have lagged in recent years. Most of all, though, we can work to break down traditional gender roles, and get rid of the idea that men have no place staying at home with their children. Because, honestly, I wonder if growing up in a world where only girls are encouraged to take up babysitting as their first after-school job, where men are shunned from events like baby showers and the thought of a dude changing a diaper seems downright hilarious helped contribute to my husband’s discomfort in his early days as a parent. The plain truth was that, as a woman, I had spent far more time around babies and small children than he ever had.
Look, I’m not saying that all men should stay home all the time, or that women, even feminist women, have some kind of obligation to go back to work after having kids. And before you jump in to tell me that some women want to stay at home, and some women like traditional gender roles, trust me when I say that I already know that, and I’m totally fine with it. I don’t want to take anything away from anyone; all that I really want is for people to have choices. I want men to feel like they have an equal opportunity to be a stay at home parent. I want women to feel like they can go back to work, if that’s what they want. Most of all, I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to behave in a certain way just because of what’s between their legs.
So what does all this mean? How does any of this prove that dads matter? I’m not really sure, except that I know that they should, both because they deserve to matter, and because women and children deserve a partner and parent who is engaged and caring. I know that when we live in a society that tells us that fathers are little more than wage-earning buffoons, everyone loses out. Above all, I know that this stereotype is something that we can, and should, change. It won’t happen quickly, and it won’t happen easily but I believe that we, as a society, are up to the challenge.
I also know that my husband is a great dad, and my son and I are lucky to have him.