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Life as a Housewife…gender equality & the mental load

It’s been an interesting internet news week for a feminist parent like myself, with a couple of articles in particular catching my attention…
http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/the-best-places-to-give-birth-ireland-isn-t-in-the-top-20-1.3089123

“Using the latest data on women’s and children’s health, educational attainment, economic wellbeing and female political participation, the index shows which countries are the best for women to give birth and those in which they and their babies face the greatest hardships”

Unsurprisingly, the Scandinavian countries top the index for their maternity care and support for new parents, typically including generous parental leave options.

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/new-childcare-plan-to-give-80-a-month-to-parents-of-under-3s-1.3101704

“All parents will be able to avail of new childcare subsidies from September including an €80 per month allowance for children aged between six months and three years of age.”

Well, all parents who work outside the home and send their children to a specific type of government-approved childcare…

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/26/gender-wars-household-chores-comic

Illustrating the concept of the ‘mental load’ that is often carried by women alone.

I was particularly interested in this last article when it first popped up in my news feed just over a week ago.  While I’m sure there’s plenty out there like it, I haven’t really come across any others in the vast chasm of the web.

It brought me right back to the early days of parenting and how confused, frustrated and frankly annoyed I felt. That having a baby meant entering a world where my values and choices are irrelevant, and where to live in this country as a parent is to have your day-to-day life determined by the State. This may seem obvious to many of you, but I had been cruising along in a political apathy, and it was kinda big news to me (fast forward a few years and some non-mainstream parenting choices later, and my eyes are WIDE OPEN to the influence of the government on my life, but I digress…).

Thinking back to how I felt in the Summer of 2014. My husband and I had been together 18 years, moving between often living in each other’s’ pockets and plenty of healthy independence. It was an equal relationship for the most part – and our approach to managing the household was roughly: you cook; I clean and let’s throw some money in a joint account for bills and food.  Ignorant, equal bliss…

Baby came and aside from the obvious anatomical considerations, in the first two weeks we were an equal team in our sleep deprivation, shock, awe and joy.  Hubs then went back to work, and I was instantly transported to an alternate dimension that seemed to resemble what 1980’s TV told me about life in the 1950’s. Completely responsible for keeping this little person alive, along with running the household, and with very limited training…

*source: https://english.emmaclit.com/2017/05/20/you-shouldve-asked/

Fast forward a couple of years and another baby and there have definitely been times where I’m responsible for the vast majority of the household chores and with hubs deferring to me when asked to dress and feed kids, to do the washing, cleaning etc. And I have been known to yell, hiss, roar “I am NOT the BOSS of this house/family” (well a very reluctant one if I must…).

On reflection, this is at its worst when I am on maternity leave and at its best when we are both working and have sat down and gone through all the chores, agreeing who is solely responsible (or ‘Project Manager’) for what.

What doesn’t really come across in the above article is the partners view? So let’s play ‘Dad’ here for a minute…

hmmm...

...*reflecting...

hmmm...

...

Ok, if I was away at work all day while my partner was at home with our children I can pretty much guarantee that I would defer to them, assuming that they had a ‘system’ that I wanted to support when I’m around rather than mess with!  If my partner had a tendency to indulge in a bit of ‘maternal gate-keeping’ (crappy term but yep, I’ve definitely been guilty of this at times) I think I’d be quite reluctant to get stuck in…no point doing something if it’s just going to be re-done or I’m going to get given out to for!!  And, if I’m completely honest; if my partner was fully project managing our household and kids logistical stuff and wasn’t asking for help – would I say something like “darling, I’ve noticed you are carrying all the mental load for our family and that is not fair – let’s sit down and divide things up more equitably”? Would I instigate change? Eh, not a frickin’ chance!! I’d just sit on the couch and have another glass of wine :P. Eh, unless of course I noticed they were suffering in some way, ahem ahem…I’m not that bad, just your average person (I think!).

 

So, what can we do…

Well, we can push for change; in society, in the world of work, and in our homes.

While €80 a month towards crèche fees is a nod in the direction of the need for change, it won’t help much here – it’s quite divisive and does nothing to promote gender equality. Helping to make it a cultural, societal and professional norm for men to take time out of their career for family leave; now that is something that will.

I recently had a discussion with an employer who has introduced 12 weeks paid paternity leave for their employees, 26 weeks paid leave if they are the primary caregiver.  The 12 weeks can be taken at any point during maternity leave and will likely be used by many to be the stay-at-home parent for a few months when the mother returns to work.  This is a fantastic benefit, and for these employees anyway, brings life closer to the Scandinavian model. I am delighted to see this being offered by more and more employers lately, and it would be great if the State introduced initiatives that were more broadly in support of parents taking time out of their career to look after their young. To me, this is how we really open up the conversations on gender equality and get some traction on change in the workplace and at home. You need to be a stay-at-home parent to fully appreciate the challenges it brings; and the sole working-parent to experience the exclusion that can go along with that. And; you need both men and women taking time out of their careers for family leave to make it an acceptable norm in the workplace and narrow the gender gap.

But, these things take time, and effort on all our part. So in the meantime, if you are carrying the ‘mental load’, sit down with your partner and divide it up as best you can. Hand their share of it over and have nothing more to do with it unless your help is sought…or unless they are struggling and need your help **caveat, caveat…obviously operate on the basis of partnership, not: ‘it’s not in my job description’!

Claire Flannery is the Founder and Owner of Strength Within coaching and consultancy, where she focuses on helping people create the headspace and mental clarity to discover, cultivate and maximise their strength within. She is a qualified Business Psychologist, Executive, Business & Personal Coach and Gentlebirth Instructor with over a decade of experience working in HR leadership in Financial Services. She is also a Mum to two small boys and has personal experience of successfully managing her career while preparing to transition out of, and back into, the workforce; and is passionate about helping people to successfully navigate the huge identity and life transition involved in starting and growing a family. As a large part of her work, she is privileged to work with women and their partners as they make their journey through pregnancy, birth and early parenting. Along with Coaching services, she runs Gentlebirth and Return-to-Work workshops in Dublin, Ireland.

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