Monday, March 8, 2010

Who's watching the baby??

Don't be alarmed by the title of the post - currently the answer to that question is me. It's morning naptime and I'm watching her with the assistance of some wonderful modern technology, the video baby monitor. I love this thing, without it I would have no idea how hard she works to maintain that nice smooth bald spot on the back of her precious head!

Back to the title of the post. This is, hands down, the question that I am asked most frequently when I am out and about. I spend a lot of time out of the house without Andrew and baby J. Last week, for example, I spent 20 hours working my university job, nine hours in class, about 11 hours doing consultation projects in a couple different parish settings, three hours at yoga class and three hours at my own parish prepping and teaching Godly Play. Add a few hours of travel and transition time in to that and you're getting close to 40 hours. Andrew, on the other hand, has about 11 hours of classtime, 12 hours of clinic and 1-2 hours of study groups each week. So he's home more right now. The funny thing is that this possibility - the possibility that when I am out working Andrew is home with baby J - doesn't really occur to many people first thing.

"Who's taking care of the baby while you work?" It seems like a harmless question, and really it is. But I didn't realize until I became a mother how against the grain of our current culture it still is for a father to be just as involved in parenting and primary care-giving for a child - especially an infant - as the mother is.

Another common question is this one: "So, is daddy babysitting today?"

I'd bet our mortgage that no one has asked Andrew if I was "babysitting" our daughter when he's been out and about without us. I'm not offended when I'm asked these questions, at least not for me. But I feel a little irked for Andrew. What, because he is a man the best he can do is "babysit" his child? It's not seriously offensive in any way, but I do feel like this is one way our culture shortchanges our men. Let me explain.

One of the things I love about making an effort to engage the world from a feminist perspective is the flip side to feminism. There's the main idea - that women are full human beings in every respect, equal to men and just as deserving of respect, care, safety, and power. I like that and I believe that. These ideas are most often highlighted and played out in direct respect to "women's issues" - women deserve equal pay, the right to move up the corporate ladder, to do whatever men do etc. etc. etc. The freeing aspects are focused on freedom for women. But the whole thing falls apart unless this perspective is freeing for men too. Sometimes that part is neglected.

So the flip side to believing that the arenas of power and control that have traditionally belonged to men should also belong to women and offer them equal opportunity (stuff like politics, powerful careers, high pay, working outside the home for money, etc.) is believing that the arenas of power and control that have traditionally belonged to women also belong to men, and they should be offered equal opportunity there. This is stuff like capacity to nurture and care for children, ability to organize house and home, desire to be involved in an intimate and daily way with the business of the nuclear family. Part of looking at life from a feminist perspective, for me, means believing that these spheres of influence are equally valuable and important, despite the disparate value that our culture places on the public sphere, and that there are human beings of both genders who have the capacity to excel in either arena. Maybe even in both. It proposes the hypothesis that for every woman whose true gifts could have led her to dramatic success as a business person, contractor, fireman, police officer, CEO, state senator, doctor etc. if only she hadn't felt pressured to stay home and raise a family there is also a man out there whose true gifts could have led him to dramatic success as a child-rearer, household organizer, nurturer, and homemaker if he hadn't felt pressured to have a career in more traditionally male role.

When Andrew and I sat down, years ago, to talk about how we wanted to build our family I had concerns from my feminist perspective about expectations. I am not built to be a stay-at-home mom, and I needed him to know that. At the same time, I found the prospect of being the sole financial provider for our family daunting. And I didn't want any children, should we choose to have them, to spend a lot of their babyhood in daycare. Turns out, he was much on the same page himself. It was such a relief for us to let go of the pressures of traditional gender expectations, AND the pressure from the other side to be so radically different that we "reverse" our roles. What if, we thought, we just figure out what we'd each be best at and what our real priorities are and worked from there?

Right now that means that I'm doing more in the public world than Andrew is, and he's taking care of a lot, but not all, of the business of homemaking for the three of us. It means that our baby is always with one of her parents. It means that we have to really talk to each other about all of our household routines because we both have to know how to do everything. It also means that we hold these things as impermanent - we are open to a time when he's doing more "out there" and I'm doing more at home. Or when it's more 50-50.

Most importantly it means that there are no babysitters living in this house - no, not even Daddy.


  1. I was in a domestic partnership with someone for four years who had a small child. The child was one when we got together and five when we parted. My ex used to say, "I have to watch Caleb tonight," or something to the like or "watching" or babysitting". I used to tell him, "You're not 'watching' Caleb; you're caring for him. He's your son."

    I'm not sure if that speaks to how removed he FELT in his child's life, or that he felt the role of Father was taken from him or that his care was less important (the mother believed told him that her relationship with child was more important). It was strange having to empower my then-partner into changing the way he viewed and spoke of his care for his own child. It always made me sad. It still kind of does, even though we're no longer together.

    I've heard this from other dads as well. I just look at them and ask, Why are you "watching" (or, "babysitting") your own kid?

  2. James is the at-home parent of our son and whenever they are out and about and Seamus is missing a sock or not wearing a hat, a stranger will often say to James, "Does his mother know that he is outside without socks!" James has started saying, "His mother is DEAD!"

    As the working-out-of-the-house parent, I am often asked when my husband is going to get a job. I can't imagine someone asking my husband that question if I were at home with our son!

    The weirdest and most disappointing part about all of this is that most of the time women are the ones making these comments.

    Thanks for writing this and being honest about the ways you and your family share/juggle responsibilities so that all three of you can be the best family you can be!

  3. I love that you two found a way to make this work. Our goal is for Kelly and I each to work part-time and be home part-time. We aren't there yet, but it's a work in progress...

  4. Sarah - yes, I really do feel that there are strong elements in our culture that push men away from their children, and this is just one example of that.

    Lindsay - I have a lot of thoughts about why women would be the main people commenting, probably too many to write about in a reply. But I think it might have something to do with turf issues. Still in our culture there are women who sacrifice dreams to stay home (not all, and I believe staying home to parent is in and of itself a worthy thing to desire, for moms or dads) so it must be interesting for those who have to see a man in James' position. Also, he's functioning in a sphere of influence that is one of the few places of unquestioned power for women so...wonder how that plays into it.

    Kari - it's always a work in progress!! You know it is for us, too. I bet you'll get there. Kelly is such a sweet daddy, I can see why you'd both want him to be at home parenting even more than he is now.

  5. Thanks for bringing such an important discussion to light! Graeme and I felt it was so important that we as parents raise our children the majority of the time. He's able to be home Tuesday and Thursday mornings as well as Wednesday afternoons. Surprisingly, to everyone that knows me, I wanted to continue working while raising our family. Graeme would actually prefer for us to live in a cheaper state so that I could work full-time and he could be home full-time. Then I kindly remind him that that includes cleaning and cooking as well :)
    I've caught myself asking if he can "watch" Gordon while I'm at an appointment. I should say, "Can you be at home" or something like that.
    It makes me crazy when people ask if he babysits!! Um...he's being a dad!
    The toughest part of tag-team parenting is making time for us as a couple, but that's part of why we believe in early bedtimes for our kids! It's so refreshing in an age of childcare and nannies that we can work out parenting our own kids (as tough as that is sometimes).

  6. Long time reader, first time commenter. Do you mind if I tweet this post? Its great!

  7. Kate - no! you stay working and stay here, haha! :P what's interesting to me about your comment is that yes - homemaking and childrearing is WORK. I feel like the more men explore participating in this work as a serious vocational option for all or part of their time the more seriously this work will be taken culturally.

    Liz - welcome! Yes, feel free to tweet. I'm flattered!

  8. Love it!!!!!

    It makes me crazy when people refer to Dad's babysitting - especially when other Mom's do it... like, "I'll have to see if my husband can babysit"... Are you kidding me... It's called parenting!

    Of course I politely refrain from actually saying that :)

  9. My husband used that phrase and I gave him a piece of my mind. One time he told me he had to walk the dog and I wanted to go somewhere and he said what about the baby? I said, well take him with you - like I do when I walk the dog 5 days a week! It's okay that I don't get to go somewhere unless it's work!

  10. i worked part-time for the first 4 months of Tee's life and my husband decreased his hours so he could stay at home with the baby. i too got asked the same question! great post:)

  11. This is such a great post, and it's something I don't really think about--but when/if we're parenting, I'll be the stay-at-home lady. I hope that my husband doesn't feel pressured to be a second-tier parent; he wants a kid very much, and wants to be an active parent. Gender equality starts at home, right?

  12. I am SO GLAD I found your blog. This post hits home -- hard. I agree with you 100%, about everything. Too many thoughts, and if I start writing you will have an essay in your comments!! I have always wanted to write a post about this very topic but could never find the words. You found them for me. THANK YOU. Mind if I reference your post on my blog? BTW, we are white parents of our beautiful AA son, Miles, who we adopted 2 years ago. Look forward to following your blog.

  13. Couldn't agree more. I'm a SAHM and am increasingly running into SAHDs at playgroups. They are perfectly capable and happy being there (which is more than I can say for many of the nannies!). Still, I can't help but feel a little sorry for the guys since they stick out a mile and don't quite gel with the cliques of moms. Like any cultural change, I guess it will take time for attitudes about moms as most natural caregiver to shift. As the number of SAHD continues to rise, hopefully more balance will be achieved.

  14. when I had my firstborn a 22 year old male friend held her for two hours. He told me he had never held a newborn baby. I was flabbergasted he has lots of young kids in his family But he also had a twin sister and the girl got offered the baby always. Since then I discovered that lots of young man had neverheld a baby before they get their own. Their wives have... I foudn it so sad. It makes it harder to get a foot in for them. By the way my husband handles laundry in our house. There still exist people who have an issue with that...