OK… So this article popped up via Dr L the other day: Stuart Heritage writing about the tedium of full-time parenting. He has apparently been writing something every now and then for The Guardian about his experiences of fatherhood. Imagine writing posts about your experiences as a parent – what a loser! But this humanity stuff creeps up on us all, eh?
The gist (or is it jist?) seems that he was amazed by his wife’s seemingly natural ability to look after their child. Which was perhaps a little depressing – not surprising, but depressing. It reminded me of a post I’d written myself (I’m egotistical like that) about Dr L’s and my decision that I’d look after the house and our little family while she blazed an academic career.
I’d come to realise, certainly by eight months into my daycare role, that I just didn’t have the training for all this stuff. Dr L just seemed so many steps ahead; she had the plan. This wasn’t just true of parenthood, but all our shared domestic time. I was coasting, had been for decades. My eyes weren’t seeing what needed doing. I hadn’t had the practice, or the preparation. That was the key point: preparation.
Call me a PC-crazed inverted bigot if you like (honest, it’s fine), but it seems there is more of a smidge of gender involved here. It’s not just that little girls are nudged into caring roles, looking after dolls or younger siblings; it’s a bigger picture than what colour plastic their toys might be or whether boys can play with Barbies. It was easy to think that Dr L was essentially more organised than I, that these were inherent qualities, not learned behaviour. But enquiring minds must know, and that idea didn’t really bear much scrutiny. I couldn’t even tell you exactly how ‘it’ works, what the details of the training schedule might be, but I’m sure that’s what happens. It’s an article of faith, perhaps, pulled from my pocket to explain why it always seems to be the mums and sisters and daughters that know how to pick up the slack. The basic engine of the matter seems that if you leave a job hanging long enough a woman will complete it, as the expectation is that is what happens, what women do. And the ads continue to tell us that Dads are incompetent if well-meaning idiots who cannot be trusted to look after the kids without destroying the house. So Mums have to do it: it’s just easier for everyone in the long run, isn’t it?
And please don’t think I’m making excuses for not knowing the domestic ropes. I’m 42 years old; I’ve had plenty of time to learn how to keep my eyes open to see which jobs need attention, to work out in advance what needs buying for the week’s meals, to remember where everything goes. But that old privilege thing means that I’ve never had to get the training, that I’ve been able to focus on my own projects without having to tidy up after or plan for anyone else.
As a response article on Jezebel pointed out, if you have to do something, it doesn’t really matter whether it comes naturally or not: you still have to do it, you have to learn the required skills, even if you resisted the pressures to learn them already. And it’s easy to overlook the difficulties if you’re not the person facing them, to assume that everything is done by instinct. And it’s easier yet if you’re not even there in the day to witness the mistakes, the struggles and the battles of wills. There’s the rub.
It doesn’t even make much sense to put forward the idea that one gender would have more of an idea how to keep a young mind stimulated. I’ve definitely had a black expense open up in my belly at the start of the day as I wonder how to keep J-Bone entertained for the hours to come. Nothing biological about that, my friends: pure logistics. And that doesn’t even include trying to make sure your own brainwaves don’t flatline by lunchtime.
You may have guessed already, but I’m not a very driven guy: not a high achiever. My remaining ambitions, modest flickers that they are, sit smouldering on a distant back burner. I’ll quite happily sit and read a book, watch a film, listen an album; but those are exactly the options denied the parent or carer that needs to jog along the development of their offspring. On the rare occasions when J will lean in for a quiet cuddle and watch the cricket highlights with me or some Indiana Jones, it feels like our ideas of fun and leisure have briefly overlapped. Chasing him around a sandpit at the park can become quite alienating, miserable even. Often, the most fun, the most reward, of my life comes with watching J making physical and mental leaps, but the practice and repetition needed to back them up really piles on the hours, stretching afternoons beyond any concept of enjoyment. I suspect even he gets bored, and he finds stabbing paper with a black marker vastly absorbing.
Then, there’s always the welcome gloop of parental guilt to grease the wheels of activity. Looking at Facebook feeds through my fingers, reading the wonder-blogs about five-year-olds who’ve packed more into the last couple of summer months than I have in the last two years, I know that it’s not the case that other parents are naturally better able to plan fun activities, but it still feels beyond my means. The same silty sensations that kept me beached on the sofa during my thirties make it equally hard to get out the front door to a session of messy play with my power toddler.
So he loses out too. The sandbank claims another toddler. If I’m bored looking after an alert, energetic learning machine, then that says more about me than him. But nothing says more about me than I do. I write a parenting blog for Heck’s sake! What’s J ever written? He’s the lazy one!
I’m spreading my sympathies all round.