Choices

So. This is my blog. I am a 32 year old woman with a male companion and two daughters who are 9, and 3 months old. At some point in the sleep deprived recent past, I decided it would be a good idea to write a blog to record of my experiences of living a ‘houselife’ and being the primary carer in the context of a life/relationship/family that tries not to automatically fall into hegemonic gender roles. And yet, here we are. Male partner working fulltime to bring in enough money to  pay the bills. Female partner at home on maternity leave for a year, being primary carer to two children and domestic aid. As typical and normal as this seems, this is not our ideal. This would not have been our choice, had we had a better option. But we didn’t. In the reality of our lives, and our society, this is the best we could do. Bollocks.

In the years leading up to deciding that now was the right time for another child, my companion and I had many discussions and arguments over how we would work the home/work life balance  with another child. It was a difficult subject for us both to negotiate and we found that we both had pretty sensitive buttons around the issue. I remember feeling shocked that it was so hard to agree on some things as one of the many reasons I adore him is that we share a deep loathing of oppression, particularly patriarchy. We are both committed to breaking through unnecessary hegemonic gender roles. But as can often be the case, when we are in agreement with someone on the big issues, it is the small differences of opinion that seem the most difficult to negotiate.  Once we had waded through this minefield and agreed on some basic principles that met both our needs we seemed ready to go. And go we did. “Maybe we should stop using contracepti……” BAM- I was pregnant.

Once  you are definately with child it’s time to start diving into the bureaucracy of childbearing. Maternity and paternity pay and leave, lifestyle, childcare, etc. Now of course, we can all dream up our perfect  gender equality scenario of what we would like our family/work life to look like, but reality is a harsh beast. Basically, the process goes like this. First, think up your dream egalitarian family scenario. Then scale it down a bit more so that it somewhat resembles reality. Then chip off some of the finer points so that it meshes with your job, discard a few more bits so that your partner’s job fits in too, now slice off a hefty chunk so you can live within your financial means and you’re nearly there. One more step. Take out a nice hegemonic family shaped cookie cutter and firmly stamp it onto your life. Perfect! Now you’re just like everyone else. Wasn’t that what you wanted?

The shit thing is, that unless you have money to spare (which most of us don’t) or are able to live on practically nothing (and therefore bypass music lessons/ethical consumption/family holidays  etc) it is very difficult to live outside of the breadwinner/homemaker model. You can, of course, reverse the gender roles if the female part of your family earns enough to make this viable (chances are she doesn’t since equal pay has yet to be realised) and you are happy to forgo breastfeeding, or pump your boobs throughout a working day (logistically very difficult and exhausting). And even if you can reverse the roles, well, you’re still split into earner/carer roles. And frankly, this sucks for everyone. Such polarised roles mean you both end up with too much of what the other lacks.

At this point I need to pause and acknowledge that this post can read with the assumption that child bearing relationships have one male and one female partner. This is not always the case and the earner/carer trap works in childbearing relationships of any gender or non gender mix.

So what can you do?

The government recently changed the rules around maternity and paternity leave to give families more choice on how they decide to take leave to look after new babies. Now, it’s a step in the right direction, but it still has some fundamental flaws. Fathers can now take ‘ordinary paternity leave’ which is two consecutive weeks which are paid at the standard paternity/maternity leave rate. Then, they have the option of taking ‘Additional Paternity leave’ which can start anywhere from 20 weeks after the baby is born up to a year, as long as the mother has returned to work. And it is paid at the same rate as Statutory maternity leave, for the same amount of time (up to 39 weeks post birth).

Now this is much better than it was, but if you remember that women are paid less than men on average, it is still only a few families that can afford to live off the women’s wage as the main income should they wish to.  And of course it doesn’t address the main issue of the earner/carer divide. Whilst we need to give families more choice in the way they divide up their first year of baby caring, we also need to look at the realities of choices in the workplace. Post baby Part time working requests are often turned down when made by men. This not only disadvantages men who wish to play a more active roles in raising their children, it also leads to their female partners holding the bulk of the caring and domestic work.

Basically, if we want to emancipate women from domestic drudgery and automatically being the main carer within family life, we need to make space for men to work less so that earning and caring can be shared.

I don’t really have any answers to this problem- indeed- i couldn’t find a way to make it happen in my life! Well, not yet anyway. Once I return to work, my companion plans to drop a day’s work so that we both work four days a week and we can both spend some time looking after the kids. Ideally, we’d both like to work away from the home for three days a week but in this capitalist society that seems unlikely.

In the meantime, I’m going to use this blog to try and unravel the complicated threads of a gender induced houselife.

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