When my daughter, Eva, was exactly two and a half, we went for a walk by the pond on our road. The spring peepers were out in full force. She asked, “Mama, why dey peep?”
“Well,” I said, “The mamas and the papas are making babies.”
“No, Mama! Only mamas make babies.”
“Hmmm, well, the papas help out a little.”
“Oh!” she said, “Like us!”
“I guess so. I had you…”
“And you take care of me mostly. Papa help out, but not a lotta bit. Only when you are making dinner.”
Uh oh. What had I done wrong? All my careful avoidance of gender stereotypes had been for naught. We live in Vermont for goodness sake! Half her friends had either two moms or two dads. She had male friends who wore dresses and female friends who wore construction hats. Her father had long hair! Billboards are illegal in Vermont, she’d never been to school, and we don’t own a TV; we’d taken measures to control her outside exposure to our culture’s gender dictums. But no, clearly, the mama is the one who raises babies.
In retrospect I shouldn’t have found Eva’s observation surprising. I stayed home with her; Ben went to work. A few months after the peeper incident, we were out as a family and a friend commented on how extremely polite and bright our daughter was. Ben told him, “I can’t take any credit. Laura does 95 percent of the parenting.” Flattering, yes, but it wasn’t the ideal I was striving for.
Although I like the idea of sharing our parenting evenly, it hasn’t been realistic. We made a lot of decisions for our children’s benefit that resulted in me doing most of the parenting. There’s the work/stay at home thing. But there’s also the carry the baby in your womb for nine (or in my case—nearly ten) month thing. And the exclusive breastfeeding thing. And the co-sleeping thing in which I have literally spent five years of my life nursing our children to sleep every night. Hard to split those up. And hard to create an equal bond to the parent not doing those things.
Sometimes trying to equitably divvy up our parenting seems to even go against nature.
Among mammals, fathers who have any role in raising their offspring are the notable exceptions. And throughout the human world, across cultures and throughout time, it has almost always been the mother who bears the brunt of the child raising.
I’ve had four years to reflect on this. We have two children, Eva is now six-and-a-half and Simon her brother is two. Things have changed a lot since our son was born. With two kids, we’ve been splitting the work more evenly. When we are all home, Ben usually takes on Eva, and I am with Simon. Simon spends so much more time with Ben than Eva did at this age. Still, I am the one they want when they are hurt. I am the one who cannot go to the bathroom alone. I am the one who tries to sneak off for a ten minute shower only to find the two year old banging on the shower door and the six year old reading to me from the bathroom rug.
Certainly there are other ways to parent than Ben and I have done it. But it will always fall to someone to raise the children. Whether the mom takes on a job in Congress and dad (or the other mom) stays in Maine to raise the kids, two wealthy people hire a nanny, neither parent is present and Grandma raises the kids, someone takes on the majority of parenting responsibilities. Certainly there are parents who come closer to equality. My co-teacher and her wife fully intended to raise their son completely equally. But one woman carried and nursed him; she then took eight months off to be with him. Now my co-teacher works part time and spends far more time with the baby than her wife. The balance swings back and forth, but in all families I know, one parent carries more.
Ben is significantly more involved in parenting our children than either of our fathers were and far, far more involved than any of our grandfathers. But I am the “mom” in our family. Our daughter is fully aware that boys can wear pink; families come in all shapes, colors, and sizes; and that both her parents love her beyond all imagining. But in her world, the mamas raise the babies.
Human ecology challenges us to question our assumptions about the world and choose consciously how to live our lives. I have always wanted to have children, and I thought long and hard about how I wanted to raise my children and who I wanted to be as a mother. My education about women’s issues and rights made me believe the only fair way to parent was to do it equally. But my daughter’s perception is challenging my own assumptions about motherhood. I thought parenting should be an equally shared job. But it’s not. Perhaps that’s okay. Parenting needs to be intentional. It needs to be unified. It needs to be regularly re-evaluated. But maybe it doesn’t need to be even for it to be fair.
It is exhausting to be the “mom.” But as a good friend recently pointed out, it is also a deep honor. For those few, brief, completely taxing first years, I have the opportunity to be the most important, most cherished, most influential person in someone’s life. I will never again be this loved.