My husband is a more natural parent than I am. I’m not supposed to say this — it instantly paints me as a careerist harpy, an ice-hearted feminist scold — but it’s true. I write for a living. I like time alone. I like quiet. My husband is a ray of sunshine, a charmer with boundless enthusiasm; he likes pointless games and group activities, he doesn’t mind being silly, he is tender and indulgent of even impossible people, like the one he married. If you had to pick one of us to keep a two-year-old entertained, he’d be your choice.
I love our toddler, of course; mothers usually do. Still, it feels important to start here: My husband is deeply gratified by parenting. He’s the one who posts Instagram captions about how #blessed he is. I’m the one who answers work emails during family hour, who gets jittery if I spend too long away from my laptop, who let the baby color on the walls because I was mulling over a pitch.
Given the way “work” is set up within patriarchy and capitalism, families like ours aren’t supposed to exist. Ninety-four percent of married fathers work. Only 69 percent of married mothers do. In straight, dual-income households, women spend twice as many hours on housework and childcare as men. This doesn’t reflect some innate female inclination; it’s the result of economic pressure. Men are given a pay boost when they become fathers. Women are systematically sidelined from the moment they become visibly pregnant, if not earlier: Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang reportedly fired one woman for getting married, telling her that “because I was married, I wouldn’t want to continue working as hard as I had been.” Supreme Court Justice Neal Gorsuch allegedly told his law students not to hire women at all, for fear they might be waiting to get pregnant and scam their employers out of maternity benefits. Because my husband is a man, employers assume he does not want to be an active parent. Because I’m a woman, they assume I don’t want to be anything but.
In 2019, “full time” means “every minute.” Well-off parents with capital-C careers are expected to be reachable for their entire waking lives, always happy to work late or travel or just spend their evenings doing homework and answering urgent email. Working-class parents are left patching together multiple jobs, or subjecting themselves to the always-on gig economy — there’s no guarantee they’ll pull enough hours to make a decent income, but they have no ability to commit their time elsewhere. Meanwhile, a child is also a 24-hour-a-day job, one which requires both hands-on labor and mental focus (at least, it does if you don’t want crayon all over your walls). Daycares have limited availability, set hours and price tags that exceed rent or state college. Babysitting apps keep letting sex offenders sign up. The built-in solution is the old one: In order for one parent to spend all their time working, someone else has to spend all their time parenting. In a heterosexual relationship, that person is probably the woman.
No matter how progressive your politics are, and no matter how egalitarian you’ve made your relationship, the whole professional world is still set up to funnel you into a set of rigid, archaic gender roles. I was clear with my husband that I wasn’t going to have a baby if doing so required me to stop working or change careers. I was shopping a book proposal when I learned I was pregnant, and wound up selling it about a month before I gave birth. At the time, he worked in the New York office of a Norwegian company. I assumed, given all I’d heard about the egalitarian Nordic countries and their vast swaths of paternity leave, that he’d get some. He cheerfully reported back that they were going to give him an extra week of vacation time right after I gave birth.
So it began immediately: The assumption that he wouldn’t need or want any time to actually parent his child. I became the primary caretaker for a complex tangle of reasons, some undeniably biological (I was the only parent who could breastfeed, and babies don’t like to be separated from their breastfeeding parent) and more of them cultural (my husband, being a man, made more money than I did; we couldn’t afford to endanger his career the way we could afford to endanger mine). Equality came only through jury-rigging our own imperfect solutions.
Which is not to say that we did not try. In the end, he managed to work from home three days a week for her first year, which — along with hiring some nice women from those terrifying babysitting apps — gave me a few afternoons per week, enough time to write two columns and a book if I didn’t procrastinate or screw around on social media or read for pleasure or socialize or sleep. Even this arrangement was a privileged one; if we were even a few notches down the economic ladder, I would have dealt with this the way other women do, which is to say, I would have lost my job.
That arrangement was also rare; not many fathers would take the time, even if they could. (In Scandinavian countries with lengthy paternity leave, men have to be forced to take it — even there, the impulse is to keep working and let a woman absorb the domestic burden). I think it’s one major reason why my husband seems so different than other fathers. When the baby was born, I was too feeble and doped-up from an emergency C-section to hold her. The thought of her going without skin-to-skin bonding was terrifying. Someone has to hold her, you have to hold her, I kept saying, as they put me under, and he did, whipping off his shirt on the way to the NICU and teaching her what a parent was. Now, when I see how he adores her — “do you think she’ll still be my best friend when she’s thirty?” he once asked, genuinely hoping for the “yes” — I think of her first hour, when she had only her father. I think of that first year they spent getting to know each other, sharing the everyday intimacy that, until recently, was reserved for mothers alone.
We do a disservice to women by cutting them off from the world when they become mothers, or by telling them that meaningful engagement with public life is incompatible with having a family. But we also do a tremendous disservice to men by telling them they aren’t natural parents. We cut men off from tenderness and meaning by telling them love is women’s work.
As our daughter has gotten older, I’ve fought the same war of attrition as any other working mother: Seeming “difficult” because I’m unavailable for assignments when my daughter is at home, losing out on jobs because I moved to a cheaper city to afford decent daycare, missing out on irreplaceable childhood moments because I work weekends and (this part is truly shameful) I like it. My egalitarian feminist partnership continues to get knocked off its center and re-established the way any partnership does, through negotiations and scheduling requests and sometimes — as when my husband’s week-long business trip conflicted with my book launch and we couldn’t get a babysitter — plain old fights. But I am not, and have never been, the only parent who is hard done by. For every hour I spend wishing I was at work, my husband spends one wishing he could see his family. In 2019, American professional culture accommodates neither desire.
A few politicians have worked to change that culture: Elizabeth Warren’s universal childcare plan, for instance, would be genuinely lifesaving for all working parents. I suspect that the structural barriers won’t be overcome until our underlying ideas about parenthood have shifted; until we see equal parenting, not as some ideological project, but as a vital part of the human experience, a choice to prioritize tenderness and intimacy and ambition and accomplishment equally, as important qualities in any human life, rather than sorting the world into people who can love and people who can achieve, parents and workers. Most of us will always have to be both; it’s not until our world honors our both-ness that we’ll know what kind of parents we are.
Sady Doyle is the author of Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy and the Fear of Female Power (2019), a book on female monsters, and Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (2016), a book on how we elevate and tear down women living public lives. She lives in Upstate New York with her family.