Thursday, 3 April 2014

Women who parent alone

When I learned I was going to be a single mother, disbelief was succeeded by an all-consuming terror. I was bringing a person into the world, whom I alone would be caring for. There would be no one to help. WTF? The terror has still not gone away.

However, since I've become a single mother, and observed the mums around me, I've realised I'm not as different as I thought from my friends.

Parenting as a couple

I'm not saying that single parents are better off than couples. From where I'm sitting, I doubt many single parents wanted to be going it alone - I know it's tough, and I'm only just beginning.

Two-parent families have many advantages over single mums like me:
  • Mums can go out while dads babysit (once they're not needed for breastfeeding)
  • They can talk the daily decisions through
  • Once the children are in bed, mum has someone to spend the evening with
And I can't pretend I'm not jealous of couples who can spend leisurely weekends together, enjoying being a family.

But the advantage they don't seem to have, most of the time, is sharing the work of feeding, changing and bathing.

Sisters doing it for themselves

Generally the work of childcare - call it a burden or a boon if you like - falls on women's shoulders.

There are couples who truly share the load, but these seem to be in the minority. In most families, child rearing does seem to be mainly 'women's work'. Maybe this is the way it has to be and will always be, but it does leave me realising that my life isn't quite as different to my friends' as I had thought it would be, in those early days of shock and fear.

Couples who decided, before their little angel came along, that they would take turns to get up in the night, soon find that she wakes automatically, while he does not. So she may as well deal with the baby, since she's awake anyway.

One Dad I heard recently is too afraid to feed his baby, as the baby has bad reflux and could choke. You can sympathise with his fear, but it's a good job the child's mum has balls, or the child wouldn't get fed at all.

Other dads work long hours, getting home too late in the evening, or they regularly travel away from home, so they can rarely see their child in the week, and so provide practical support, which means they can do little to support their partner at these times. This isn't necessarily their fault, but is another reason why women are often left to parent alone.

I've been reading Misconceptions by Naomi Woolf, which explores experiences of pregnancy, labour and early motherhood. The book recounts stories of women, in what they'd considered to be equal partnerships, who found themselves taking on most of the work and responsibility of parenthood. It also observes that it's usually women's careers that take the hit when a couple decide to have children.

We may think we live in a relatively egalitarian society. But although women's lives and opportunities have come a long way, when it comes to babies, most of the time women end up feeding, changing, bathing and putting children to bed alone, whether they are single mums like me, or part of what they might once have considered to be an equal, 21st century relationship.

At least I'm not the only one doing it on my own.

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