Who’s watching the baby?

Guest post by Alissabeth Newton

Andrew and Baby J
Andrew and Baby J

This is, hands down, the question that I am asked most frequently when I am out and about. I spend a lot of time out of the house without Andrew and baby J. Last week, for example, I spent 20 hours working my university job, nine hours in class, about 11 hours doing consultation projects in a couple of different parish settings, three hours at yoga class and three hours at my own parish prepping and teaching Godly Play. Add a few hours of travel and transition time in to that and you’re getting close to 40 hours. Andrew, on the other hand, has about 11 hours of class time, 12 hours of clinic and 1-2 hours of study groups each week. So he’s home more right now. The funny thing is that this possibility — the possibility that when I am out working Andrew is home with baby J — doesn’t really occur to many people first thing.

“Who’s taking care of the baby while you work?” It seems like a harmless question, and really it is. But I didn’t realize until I became a mother how against the grain of our current culture it still is for a father to be just as involved in parenting and primary care-giving for a child — especially an infant — as the mother is.

Another common question is this one: “So, is daddy babysitting today?”

I’d bet our mortgage that no one has asked Andrew if I was “babysitting” our daughter when he’s been out and about without us. I’m not offended when I’m asked these questions, at least not for me. But I feel a little irked for Andrew. What, because he is a man the best he can do is “babysit” his child? It’s not seriously offensive in any way, but I do feel like this is one way our culture shortchanges our men. Let me explain.

One of the things I love about making an effort to engage the world from a feminist perspective is the flip side to feminism. There’s the main idea — that women are full human beings in every respect, equal to men and just as deserving of respect, care, safety, and power. I like that and I believe that. These ideas are most often highlighted and played out in direct respect to “women’s issues” — women deserve equal pay, the right to move up the corporate ladder, to do whatever men do etc. etc. etc. The freeing aspects are focused on freedom for women. But the whole thing falls apart unless this perspective is freeing for men too. Sometimes that part is neglected.

So the flip side to believing that the arenas of power and control that have traditionally belonged to men should also belong to women and offer them equal opportunity (stuff like politics, powerful careers, high pay, working outside the home for money, etc.) is believing that the arenas of power and control that have traditionally belonged to women also belong to men, and they should be offered equal opportunity there. This is stuff like capacity to nurture and care for children, ability to organize house and home, desire to be involved in an intimate and daily way with the business of the nuclear family.

Part of looking at life from a feminist perspective, for me, means believing that these spheres of influence are equally valuable and important, despite the disparate value that our culture places on the public sphere, and that there are human beings of both genders who have the capacity to excel in either arena. Maybe even in both. It proposes the hypothesis that for every woman whose true gifts could have led her to dramatic success as a business person, contractor, fireman, police officer, CEO, state senator, doctor etc. if only she hadn’t felt pressured to stay home and raise a family there is also a man out there whose true gifts could have led him to dramatic success as a child-rearer, household organizer, nurturer, and homemaker if he hadn’t felt pressured to have a career in more traditionally male role.

When Andrew and I sat down, years ago, to talk about how we wanted to build our family I had concerns from my feminist perspective about expectations. I am not built to be a stay-at-home mom, and I needed him to know that. At the same time, I found the prospect of being the sole financial provider for our family daunting. And I didn’t want any children, should we choose to have them, to spend a lot of their babyhood in daycare. Turns out, he was much on the same page himself. It was such a relief for us to let go of the pressures of traditional gender expectations, AND the pressure from the other side to be so radically different that we “reverse” our roles. What if, we thought, we just figure out what we’d each be best at and what our real priorities are and worked from there?

Right now that means that I’m doing more in the public world than Andrew is, and he’s taking care of a lot, but not all, of the business of homemaking for the three of us. It means that our baby is always with one of her parents. It means that we have to really talk to each other about all of our household routines because we both have to know how to do everything. It also means that we hold these things as impermanent — we are open to a time when he’s doing more “out there” and I’m doing more at home. Or when it’s more 50-50.

Most importantly it means that there are no babysitters living in this house — no, not even Daddy.

Comments on Who’s watching the baby?

  1. When I read this I had to laugh- I am guilty of asking this question. However, when I see a father I know alone in public, I also ask HIM if the mother is at home with the baby. This has been met with very strange looks, maybe because I “should” be assuming that the mother is home with the baby?
    It’s sometimes difficult to know what to say to new parents, not having children of my own. Sometimes people aren’t passing judgement when they ask “who is watching the baby?” For me, it’s just a way to make small talk, inquire about the parent that is not present, and get a glimpse of how your life has changed with the new baby.
    So maybe some new parents out there (in your endless amount of free time, of course) could write a post on the “top ten things acquaintances should NOT to say to new parents”?

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