‘Staying at home with RB is harder than going to work,’ I said to a table of parents. The eldest man responded first, ‘but you knew the difficulty that was coming’. ‘No of course not,’ the mothers responded. ‘How can you until you experience it?’
The second man indirectly disagreed with me by saying, ‘I’m staying quiet on this one’.
All three men (my husband included) had the minimal UK paternity leave of two weeks. As far as I’m aware, none have been solely responsible for a baby for more than a few days. Maybe not even that.
One of the dads asked my husband how he was coping with the tiredness. It didn’t seem a relevant question for me. What can be hard about staying at home all day? How many times is maternity leave joked to be a holiday? Or that stay at home mums have it easy? That the real work always ends with a pay-check from an employer? Society, most men especially, don’t value full-time baby care and think it’s a doss.
When I only had commonly held opinion as my reference points – the constant bitching about mothers hogging pavements and cafes with oversized pushchairs, reading newspaper articles about ‘yummy mummies’ flitting around living the good life, or being told people want maternity leave to escape from work – I didn’t respect how tough it was either. In the past few years as my friends have had kids I’ve learned otherwise. Now I’m trying it, I’m learning the hard way. And I can safely say, having worked in a gazillion jobs and industries, from the cheese counter at Waitrose to stewarding at Newcastle Football Club to pretending to be a banker at Deutsche Bank to my current job as an advertising strategist, looking after a baby is harder than going to work. (Okay, not Deutsche Bank but I hated that so much having a wisdom tooth removed midweek was a genuine highlight). Full-time baby care is emotionally exhausting. Full-time baby carers deserve much more respect and recognition than they get, for a number of reasons. And seriously, we have to get over ‘yummy mummies’. Beyond being a rude, sexist and demeaning caricature of people, they’re just women trying to maintain some of their old life, despite having kids. Or are there ‘yummy daddies’ too?
Say goodbye to personal freedom
You hang up your freedom by the door. Baby care requires you to put yourself second, all of the time. If the baby needs something, you drop what you’re doing and do it: leave lunch to go soggy, tea to go cold, wake during the deepest of sleeps. If that means not going to the loo when you’re desperate, you plan how to cover up your wet patch.
Get used to constant disruption
I need this blog to keep me sane. So I had to change blog providers to a mobile friendly one as attempting to write on a laptop, which I wildly prefer, is a joke. This post has taken me weeks to write and edit in 20 min snippets on my phone. Because I am constantly disrupted all day. No matter what you’re doing, at what stage, you’re asked to drop it. You never have privacy. There’s nowhere to retreat to, no silent hours of getting on with it alone. Even a baby’s sleep is not guaranteed. They might wake and need you at any point. There’s no diary scheduling, no clocking off.
In this sense, a baby is the worst boss ever. The one that is always over your shoulder, never lets you do what they’ve just asked you to do and instead calls you once more with another request. Only a baby boss doesn’t tell you what they need, they cry, and you work it out. You know you’ve succeeded when they stop crying.
Know the lifetime happiness of another human rests in your hands alone
But worse than just a tough boss, society tells you that your every move will determine the lifetime happiness of your baby. If you leave your baby to cry too long, you’ll damage their brain development. If you don’t sacrifice your day and body to breastfeeding, you’re failing them as a mother and they will be worse off because of you. So this baby boss comes with the highest ever stakes – the health and wellbeing of another human being.
Dig deep and find infinite patience, despite the circumstances
Patience is not a virtue many of us have in abundance, but baby care requires you to find it when patience is the last thing you’d naturally respond with – when you’re physically and emotionally tired and someone is screaming in your face. However, you know it’s not the fault of the baby. This half meter sized person would literally die without your care. So through the screams, you breathe deeply, you summon your air-hostess smile, and start looking for a solution by trial and error.
The need for patience makes me think that those who dismiss baby care would fail miserably at baby care. Baby care requires empathy, for you to ignore your feelings and see the situation from another’s shoes. Yet if one lacks the patience to attempt to empathise with an adult they don’t have a hope in hell of empathising with an inexplicably crying child.
Say goodbye to personal comfort
Quickly you learn a new level of discomfort is your new normal. This is an outcome of coming second all of the time. I suck up discomfort everyday that I would never contemplate alone. Like not being able to get water on a two hour train ride, or go to the loo on a plane, because RB is asleep on me and moving him risks waking the entire carriage, and likely their wrath. Like my constantly aching arms and back from picking him up to soothe him when he wants to be held. Like never enjoying a drink or meal when they’re hot because almost psychically, when they arrive RB wants to feed too. As a full-time baby carer, you learn your discomfort doesn’t matter as long as your baby is happy, because if they’re not happy, no-one in their earshot can be.
Know your new skills have no value while colleagues climb the ladder
You know that you’re not advancing the skills that society has learned to value. That’s taxing in its own way as you feel that you’re losing the appeal you’ve worked so hard to accumulate – throughout school, and university. Jobs you took to progress up a ladder feel wasted as you’re at best frozen on, at worst falling off, the ladder. And while so much of full-time baby care teaches you incredible skills that only make you a better employee, society doesn’t recognise your new ability to juggle, to have patience, to keep smiling in the shittiest of circumstances.
Prepare to be bored
Looking after a baby for 95% of my life (minus the 9 hours a week he’s with one of his grandmas) can be pretty boring. I am used to exercising my brain in the learning French kind of way. No matter how deep my love for my child, it would be nice to have grown up conversation and face grown up challenges. But no matter how bored or desirous of a mental escape, it’s tough tits on me. This boy needs me and him getting my smiley and upbeat attention comes first. So once more I whip up my air hostess smile and sing another made up silly song or dance around or do bad accents.
Watch TV because anything else is too hard in a world still not set up for babies
Here’s another misnomer. Full-time parenting has downtime when you can sit and watch the TV. Pretty easy job huh? Except when that happens it’s often because it’s too hard to do anything else. Yes, some of the time its dreamy to snuggle with a peaceful baby and watch TV. But that’s the fantasy and isn’t always true. Peaceful especially. Some of the time I’d rather be out and about galavanting – even sitting in a cafe – but I’m at the beck and call of someone who is 100% dependent on me for survival. I need to carry his stone weight or push him in a big push chair. I need to strap him into a heavy car seat. Protect him from sun and from rain. I need to feed RB at a moment’s notice – there is no pattern to his hunger. I need to change pooey nappies at the drop of a load. My home is set up for this. Yet despite babies being as old as humanity, our world isn’t set up for them. Recently I changed RB’s nappy in his pushchair on a central London side street because the five, I repeat five, pubs / cafes I asked didn’t have an accessible baby change. In my north western village, the pavements are too narrow and uneven for my pushchair. It’s more like off-roading than pavement strolling so often I eschew the pavement for the road – often I don’t have a choice as some people park on the pavement blocking my way through. Having a baby makes you realise how utterly shit it is for people in wheelchairs when most public spaces rely on steps and even the London underground, the transport in one of the world’s biggest most important cities, has what feels like five street to train accessible stations. Pushchair users can get used to buggies on escalators (it’s not comfy but it’s possible) or do hardcore workouts carrying them up and down stairs. Wheelchair users can’t.
Become a walking list of chores
When I’m home alone and not paralysed on the sofa by a sleeping RB (he sleeps much better on me than elsewhere), tea / water / lunch / book / phone / remote out of reach, much of my day is spent keeping baby things in order. Washing, drying, sterilising. (When I was breastfeeding that seemed to take up my entire day.) I also do far more housework than before because I allow myself to feel that if I don’t I’m taking the piss – at home and dossing. So I feel like my life is one constant series of chores.
Know that fundamentally, your hard work is disrespected and undermined
Most frustrating of all is knowing that many people don’t just disrespect this work, they dismiss it as easy, as women’s work but worthless work. And in a society that values most things according to the monetary value given, baby care earns the carer pin money for nine months followed by nothing. Nor is there free child care for a baby as an easy alternative. That kicks in at three years old. Baby care is famously expensive as it’s all provided privately, so for many, it’s out of reach.
Listen to people imply you’re a financial leech
And so women who are providing free childcare need to rely on external sources of money, often their partner’s salary. But rarely do people see this as a joint source of money. I’m tired of hearing how husbands pay for stuff when actually, it’s joint income. The man is only out at work earning because the mother is at home providing free childcare, unable to earn a salary. Without her they’d have a nursery or nanny asking for payment each month.
See that quality time with a child need not be 24/7
And I could still enjoy quality time with my child as my husband does, after nine hours of personal freedom five days a week. In nearly every element of life we’re told moderation is key. Yet because I don’t get to clock off, I spend 95% of my time in the same room or building as my child, and it’s emotionally exhausting.
Reiterate that tasks can be rewarding and desired yet still bloody hard work
And don’t get me wrong, I love my child. I think he’s magnificent. Caring for him can be enormously fulfilling. But any personal rewards I get from caring for my baby full-time don’t negate the difficulty of the task. There are many rewarding yet difficult tasks in life, and full-time baby care is one of them.
That some women desire to be full-time baby carers, then full-time toddler carers, then full-time child carers does not negate the difficulty of the task. There are many desirable yet difficult tasks in life, and to some, full-time baby care is one of them.
Recognise some men light the way and some women darken it
Of course some men are leading the way with progressive attitudes. Some are the full-time carer (though I don’t personally know any). Some take an equal share of parenting when they’re home from work, some a more than equal share. Some agree that they earn a household, not personal, income.
And of course some women also believe baby care and toddler care and child care is women’s work. They believe the fallacy that women are wired to do it and don’t believe that social conditioning is the more likely reason that women are full-time baby carers. Read Cornelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender if you want to know more about how social stereotypes and gender expectations influence who we are, how we behave and how well we succeed at different tasks.
Accept that if men valued full-time baby care, they’d be doing it
But you know how I know the majority of men don’t value full-time baby care or toddler care or child care? On the whole, they leave it to women. And in our patriarchal society men don’t leave what they think is the good stuff to women. They keep it for themselves. From management positions to golf clubs to president of the USA. To fucking Dr Who. When women try to get too close to what is rightfully mens’ all kinds of fidgety uncomfortable hell breaks loose.
So when men start to insist women go back to work, that men should rear the children, I’ll know they’ve started to value this work. And it is work. Let no one ever underestimate this. Next time someone dismisses any form of child care, scream in their face. Insist they stop what they’re doing, devote themselves to your happiness and expect them to willingly oblige, with a smile on their face. If they can’t tell them to knob right off because they’ve failed the first test. You put up with that shit all day and you’re still standing. Potentially even smiling.
Know that some people face this, plus financial worries, maybe no additional parental support, and still get no respect or recognition
Finally, these complaints are from a middle class position. There is a second parent in my house. I’m not doing this alone. I don’t have to also worry about affording formula, keeping the electricity running, or paying for baby classes, or childcare. I have a cleaner, and a dog walker, and a totally supportive and wonderful partner who has the most modern and egalitarian of attitudes towards parenting and income and takes his equal responsibility. Yet still, without those extra challenges, I find this hard: harder than going to work.
As if on cue, RB has started to cry (every time I write or edit this post as whether or not I’m finished my 20 minutes is up). And I have to go. And so I’ll say it one more time, looking after a baby full-time deserves more respect than it gets. It’s hard work. Harder than going to work.