When I found out I was pregnant, I was smack in the middle of reading Meghan Daum’s wonderful essay collection, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On the Decision Not to Have Kids. It seemed like a sign that I shouldn’t go through with it. The reasons the various essayists offered for choosing a child-free life seemed so damn sensible, I found myself thinking them on repeat. But I’m just not meant to be a mum. But I could never give up my career. But I have such a full life without kids. But I don’t have a good relationship with my own mother. But I’m too neurotic. But what if I have a kid and don’t love him? But what if I love him so much it hurts?
I’m not a nurturer by nature, and yet I seem to constantly find myself in the role of caretaker. My dad died in his 40s after a battle with cancer, and my mum has struggled ever since. I have three younger siblings, and I’m often the therapist stand-in for friends and coworkers. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for me to choose romantic relationships based on who I thought “needed me more” (Spoiler: This is a terrible way to date). Taking care of an actual dependent infant seemed like it would definitely break this here camel’s back.
Plus, my siblings and I have heard the phrase, “I gave birth to you; you owe me” far too many times. To this day, I never know how to respond. Yes, to create and give birth to a life is a beautiful and admirable thing — but at what point is the debt repaid? When does the indentured servitude end? When does a child growing up and living her own life, separate from her parent, become not ingratitude but successful adulthood? I knew pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting would involve a lot of pain and heartache. What if they made me resentful? What if I, too, was doomed to raise my child under a lifelong “you owe me” decree? I just couldn’t risk it.
I have this partner. His name is Mark; we’ve been together 10 years, and he is unlike anyone I’ve ever met. I would almost venture to say he is my polar opposite if that weren’t just plain insulting myself — because this is the nicest guy on the planet. Sure, he has a hidden edge and will occasionally make a snarky comment that surprises everyone, but 99% of the time he is tolerant, compassionate, loving, magnanimous, nurturing, kind...the list goes on. He has these loving parents and loving sisters, and even after all these years it still baffles me that they all genuinely like each other all the time. (I don’t get it; how can people possibly be so nice? Wisconsin — that’s how.)
When I found out I was pregnant, Mark had none of the billion qualms that I did. He was content; I was sobbing on the curb, clutching the pee-stick. Of course, even in his happiness, Mark did not try to sway me in any way. We would do whatever I wanted, he said. We could always have a baby later. We could adopt in 20 years. I was even promised a hypothetical post-abortion foot rub.
But, despite all my mental jumping jacks, I decided to stay pregnant — and, in turn, to dedicate a whole lot of my life to the kid who was waiting at the other end of that pregnancy. And listen to me when I tell you: The decision to go through with the pregnancy had nothing to do with a biological clock. I didn’t “feel pregnant” and then “fall in love” with the microscopic worm nugget wreaking havoc in my uterus. Nor was I guilted into it; if I got pregnant today, I would have an abortion (even if I have to fly to Canada for it). Rather, I decided to have that baby anyway because I just kept looking at Mark and thinking, Gosh, he was meant to be a mum, wasn’t he?
It wasn’t just that this man wanted and deserved this child; it was that this child — any child — would be lucky to have this man as his father. And maybe, just maybe, I would be an okay parent, too.
I’ve seen plenty of couples who dive into parenthood all gung-ho about an equal division of labour, and then it just doesn’t happen. For different-sex couples, “division of labour” often means the working dads work — while the working mums work, do most of the household management and chores, and take on the lion’s share of child care. I know it’s a cliche to say, but: I honestly don’t know how those women do it. Having a deadbeat partner forcing me to be “100% mum and 100% employee” like one working mother we interviewed (whose husband barely participates in parenting) wouldn’t just mentally wreck me; it would probably drive me to quit my job, leave my partner, or both.
But Mark dove into parenting all gung-ho about equal division of labour — and he truly went above and beyond. For the first few months of my son’s life, I never changed a diaper. I never got out of bed for a midnight feeding; I simply sat up and was handed a baby. Mark took our son to many paediatrician appointments alone, so that I could stay home and nap.
All of this meant I also received plenty of criticism from family and even strangers regarding my son’s hands-on dad. I was apparently “spoiled” to be co-parenting with someone who pulled his own weight; after all, what was I so busy doing in that first month that I literally never changed a diaper? I was only breast-feeding around the clock, battling two cases of mastitis, and trying to re-learn how to walk with a bunch of stitches in my vagina. No biggie.
In the eyes of societal norms (and many, many people I know), this makes him 'The Mum.'
Nowadays, that criticism — subtle or direct — continues. It’s hard to shake it off, and even harder for me not to criticise myself. Our wonderful son, Silas, is one and a half, and Mark has spent Silas’ entire life as his primary caregiver. I went back to work full-time when he was three months old, and Mark cut back to stay home with him. To this day, I rarely change diapers or give Silas a bath. I’m not there for many of his meals because I’m off earning the money that pays for those meals (and our mortgage, etc.). But I’m always there when my son needs me, I sing him to sleep every night, and his first word at every 6 a.m. wakeup call is a squeaky “Mum!” (Also, he already knows I’m the pushover parent whom he can convince to read him six books in a row or take him to the park for a second time that day.)
As for Mark, he’s loving his #1 Parent role. He truly was meant to do it, and it’s easy to see how an hour of playtime feeds his soul the way an hour of solitude feeds mine. He’s managing to keep his small business afloat by working about 10 hours a week, and will definitely amp up the hours when Silas finally starts five-day preschool. As for me, maternity leave was the longest I’ve gone without working since I was 14 years old, and I’m so relieved it’s over.
I spend about 40 daytime hours a week without my son. But when I am with him, I do my best to really be there. And remember all of those epic fears I shared with all those wise and child-free essayists? For me, they just don’t hold up. Well, except for What if I love my kid so much it hurts? That one’s pretty damn real.
So, yes, my husband is the primary caretaker of our son. He's also the parent with endless patience, and the better cook. If he leaves for a weekend, the house is a mess, and it takes me an hour to figure out how to empty the Diaper Genie. In the eyes of societal norms (and many, many people I know), this makes him "The Mum." But the truth is, he's just a really great dad. My son only has one mum — even if she generally tries to avoid interactions with his poop.
Neither of us are perfect parents, and our family’s “equal division of labour” certainly doesn’t reflect anyone else’s. With any luck, Silas will grow up to be as kind and warm as his father — and as creative and determined as his mother. And I keep telling him, just in case he already understands: He doesn’t owe us anything. He has already repaid the “debt” of his birth over and over again, every day. As for my “debt” to Mark — that is, the debt of a thousand diapers — that one may never be repaid in full. But we’re okay with that.