Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Liberté, Egalité (Baby)

Yesterday afternoon at 16:34, women in France staged a walkout from work to highlight the fact that, due to the gender pay gap, for the rest of 2016, French women will effectively be working for free. And France is not the worst offender, with a pay gap which is actually below the EU average and significantly less than in the UK or Germany.

Equality between the sexes is a subject which has been on my mind a lot recently, particularly as I am currently taking parental leave and being paid precisely nothing at all.

"On paper" I really have nothing to complain about. Compared to many other countries, France offers a lot of options in terms of balancing career and family. I had 16 weeks of maternity leave on full pay, and Understanding Frenchman and I both have the right to take time off work or work part time right up until our daughter is three, when she will be starting school. And while the state handouts are not as generous as they used to be for parents taking time off, there is quite a lot of financial and structural support for childcare, making going back to work a relatively easy and financially viable decision. The liberté of choice is there.

On a personal level, I'm also happy to be spending time at home with our baby. It has its lonely and difficult moments, but generally I enjoy our days together and I appreciate having the flexibility to take things as they come. I would have found it very hard to leave her when she was 3 months old, but by the time I do go back to work, I think we'll both be ready for a bit more variety and stimulation. I don't even really mind doing the lion's share of the housework, given that I have the time (and also have to live with the consequences of not doing it all day every day). It seems only fair that when UFM comes home from a long day or week at work, he should spend time with the baby rather than mopping the kitchen floor.

So the problem is not that childcare is currently my full-time job. What frustrates me and gets my feminist hackles up is when looking after the baby turns in to my all-time job. And by that I mean the times when, even when both of us are there, UFM gets on with other things without a second thought and I am left, literally, holding the baby.

It's not that my husband is sexist. Pre-baby, we had a wonderfully balanced relationship where housework was mostly shared out according to who hated doing what the least and he was actually better at some typically "female" things, like remembering birthdays, than me. And since the baby was born, he's been a caring and involved dad who can do all aspects of childcare apart from breastfeeding just as well as I can.

So how did we get into this situation where looking after the baby is, by default, only my job?

Feeding is the most obvious practical element. SCB considers expressed milk in a bottle as the equivalent of serving vintage Moet in a plastic cup and reacts with fervent Gallic protest, meaning that if I do want to go out without her, I have to plan it into a three-hour window of freedom and/or hope that she doesn't wake up before she's expected to. And when you're keeping track of feeding, you tend to keep track of naps and nappy changes as well, which leads to also being the person who is keeping tabs on her exact position on the living room floor and whether she is about to suffocate on a cuddly blanket.

A long working hours culture is another one. UFM leaves the house at 8am every morning and returns at 8pm. This corresponds almost perfectly to SCB's waking hours, meaning that even just having bathtime with daddy is tricky on weeknights. As a result, he is less tuned in to her routine and the cues that certain things need to happen, meaning that he does sometimes depend on me to tell him what needs to be done.

With the move and all the work we've had to do on our flat, we've also been forced recently to adopt a largely divide and conquer approach to getting things done. And dividing according to stereotypical gender roles is often the most efficient approach, even if it isn't the most fair.

Finally, I am to some extent my own worst enemy, partly because I like looking after SCB and partly because I find it hard to relinquish control. I know that I don't need to be checking up on everything that UFM does as a dad, but if I hang around or offer suggestions, it definitely looks that way, and I'm so much in the habit of monitoring everything in my own head all week that it's difficult to stop at weekends!

What is the solution? In an ideal world, I think both of us would work part time and each have days in the week when we would be solely responsible for childcare. Unfortunately, while this is technically possible, society is not yet really in sync with the rules and, in my husband's job, it would not be easy to do. (This is partly a sexism thing, but even if he were female, I think he'd be expected to make use of some of that wonderfully available childcare rather than take long-term parental leave.)

Instead, we are trying to make weekend childcare his responsibility. It doesn't mean that he has to do everything, just that it is his job for planning what needs to be done. At the moment, that tends to work on Saturday mornings, while by Sunday afternoon we're more in a sharing situation, but it's a step in the right direction, and I definitely feel more positive about our division of labour by the end of the weekend than I usually do at the end of a long week!

What about everyone else? Any tips for correcting inequality, whether it's in childcare, in your relationships or at work? (And if you know how to get a baby to take an occasional bottle without giving up on breastfeeding, I'm all ears for advice on that too!)


  1. This is a really interesting post and it is something I think about a lot. I recently have been reading some interesting studies about the ways in which maternity leave (in the absence of shared parental leave, like we now have in the UK and as has been present in Scandinavia for ages) can actually be detrimental to women's equality for precisely the reasons you describe (that is, by putting mothers into the 'expert' position and therefore making childcare, as you so astutely put it, their all-time job by default).

    I think that there are two things to consider here. The first, which has been really important in my household to the running of a smooth and egalitarian relationship, is that it is important to stop expecting the other person to do things as you would do them yourself. I am the higher earner in our relationship, and I work about 40% more hours per week than my partner. In our earlier days, I would come home from work and feel frustrated that he didn't make dinner the way I would want, or that he'd tidied up the house but hadn't done it to my standards. I'd end up just re-doing what he did and then feeling pissed off at having to jump into the second shift after a long day at work, knowing I had more work stuff to do later in the evening while he was just done and sitting around. Eventually, I realised that I was making my own problems and ceding control made a HUGE difference. He still doesn't do things exactly the way I would do them, but I just learned to stop caring - who cares if he folds the laundry in a different method? It's still done! Who cares if the sink hasn't been scrubbed exactly the way I would? It's still clean! We now operate on a policy in which whoever does a job does it their way, and the other person is just grateful that it is done.

    I think the second aspect of things is trickier, though, and that is learning that equity does not always imply equality. Sometimes, the best way for us to have an equitable relationship is for one or the other to take on more than their fair share for a certain period of time. It can be frustrating, but it is just the way things go. For instance, I travel a lot for my job and when I am in a busy period, working 12 hours days and on the road half the month, I do basically nothing at all around the house. Other times, I might have a long period of working from home and ending up doing a lot of household management and maintenance. I figure it evens out long term, but the bigger point is that for us to feel like we are in an egalitarian relationship, we each sometimes have to do more than an exact 50/50 split.

    I am always surprised to hear about parental policies in France. To be honest, I think it is much better in the UK, at least for people in professional jobs where they get an employer contribution.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts - it's always nice to get a long, detailed comment! I like your point about equity and equality, and I agree that it's important to take a long term view.

      I'd be interested to hear what you think is better in the UK. I would have said that the entitlement to leave for both of us is better in France, while financially my situation would be similar in the UK if I took time off and is better in France if I go back to work. Perhaps there are policies in the UK I don't know about though!

    2. I really love this comment about stop expecting your partner to do things the ways you do, and that equity does not always imply equality. I totally agreed with them but practicing them could be hard sometimes.

      I dislike cooking so at one point I stopped and my husband takes over as he likes it. On the other hand, he hates housework so I have to do everything. It is hard to feel ok in the evening when he would just sit on the sofa playing with his phone, while I have to take care of the dinner (because he chooses to cycle to/from work so he comes home around 7pm, if I wait for him, we all will end up eating at 8pm, and he wants my daughter to go to bed at 830pm). After the girl goes to bed, I have to wash dishes, handle housework, take care of the second who refuses to go to bed, while he watches TV. It sounds really unfair, but that's also the consequence of a mother who works 4/5eme. However on the weekend, he would cook, do home improving projects...When he works for the house, I'm ok and try to be thankful, but sometimes I resent him for insisting of building a house because not only he has not time to be with us during the weekends, I'm expected to pick up more works (when his parents are here for home projects, he and his dads would work the whole day, and I'm expected to put food on the table when they are hungry, take care of the kids, and entertain my MIL). That was a life I didn't choose, but have to accept, and all these could last several years.

    3. I know exactly how you feel about the home improvement projects! My husband is really good at taking care of these, and yet I wish his priorities were more in the day to day functioning of the household. But I feel like I can't complain because a lot of these things do need to be done and I certainly don't want to do them... Also men are really messy when they are doing work on the house, and it is/was usually my job to clean up after them when we were renovating the house and also living in it.

    4. Well, at present in the UK it depends on your work, so I am writing from the perspective of someone in a professional position (I'm an academic). When we have kids, I'll get 16 weeks fully paid, 23 weeks on 50% salary, and 13 weeks unpaid (if I choose to take the whole 52 weeks). So the majority is paid to a decent degree. Even better, however, is that with shared parental leave my partner and I will be able to shift things around - we get 52 weeks and the only requirement is that I have to take the first two (mandatory for health and safety reasons). After that, we can split things up as we desire, down to the day, so it works for us both as a couple and financially. On top of that, most workplaces in the country subscribe to the Positive Work Environment policy (not law, but normalised), which means that at any point we could go part time, for as long as we want, and then go back full time when we want (this is already the case at my work for everyone, not just parents), plus we get parental leave which amounts to a fair few days of paid leave over the child's first five years of life. I think it's a good deal!

  2. My husband and I have the typical chore division problems... though I am grateful that he does the cooking and that has helped me out since the baby arrived too (though obviously he is not here at lunchtime). I'm not sure how our baby duties will even out---he likes giving him his bath and he changes the diapers when he's home because I hate doing it (mostly because the baby screams in displeasure). But in the longterm it all remains to be seen... I will be going back to work after maternity leave because I'm the higher earner and we just can't afford to not have me work. I hope it won't be too hard but fortunately I managed to get one class-free day per week this year so I can keep him with me! (Saves some money on child care too)

    Haven't started pumping yet---frankly I'm intimidated by the logistics of it---but I would love to be freed from feeding once or twice if possible!

    1. One class free day is nice - you'll be home almost half of the week that way.

      With giving expressed milk, the trick is to give them just enough bottles at just the right age so that they take both breast and bottle happily. We completely failed on that one :-(

  3. When it comes to chores, we are really equal and although there's some things I tend to do more and some he does more, it's not necessarily over gender lines. What does bother me at times is having most of the responsibility for thinking and planning stuff. Like we cook together, but I almost always have to decide what to have for dinner. 9 times out of 10, I'm like "awesome, I get to choose whatever I feel like", but that last time it feels annoying to always have to come up with the idea or make the decision. Same with always being asked to remind him to do whatever chore it may be. It's not like it's a huge deal, but you do end up feeling like you're ultimately responsible for everything getting done, even if the other person executes.

    Everywhere I've worked in France/Belgium has been pretty much "okay, 5:30/6 pm I'm out the door unless something's literally on fire". It's a shame your husband's work isn't that way!

    1. That's apparently a well-known phenomenon in our generation - men do far more of the chores than they used to but the women still have to plan it all.

      I also like getting to choose what we eat, and I don't mind doing more of the cooking for that reason, but I do hate being responsible for planning shopping!

  4. I kind of discovered feminism after I had Mark. Embarrassing. I mean, I've always been pro gender equality but I can't say I've felt particularly attacked or whatever as a woman.

    What sparked it was the lack of affordable and accessible childcare. In theory, in Canada, most women are eligible to a one-year paid maternity leave (provided they were working full time before that). I didn't get it as a freelancer but hey, that's the rule of the game. However, after that first year, I found myself wondering what the options were... and there were very few. Long waiting lists at daycare centres, a very high price tag (the first daycare Mark went to as a toddler--so not the infant price, even higher--was $1600 per MONTH. Like, seriously. Eventually, the daycare where he stayed the longest was "only" $800/month.

    Now I'm facing a childcare issue again, as school is out at 3 p.m. so I basically have to drop everything at 2:30 p.m. I'm lucky to have a flexible schedule but work still have to be done!

    I don't like the way society guilt-trips women to stay home. I was expecting better from a country like Canada. Unless you have family around to help out (which most people in a immigrant country don't have), affordable and accessible childcare is NOT an option for lazy women who just "don't feel like being responsible mothers".

    1. Yes, I think I was mostly aware of very obvious discrimination like street harassment. Having a baby has opened up my eyes to all the hidden things!

  5. Wow - shocking to think women will effectively be working the rest of the year for nothing! I hope I can let Luke be as involved as possible - I know some who want to have all the control of their child and I get it - I just hope I can find a way to not be like that.

    1. It is hard, especially with raging postnatal hormones, but at least you're aware of it in advance. Plus, I get the feeling from your blog that Luke will be a great hands-on dad!

  6. I second what the first poster said about the difference between equity and equality. Remember that needs change constantly, so don't feel tied to one schedule. That's what stressed me out a lot in the beginning - I'm a very scheduled person, and having him (both husband and baby!) come in and do his own thing was really hard. So going with the flow helps a lot.

    We have basic guidelines for who does what based on preference (me=trash, him=dishes) but it doesn't mean one person can't do it all sometimes if the other needs a break. That anger about "it's not my job" is SO hard to let go of. But even just in the past few months, I've noticed just doing whatever myself actually makes me less angry, because at least then it's done!

    Do try to remember the long term. I know it's hard. But there are rhythms you'll notice looking back. He went part time for a year, then I was part time the few months before we moved to the states. He was home for a few weeks while I started a new job, then I was the one doing pickup and drop off. Now he's doing some drop offs because I just can't deal with toddler crankiness every morning. I go to yoga Sunday morning and he gets to watch football in the afternoon. Equity not equality. Communicating about what each person needs to feel supported/happy, and figuring out how to get there today. Then talking about it again and changing everything a few days later! Adaptation is key!

    I am still terrible about letting him meal plan though. It'll be my resolution for 2017, lol.

    As for bottle tips, have you tried a lot of different bottles? Like, A LOT? Does he give it to her, or you (usually better when someone not you offers it)? Do you offer a bottle every single day? Have you tried with formula? It was super hard for me to pump enough once I was back at work, so he got formula at the nanny's (SO HARD for me to accept!) and then all breastfeeding with me at home. And that way, I was able to keep breastfeeding until almost a year. So don't give up hope!

    1. I think you're right that things will get better in the long term, especially as it's not lack of motivation that's making my husband less involved than me at the moment, just circumstances.

      Thank you for the tips on bottles too. I'm going back to work in January, so we'll either need to blitz it over the next few weeks or she'll just have to go straight on to a plastic cup, which apparently is doable from 6 months or so.