Here's a question: what single action, seen in public, would it take for a woman to be labelled “a good mother” by onlookers? Not just a mother, but a good mother.
It was a question put to me by my boyfriend just this morning; even as a relatively new man to the game of parenting, he's noticed that he can get called “a good dad” for simply picking his own child up off the floor. He can be seen as a brilliant dad for wearing his baby in a sling. He's congratulated for changing a nappy. As he said, “The bar is so low: if you even just look like you're enjoying your child's company people will describe you as a great dad.” There seems to be an expectation that all men hate children, so any father seen to enjoy his offspring, let alone look after them, is remarkable.
Paddy McGuinness recently felt the need to take to Twitter to broadcast the devastating fact that he had the kids on his own for the morning. Yes, his own kids. He was having to look after his own kids – can you imagine? – for half a day. Moments later he qualified it: “When I say on my own, I meant for half hour while my wife is getting a shower! It feels like all day!!! #ManTime.” His wife, Christine, publicly called him out on the comments shortly afterwards. “Stay calm, love,” she tweeted, “I was only in the shower! You haven’t got the kids on your own I’m here! And my mum is staying all weekend. I’ve planned our whole day, your [sic] going to love it.”
Have you seen a mother talk publicly of the sheer, aching drudgery of #womantime? Of the fact that she has single-handedly kept a baby alive, a home hygienic and herself sane for 24 hours a day? Because that's what many mothers – particularly single mothers – do every day of the week. And do they get described by strangers on the bus as “good mothers”? Are they praised by their extended family and admired by their friends? Are they encouraged by people in the park, customers in cafes or passengers on trains? Hardly. Instead, as is so grindingly, exhaustingly the case, to be a mother is seen as an invisible, assumed state of normality. They will be criticised for looking at their phones, for failing to comfort a grizzly child or they will simply be ignored altogether. Whereas to be a father? To be a father is remarkable, of course. Because men are special.
We either ignore mothers or criticise them. Fathers are somehow, even in 2018, assumed to take only a passing interest in the health, happiness and day-to-day activities of their children and are instantly rewarded with praise
I've been as guilty of this man-praising bullshit as anyone, I suppose. I recently described one friend as a “really brilliant dad” because I watched him put his child down for a nap before loading the dishwasher. Never mind the fact that I've seen women do this countless times with their children, even other people's children, all of my life. Never mind the fact that naps and cleaning can be just as easily done by fathers as mothers. Never mind the fact that I put my child down for a nap three times a day during the week and don't even have a bloody dishwasher. I still, somehow, saw it as praise-worthy.
So, I ask again: what single act would get a woman labelled a “good mother”' by strangers? Being armed with a cornucopia of homemade organic snacks, fighting off a wolf, teaching your baby a second language, coughing on someone else's child instead of your own, singing educational songs while rubbing coconut oil into their cradle cap? Committing hari-kari with a rattle, perhaps? None of these things, of course. Because, as one father-of-two on Twitter put it: “Even if a mum pushed her child out of the way of a bus, sacrificing herself in the process, there would still be some old onlooker saying, well she shouldn’t have taken her eye off them for a split second.”
My boyfriend's only suggestion was saving our baby from some imminent danger or disaster. He then offered to create some “mild peril” in public – a falling plank, a wild dog, a little light bushfire – so I could swoop in to save our son and therefore get the recognition he's earned by simply doing up a cardigan or pushing a pram.
In truth, the standards to which mothers and fathers are held fills my blood with rust. The only stranger who has ever in the last five months described me as a “good mother” was a health visitor, who was genuinely impressed that I had managed to knit my baby a ridiculous pair of woollen trousers for the winter. Of course, friends, family and midwives have said kind things, but the fact remains that as a mother I am, too often, either unremarkable or bad. We either ignore mothers or criticise them. Fathers are somehow, even in 2018, assumed to take only a passing interest in the health, happiness and day-to-day activities of their children and therefore anyone who shows more than that is instantly rewarded with praise and the meaningless “hands-on dad” moniker.
Of course I'm irritated that my own efforts are so systematically undervalued compared to those of my partner. Of course I wish the very idea of a father “babysitting” his own child could be burned from the surface of the earth. Of course I seethe at the very notion that children are a woman's responsibility.
But it's not my boyfriend's fault. After all, he's willing to strap our son to the back of a rottweiler just so I can rush in and save the day. That'll show the patriarchy. That'll show 'em.