This essay is part of our original Women at Work series.
By Katherine Sargent
When I was married and a stay-at-home mother, my husband made it clear that he wouldn’t do any childcare he didn’t absolutely want to do. He wouldn’t give baths, dress our daughters, or even entertain them while I made dinner. I could spend hours listing the things he wouldn’t do because he had a job and made money and I didn’t.
I was happy to be at home, and grateful that I got to be with my children, but when I conceived of my life as a stay-at-home mother, I expected to have a partner at the end of the day, when work was over. Not only was I a full-time mother, I was also earning my graduate degree. I was exhausted, I felt underappreciated, and as though my goals weren’t important. When I said I needed some new clothes after giving birth for the second time and was unable to zip up my pants, I was told that I’d need to get my own money if I wanted to shop. I felt as if my hard work as a mom was worth nothing and that, to this man at least, I was worth nothing as well.
My ex and I are now six years divorced (for many reasons) and I care for our children 80% of the time. I have a full-time job, and yet I still feel like I’m waiting for my ex-husband to see me as an equal human with an equally important life. I’m still the only parent who schedules and attends appointments and school meetings, arranges camps and lessons, maintains their schedule and buys their clothes. When the pandemic began, I became solely responsible for homeschooling our 3rd and 4th graders. Months into a period of hybrid learning, the girls’ father was surprised to learn that they only attended school two days a week, despite the fact that he received school emails outlining this schedule, had been told the same information by me on several occasions, and presumably speaks to our daughters. If you asked him, I doubt he could have told you their teachers’ names.
During the girls’ second week of school this year, I was driving to pick them up at the end of their day. An ad came on the radio encouraging people to nominate an outstanding mother for the chance to win a $500 gift card and a day of pampering. The male radio host said, “a lot has been asked of working mothers over the past year, taking on homeschooling on top of full-time jobs.” It’s a nice idea, but the ad irritated me. It’s true that women have taken on the bulk of this work, and I’m in favor of appreciation, but I also feel that messages like this allow someone like my ex-husband to feel justified in removing himself from his children’s education and daily lives.
There is always a work-related excuse for why my ex can’t engage in the responsibilities that come with having children. Oftentimes he’ll cancel or delay at the last minute. He has a project due. He has a meeting. He expects me to accommodate him immediately, as though I don’t have a job myself, or co-workers waiting for me on the other side of the Zoom screen. So often, I’m doing my own work while also helping my daughter navigate long division, and I have no one to pass the job off to. As a woman, I’m simply expected to do it.
My own father (who I love but who is also a man) has made excuses for him, given him the benefit of the doubt, has said, “He’s a busy guy.”
Let me tell you something that is definitely true. I’m busy. I have responsibilities outside of my children’s well-being. But to explain this to my ex is to open my female mouth and express the ideas of a woman. It feels like my uterus makes my job less important, my needs less urgent. My uterus makes it possible for me to reschedule meetings while his penis apparently makes it impossible for him to do the same.
The fact that he can work a full week, uninterrupted by the needs of children, and then roll into the weekend and shamelessly ask for more time from a woman who has single-handedly cared for his kids while also working a 40-hour week boggles my mind. And our society shrugs and says, “He’s a man.” As if men can train their brains to understand quantum physics, but not comprehend the fact that women are fully realized humans with lives as important as their own. As if they can’t learn how to dress a nine-year-old girl and pack a reasonable lunch.
I wish there was a way for my children not to see this dynamic. We’re getting so much closer to living in a world where women are equally valued at work and men do their share to help out at home. I’ve seen a father doing laundry in a Tide commercial! I have three dads’ phone numbers because they’re who I contact to make playdates. I want my daughters to see this too. To know that equality is real and that it can be theirs. But I can’t hide this dynamic from them, because I can’t hide the fact that I’m the one who always shows up.
Recently, I had a major event at work. It was the culmination of months of labor, and the results would have a large impact on my organization. My day began at 7 am and wouldn’t end until 7 pm. Due to the pandemic, my children were at home with me, and I had no reasonable childcare options.
That morning, my daughters climbed into the car armed with art supplies, snacks and video games and were prepared to hunker down in my office for hours. I’m lucky to have a job that makes this possible. All went well, and my kids got to see their mother in a leadership role, accomplishing something that was important to me. Ultimately, and thankfully, they didn’t hinder my productivity.
A few days later, their dad texted to say that he had a meeting, and wouldn’t come to pick up the children as we’d planned. This inconvenienced me, but it was not impossible to accommodate my daughters and get all of my own work done.
The cancellation was not at all out of the ordinary, but the close proximity of the events frustrated me deeply. I’ve never once asked him to cover for me when it comes to my work. My responsibilities are my own problem, and I don’t expect him to pick up the slack for me when my own lack of ingenuity fails.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve been fixated on my belief that both men and women can cook, clean and take care of children. I’m still certain that men can and should know their children’s shoe size, take them to music lessons, and make breakfast, but this belief is not reflected in my own life, and it hurts.
I’ve begun to realize that, if my daughters learn that, as women, they can do and be whatever they want, and that they deserve, they absolutely deserve all of the support, pride and praise for hard work and success that a man receives, then maybe that’s not so bad.
I have those things in my life, from many people. Their father may not know and see all that I am, but they do. They know. And them knowing is progress.
Katherine Sargent is a non-profit development & communications coordinator and writer living in Portland, Maine. She is a single mother to two wild and wonderful adventure buddies.
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