We are at a stage, with two young children, where we are asked what our roles will be going forward. Who will be working, and who will be picking the children up from nursery, who will be ‘at home’ and who is ‘earning’, who will provide ‘daycare’ and who will do the laundry. As a family, we do our best to navigate this, as a team.
Alongside these domestic conversations, we have conversations about work, about career, about opportunity and desire. Work is important for us all, but navigating a career is a different experience for us both.
The ground that we walk over is uneven, and the reality is that for me there are fewer mountains to climb, or gates locked shut on my path.
I went to one of my favourite coffee shops the other day, where i was cheerfully greeted by the guy that runs it, who asked if it was a ‘daddy daycare’ day, because i had our daughter in the sling on my chest. He is a parent himself, and runs a successful business, which he started up in the midst of the pandemic, and i’m sure he and his partner have navigated these conversations themselves. But i’m equally sure that nobody asks my partner is she is ‘mama daycare’, because, as i said, the ground for us is uneven.
It’s not just the ground, but our perception of it. Whenever people ask me about family, i’m rather bemused. I just explain what we do, how we do it, and a kind of vague belief that everything will be ok. Meanwhile my partner is expected to ‘have a conversation with HR’ about her ‘plans to get back to work’ (as parenting does not count as ‘work’).
In parallel with those conversations are the ones about career – what time do we want to spend with the children, what time do we want to travel, what time do we want to study, and so on. Here, again, the ground is uneven. For both children i took time off work, but i did so in a different context: nobody talked about what i was allowed to do, and i don’t think anyone particularly judged me for it.
I spoke to a friend recently who explained, almost embarrassed, that she had wanted to go back to full time work as soon as possible, and that it was important to her to have her career on track. I could almost hear defiance in her voice. Whilst i had not needed to be defiant. I had not even considered it. i had no fear of judgement nor even awareness that judgement was on the table.
We talk about the roles that we play, and one simple narrative is that they are changing: that men and women can take equal roles in family life, that men and women can have equal opportunity in their careers, and that men and women can make these decisions as active choices. But in reality, this is typically not so. The context of our decision making is different, the pressures we are under to conform to certain norms are different, and the judgement on our actions varies too.
Not specifically because anyone wants this to be the case, but perhaps because collectively we have not made it not be the case.
There are simple aspects of language that embed this: we live near a fire station, and have always been excited to see the fire fighters out practicing. That is the language that we use: Fire Fighters, and that is the language that my son uses too. Until last week, when he insisted that he was a Fireman. When i corrected him, he got very angry and upset. He shouted at me that at Nursery they were playing Firemen.
These are the dominant narratives of our language: when i grew up, it was firemen. But as i looked out of my window last night, there were two female Fire Fighters practicing, and three male Fire Fighters. It’s no surprise that he is conforming to a narrative: there is good evidence that gendered language and notions of role are embedded by age three.
I am aware that even writing about the language that we choose to use in our own family may condemn us to be judged, for ‘trying to be right’ or trying to be ‘on trend’ or cool. What does language matter after all?
Language is what we use to think in, and to share our reality: and it forms the foundations of the forces that act upon us.
When i look at the different context that my partner and i operate within, it’s so different that it can be hard to bridge it, conceptually, or practically.
We both face decisions, individually and collectively, but those decisions are framed and judged unevenly.
Either of us could choose to work (the work of family or the paid work of an Organisation), to study, to spend time with the children, or at events, but we are judged differently, and not just by others.
I am aware of the internal pressure that differs: i simply do not have to have a serious internal monologue about my worth, my value, my career, my opportunity. I have not been taught to do so by circumstance, and yet often women are.
We talk about roles: the role of women, the role of men, the role of the parent. But we do not treat them like the roles we apply for or are employed in at ‘work’.
Some opportunity is taken from women through structural inequality, and other opportunity is avoided at time from fear of judgement. But the judgement itself is different.
Inherently our ‘roles’ tie into our ‘power’ and our sense of ‘worth’. And it strikes me that we shuffle these cards differently, or more easily, dependent upon our gender, and we then play the game by different rules.
Our stated aims to level the field, to make the landscape flatter, are encouraging, but ultimately they do not change our internal narrative, and it’s that pressure, between the roles we are given, the roles imposed, and roles expected, and the roles seen to be ‘normal’, which is where we operate.
Nonetheless, perhaps our language is where we find answers: not ‘the role of men’ or ‘the role of women’, but ‘the role i take’ or ‘the role that i play’.
I write this in microcosm, as a personal narrative, but the issue is macro – the structure of power, opportunity, and reward, that we have constructed and inhabit, and leads, directly to other dominant narratives of today – the red hot issues of abortion and equal marriage in flames in the US, and the gender pay gaps wide open in the UK and elsewhere.