I love my straight female friends, but watching them divvy up parenting responsibilities with their baby daddies drives me bonkers. These are women who attended fiercely all-girls’ schools, watched Buffy, and serve on women-in-the-workplace committees. They married groovy guys with hip glasses and evolved into counterparts of smart, savvy couples. But then something went awry: They slipped into sexist models of parenting. As a queer woman in a two-mom family, it kills me to see my lady friends doing far more than their share of the work.
Even in relationships where the men and women work equal time outside the home, the moms are still doing more of the schlepping. They routinely leave work early to pick up sick kids. They keep up with the pediatrician and hunt down specialists when needed. They hammer out bedtime routines, only to have their husbands let their toddlers watch baseball until 9 p.m. They end up handling much of the menial housework.
“I am the beneficiary of years of sexism,” my friend Isaac recently admitted to me. “There is very little societal pressure for me to be neat. I am neat — for a dude. If Beth asks me to sweep, I sweep. But Beth doesn't want to be a nag. So there is this internalized sexism, too. It's easier for her to just sweep. The resentment builds. We talk about it. I do better. But it is an ongoing process.”
There are stronger rationales for the inequalities. Breastfeeding can influence the initial division of time, but the imbalance often continues after the kids are weaned, and many times it’s self-imposed. A mom-friend with a needy 1-year-old lamented, “Now that we’ve weaned Davey, it is finally possible for me to leave him with my husband for more extended periods, yet I still have a nagging worry that he will have a meltdown and really need or want me. My husband had no worries leaving the baby with me for many hours at a time starting at the very beginning. Davey was with his mom: he was fine. I had no such easy exit.”
In many cases, the moms worked only part-time after having kids, so of course they ended up with more parenting responsibility. They chose this arrangement, but one asked, “Why was it assumed that Noah would go back to work full-time instead of me?” Another speculated that straight women are more used to accepting parenting-related career setbacks than men, and often choose the labor imbalance, setting themselves up for more kid-time. In one family I know where the parents work far apart, the mom wanted her daughter in day care near her. The very rational result? Dad hardly ever does carpool. Score for him, but at what cost to her?
In my same-sex relationship, we don’t fall back on gender roles. It’s not all 50-50 here in two-mom central, but job schedules and personalities divide labor, not chromosomes. I teach part-time and write from home, so I get more time with my daughter, but it’s my productivity that takes a hit when I need to cover for the sitter or meet with roofers. Lest we think it’s only the at-home parent whose schedule suffers, my wife works 10 to 6 and takes the morning shift so I can work or sleep in just a tad.
The divisions aren’t fair, but our roles aren’t designated by gender, and neither are our talents and interests. My wife is the better cook and the better mechanical mind, and although she was new to babies, she’s a sweet and creative parent and way more patient than I am. I have always worked with kids, and I hunt down excellent baby clothes, assess home-repair estimates, and undertake chores with the power drill. I have a horrible sense of direction. My wife eats standing up a lot. We both love our daughter.
Having said all this, I will admit that at times I yearn for a nice gender role to knock on our door with a list of personalized jobs. Our daughter recently graduated to a bigger car seat, and it was like a game of chicken to see who would install it. I wanted one of us to be able to shout, “You’re the man! You do it!”
Alas: no testicles, no shouting. I finally grew the most impatient, so I summoned the courage and installed that mother 90 percent of the way, then called my wife down for help with the rest.
I was proud that we’d womanhandled that Britax on our own. If I’d been in a straight marriage, I might have outsourced the job to my husband. I might not have researched different types of roofs or gotten a break from the food-pureeing. I still resent certain imbalances in my relationship, but I don’t feel like they’re scripted by society or reinforced by the arrangements around us. I have legitimate hopes that they’ll change throughout our lives.
Straight moms, you, too, can have these things! Here’s my strategy: The next time your husbands pull out headphones during a four-hour family flight, consider asking yourselves, “Would we do this if we were lesbians?” Censor out steamy images, then ask: “If we were both women, how would we approach parenting differently? Is there anything I could offload or try my hand at?” Perhaps choose the day-care center closer to your husband’s work and leave the pick-ups to him. He’ll get more kid-time and expertise, and who knows — maybe he’ll start sweeping of his own accord. Gay liberation brought me triumph over a car seat. With luck, my daughter won’t be relegated to gendered tasks and or end up putting her career on hold for any guy or gal.
Erica Merrill is a teacher and novelist.