I've been thinking some more about my "unicorn post" and the response to it. I've been thinking about the various types of feminism (summarized nicely by Nicoleandmaggie). And I've been thinking about the changes motherhood brings to your life, your marriage, and your feminism.
I can't promise that this will be an entirely coherent, well-argued post. But I thought I'd write down some of what I've been thinking about, and see what everyone else thinks.
First of all, it occurred to me that people don't seem to have a problem believing that a married couple without kids has an equal division of labor at home. But once kids enter the scene, it seems to become a lot harder for people to believe that a couple might have a 50-50 split in the home workload. Only one person left a comment on the unicorn post saying that she didn't think I really split the work 50-50 with my husband, but I've heard that opinion plenty of times when I speak up in other places online, along with its cousin, the opinion that my arrangement is so rare as to not merit consideration: to may people, I am ridiculously lucky at best, deluded at worst.
I think some of this is probably due to the fact that it is true that for a lot of women a previously equitable- or at least not unbearable- household chore arrangement breaks down when kids enter the scene. The interesting question there is why is that so? I think the answer is related to the another reason that so many people don't believe me when I say that I have a 50-50 split, namely that the division of labor necessarily changes after kids come on the scene.
I know a lot of couples without kids who split every single chore 50-50. They alternate nights cooking dinner. The person who cooks doesn't have to clean up. They either alternate laundry weeks or do the chore together. Etc., etc. In fact, that was pretty much how my husband and I split things before we had kids. We even set aside a few hours every other weekend to do all of our cleaning. I took care of the car that I brought into the marriage, even though I hated doing it and was constantly forgetting to schedule service visits. We were scrupulously fair- we never discussed this really, it was just how we did things.
Then we had kids. And suddenly, that system made zero sense. I'm sure there are some parents out there who maintain the "split every chore" division of labor post-kids, but that just wasn't going to work for us. As I mentioned in the comment I quoted in my working women weekend reading post, the division of labor had to change, partly because biology assigned certain tasks to me, and partly because the amount of work grew exponentially, and suddenly specialization started to make a lot of sense. It no longer made any sense for me to try to maintain one of the cars, since my husband is much better at it. It takes him less time, and we need all the time we can get. Similarly, it makes more sense for me to keep track of what needs to go to day care every day, initially because that fit well into my routine of gathering up pump parts, etc., and now because I have a system that works.
Even for chores that we're equally good at- like laundry- it makes sense to divide and conquer. One of us will get a load of laundry going while the other one plays with the kids, or tackles some other chore. On any given weekend, I may do most of the laundry, or he may do most of the laundry, or we might serendipitously land on an equal mix- but we've stopped judging the division of labor on a chore-by-chore basis, so it doesn't really matter.
And then, of course, there is the parenting. This is unlike any other chore- for one thing, it isn't really a chore. It is work, yes. But it is also fun, and it is far more rewarding than doing the dishes. And it is also almost impossible to divide along strictly equal lines. Biology has other ideas- and so do your kids. The dishes don't care who washes them. Sometimes, a child very much cares who puts her to bed, or who plays certain games, or- and this is my current downfall- who helps settle her back to sleep when she wakes up in the night. My husband is a fully equal co-parent, not just because that is what is fair, but because that is what he wants, but that doesn't mean that we are 100% interchangeable. Could he do it all if I weren't around? Of course. Will the kids accept that when I am around? Not quietly. And sometimes, quiet is more important to me than fair, so we absorb the inequality in one area and try to balance it out somewhere else.
I can see how someone looking in on all of this would think that there is no way the division of labor is equal. It is almost impossible to judge, even if I wrote an exhaustive list of all of the work that occurs in our household. It is a never-ending negotiation, as the kids' needs change and work demands ebb and flow.
-- I'll trade you the dishes for 15 minutes of time without a child demanding anything from me
-- I'll take the car to the shop if you'll drop the kids off tomorrow
-- I'll go to the store if you'll handle bathtime and snack on your own
-- I need to stay late to finish up this big release. Can you handle dinner? I'll give you a couple of hours of time this weekend.
And so on and so forth. Sometimes the trade off is unspoken, or assumed. Sometimes things don't run smoothly, and there are arguments (Dammit, anything I have to do at 2 a.m. counts double!) but we work things out, and in the end we both think we've reached equality.
Maybe it is impossible to understand this without living it. I don't know. There are aspects of motherhood that I struggle to explain even to my husband, and there are aspects of fatherhood that I don't fully grasp. One of the hardest things for me to get my head around after my first child was born was just how much she needed me. Pretty much all the time. I am used to that deep, seemingly unquenchable need now- but I still struggle with it sometimes. It is the reason I sometimes beg for just 15 minutes without a child near me, which is a request my husband respects but does not completely understand, because the kids do not draw on him in the same way. He is both envious of the closeness and not 100% convinced that it isn't something I could just say no to. We try hard to share this load- trading off bedtimes and bath times, having him provide comfort after little owies, etc. But this is one area of our life that is most definitely not equal.
I've been thinking about this aspect a lot lately, because Petunia is weaning. I'm weaning her now because I want (need?) a little more space. It is one of the many paradoxes of motherhood that the only way to get that space is to go through a phase in which she is even more intensely clingy than before. At least in my house, the easiest and least screamy way to wean is to make sure the kid being weaned knows that she can still have mommy when she wants, even if she can't have mommy's milk. So Petunia is spending a lot of time in my arms. Which is sweet. Except maybe at 2 a.m. Or when I'm trying to do something else. My husband, who needs far less sleep than I do, would love to help out in the middle of the night- but Petunia screams if he tries, and that wakes up Pumpkin, and pretty soon we are just one big unhappy sleep deprived family. So I am bearing the brunt of this phase, and he is just trying to compensate where he can. He does a good job compensating, but it is not how either of us would really like it. Petunia, on the other hand, likes this arrangement just fine, and in our approach to parenting, that is what matters most at this age.
The unreasonable and yet somehow absolutely undeniable demands my kids place on me are simultaneously the best and the worst thing about motherhood. I have routinely been pushed to the limits of what I thought I could bear, only to find that I can in fact keep going. I am amazed to find myself thinking "I can't take her clinginess for one more second!" and then instinctively scooping her up and giving her a kiss on the head. Somehow, the space in my life expanded to accommodate the demands of motherhood without crowding out the essence of me. I cannot explain it. During my first year of motherhood, I was sure it was not possible, that I was in fact being subsumed into this new mommy person. But I came out the other side wanting both to devote myself to my kids and to pursue my own goals with full vigor.
Perhaps that is the essence of what it is to be a feminist mother- the realization that your own goals can coexist with your love and absolute devotion to your children. Motherhood can grow your life rather than contracting it.
This post is perhaps even less coherent than I thought it would be. But it is late, and Petunia will no doubt be calling for me before too long, so I think I will leave it there and invite you to tell me what you think in the comments.