Hapless Husbands and the Mommy Myth

Daddy is an expert diaper changer, both daytime cloth and overnight disposable. Every time, Baby wriggles like a wet fish on a trawler. But the diaper ends up attached to Baby’s adorable tush, and even the right way around.

This skill belies a Huggies diaper commercial that put Huggies diapers to “the toughest test imaginable: dads,” while giving moms “well-deserved time off.” There was such a backlash from diaper-competent Dads that Huggies pulled the commercial.

The UK is tackling the symptoms, if not the underlying cause, of gender stereotypes like the “Hapless Husband.” In June 2019, it banned advertising with gender stereotypes. One of the first to be banned depicted two dads whose babies landed up on a sushi conveyor belt.

But the “Hapless Husband” myth persists. Such myths are embedded in our society and take a lot of effort to unearth. They may seem cute, but they undermine men taking a greater share of the care burden from women.

The corollary of the “Hapless Husband” is the “Mommy Myth,” which expects women to be perfect moms. According to The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined Women, the myth is “that motherhood is eternally fulfilling and rewarding, that it is always the best and most important thing you do, [and] that there is only a narrowly prescribed way to do it right.”

Neither Daddy nor Mommy holds the monopoly on parenting hiccups. We both forgot our baby carrier heading to a Gatineau Park hike. We decided to carry Baby in our arms for 15 minutes or so, find a nice spot for lunch, then head back. But it was a beautiful day and Baby was so enjoying his relative freedom that we just kept going. Six kilometres later, we had scaled and descended the heights of King Mountain. Passing every family with a baby in a carrier, we exclaimed, “Take a look at that! We should look into getting one of those!”

One of us clipped Baby’s fingertip instead of his fingernail. The other, designated Safety Officer, failed to notice.

We both danced with Baby to Pump up to Jam just before bedtime….

Incidentally, we hired a sleep coach. Baby has made lots of things easy for us (he is a champion breast-feeder), but like many parents we struggled with sleep. It is tough to be “competent” in the sleep department with so many conflicting approaches. I started with the “responsive parenting” approach but with a hard line on not bed sharing, largely incompatible. Baby was requesting breast milk every 90 minutes overnight (no wonder he got good!). By six months, our Paediatrician was encouraging us to let Baby sleep through the night. Before our sleep coach program, I failed to drop a single night feed. Within three days of the program, Baby slept contentedly (or at least resignedly) for 12 hours. Sleep coaching is not for everyone, but for us we needed an external expert to tell us exactly what to do.

Baby’s daytime sleep is still hit-or-miss. I learned a trick in baby massage class: brush Baby’s nose from top to bottom, his eyes will close, and he will drift gently to sleep.

It worked once. In that one moment, I was the Baby Whisperer – Mommy Mythic. I’ll take it.

Defund the Glebe

In the 1930s, urban parents “aired” their babies by placing them in cages mounted outside open apartment windows. Baby gets a daily airing too, at street level in his stroller or carrier. I am learning so much about my Glebe neighbourhood by pointing things out to Baby and reflecting on how living in this privileged neighbourhood will shape him.  

The Glebe is a downtown adjacent, family-friendly neighbourhood bordered by a highway, the Queensway, to the north and the Rideau Canal to the east. Streets with spacious brick houses on small lots are the ribs to the Bank Street spine, which runs north until eventually reaching Parliament Hill. It is wealthier than the Ottawa average (median household income is $79,146, compared to $73,836) and higher educated (72% of residents have Bachelor’s degrees or above, compared to 45%). Just 13% of the population is racialized, compared to 26% across Ottawa. 

This summer, Baby and I spotted many sidewalk chalk drawings, cheerful vestiges of parents’ desperation for kid-friendly activities during COVID lockdown. 

On the pavement outside of one of the many Glebe churches (Glebe means church land), we encountered sidewalk chalk messages of a different kind. They were Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police messages in response to the devastating series of police-related deaths of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in Canada – since April, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Ejaz Ahmed Choudry, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, Stewart Kevin Andrews, Jason Collins, Eishia Hudson, Caleb Tubila Njoko and D’Andre Campbell. 

When I was weighing whether or not to have children, I had nothing comparable to the fear of being a black woman bringing a child into a world dangerous for black children, as heartrendingly expressed in this Globe and Mail op-ed by Hadiya Roderique. 

It is easy to wield sidewalk chalk, but the next rain washes it down the drain. Stickers stuck on electrical poles and newspaper boxes demand harder action – “Defund The Glebe!” in white-on-black. 

I have been practicing explaining complex ideas to Baby in age-appropriate terms, but “Defund The Glebe!” stumped me – and not only because he is six months old.

It is something about calling out people who demand change elsewhere (e.g. the police force) without acknowledging that change is needed in their own backyards. But what kind of change? At a minimum, recognizing privilege; more difficult, transferring wealth and other resources to historically disadvantaged people and places (equity) to achieve true equality. 

Before Baby was born, I wanted to signal a commitment to equality by sending him to public school, a universal system I am confident will provide Baby with an excellent education. 

But that confidence derives from my privilege. By having the means to live in any Ottawa neighbourhood, I can choose the kind of school Baby attends. If I want him to benefit from a more diverse population than the Glebe can offer, we can move to Centretown. I also have the time and resources to strengthen his school community by serving on the Parent Advisory Committee or even running for the School Board. If Baby had been school age during COVID, I would have considered pulling him (temporarily?) from public school and forming a pandemic learning pod or homeschooling, two options that would have been possible thanks to our income and education. 

These thoughts have been shaped by Nice White Parents, a podcast about the collision of white privilege and a Brooklyn public school. In the 1960s, white parents successfully petitioned the municipal government to move the planned school closer to their white neighbourhood so they could signal their ‘progressive’ commitment to integration, only to opt out of sending their kids there. In recent years, white parents raised thousands of dollars for the school but instead of funneling it through the existing Parent Teacher Association, formed a parallel committee and established a French bilingual program that benefited unilingual white kids more than already bi- or multilingual black and brown kids. 

I assumed grappling with privilege – at least in the context of Mackenzie’s education – is further down the road. But then I learned that according to White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, by Margaret A. Haberman, I’d already fallen off the equality bandwagon. Haberman argues that signing up for extracurricular activities contradicts parents’ stated intention of supporting equal public educational opportunities for all. Baby has already participated in baby massage, sign language, music, French, and swimming.

Which brings me to the crux of Haberman’s argument: “In order to be a “good parent,” [white parents] must provide their children with as many opportunities and advantages as possible; in order to be a “good citizen,” they must resist evoking structural privileges in ways that disadvantage others.” 

On account of our privilege, giving Baby everything is a whole lot easier than giving him less than everything.

Post-script

I both wanted to end this post with solutions and to leave space to grapple with these themes in future posts, hopefully when I have more personal insights to share. At the same time, you may be interested in the solutions white parents Haberman proposes to privileged white parents. Here are a few that resonated with me:

  • Don’t give up, because “at the very same time that white parents contemplate how to raise kids with structural privilege, parents of children of color strategize how to raise children in a society that does not value their lives. They do not have the luxury of giving up.”
  • “Forgo some of [your] own structural advantages to shift the course of your families and society itself. Actively resist centering [yourselves] in this work or viewing [yourselves] as white saviours or performing a disingenuous version of “antiracism” for purposes of feeling morally superior to other whites.’
  • “Listen and make mistakes and admit [you] are not always right.”
  • “Give up some of [your] own white racial power by rejecting the idea that [your] own child is more innocent and special and deserving than other people’s children are.
  • “Commit to caring about how young people as a whole are treated or mistreated, educated or miseducated, supported or marginalized, treated with dignity or criminalized, heard or silenced.”

About Me

Before becoming a mom, I heard that with motherhood comes the risk of losing your identity. To ward off this possibility (and to write the About Me page of this blog), I have been thinking about who I was and who I am becoming as a mom.

Our society’s shorthand for who people are is what they do. I am proud of my new role of full-time mom, but hesitate to even temporarily let go of my professional identity, including what it communicates to people about who I am. Overall, I look forward to having two roles. But I know they are tough to balance – including how they define who I am. Am I Career Woman or Mommy when introducing myself at a party?

Identity can also reveal itself or change through tackling the challenges of parenthood. While I was pregnant, I chose one word to define my early parenting style: exuberant. I meant to choose more words but got distracted by equipping our home for baby and birthing said baby. If I had chosen another word, it would have been flexible. Rather than losing who I was before, I am gaining the exuberance to share the world’s magic with Mackenzie and the flexibility to cut myself some slack when things don’t go to plan.

Baby is also handy – whilst an adorable and non-vocal age – for projecting who I want to be. He does this, for example, in the ways I describe him (friendly, cheerful, curious), the activities we get up to (many) and the clothes he wears (hand-me-downs and colourful cloth diapers). This is a dangerous game. As he grows into his own little person, I need to be vigilant in maintaining my own identity and seeing who he is without my own preferences and biases running rampant.

Finally, identity manifests in how we choose to spend our finite time. Herein lies the greatest potential for identity loss. Am I still the volunteer, devoted wife, voracious reader, exercise enthusiast, and aspiring writer I was even if I lack time for these many pursuits and being Mommy? Perhaps with less time to myself, I will prioritize what matters most to me. I’m still working on that.

Baby Blue

This post begins with a failed experiment. I popped Baby Boy in a pink onesie for an outing to Doctor’s office, intending to document people’s reactions. No on remarked on Baby at all. I blame COVID; strangers are keeping a generous six-feet distance. The only reaction of note was my own mild discomfort with breaking gender norms (and/or experimenting on my infant). By the time we returned home, the onesie’s leg holes were rimmed with urine so I aborted the experiment. Baby clothes may be (needlessly) gendered, but babies’ need for frequent wardrobe changes is gender agnostic.

The pink onesie is a hand-me-down. Due to the generosity of family, friends, and a neighbourhood “Buy Nothing” group, we have purchased few baby clothes. When I came across overalls tagged ‘girl’ in The Bay’s online store, I wanted to buy them in defiance of segregated baby gear. But it was blue with an elephant so a weak point to make. And Baby already has a dresser overflowing with outfits, most of them blue.

Interestingly, according to my in-depth research of scrolling through Baby Gap’s ‘neutral’ baby clothes section, elephants are considered gender neutral, as well as bears and the colour grey. Preferring vibrant colours (and hand-me-downs), I may steer clear of neutral. 

Clothing aside, I thought I had one-upped the baby gender binary by selecting a nautical theme for the nursery before I knew we were having a boy. Frustratingly, following a Pinterest search for seaside décor ideas, I was bombarded by ‘baby boy’ advertisements. Why did the Internet assume I was having a boy?

While nursery themes are unlikely to perpetuate gender inequality, algorithms like the one that associates nautical with masculine can be harmful. According to the Tilted: A Lean In podcast on artificial intelligence, “embedding existing inequality in code makes it harder to see and impossible to eradicate.” The podcast provides examples like CV screening more likely to select white male candidates and facial recognition software more likely to lead to the incarceration of people of colour. Even gendering nursery themes could eventually contribute to different outcomes for men and women. In a couple of decades, Baby may join the already male-dominated Navy where a daughter may not have considered it.

But to return to the present, we have not gotten far in decorating the nursery, since Baby is sharing our bedroom for his first six months. We did select what we thought would be soft blue-grey paint colour. By neglecting to paint a sample before painting the whole room, we inadvertently launched another experiment in flouting the baby gender binary. The colour is – some might say a feminine – purple.

“We can’t have our boy in a nursery this colour!” Husband joked.

Oh but we can and we will, neither of us being willing to repaint. Our hypothesis is Baby will be just fine.

Are Women Always Right?

Husband read my first blog post and, while otherwise complimentary, said I had “made a mistake” with the concluding line. By assigning myself responsibility for Baby’s metaphorical windows and doors, and Husband the physical, I had fallen into perpetuating traditional gender roles.

I could have countered, “Well, women are always right!” but then I would be, by Husband’s logic above, making another mistake.

And yet – is Husband right? Does the “metaphorical” belong to women, and the “physical” to men? Or did I assign these roles based on the individual strengths and interests of Husband and me? More generally, how are roles assigned and why?

I am struggling with these questions because Husband and my strengths and interests broadly align with traditional gender roles. For example, I am looking forward to setting up baby play-dates and organizing birthday parties. Husband can’t wait to cross-country ski and bike with baby in tow.

Is there any value – to us and/or our child – in balking traditional gender roles if they suit us? I think yes. I love my new mommy role, and I feel guilty for any moments spent away from it (hence, taking six weeks to write this blog post). At the same time, beyond breastfeeding, Husband is as competent in caring for our six-week-old as me. Filled up (indeed overflowing, gross) with breast milk, Baby is presently alone with Husband, giving Husband a chance to grow into his own Daddy identity.

It is also important for Baby to see Mommy and Daddy in diverse roles. Patriarchy is in part about assigning certain roles to men and women and then devaluing the roles played by women. If men take on traditionally “feminine” roles like childcare and household chores, they shoulder some of women’s double burden (from mid-century, women increasingly entered the paid labour force without a commensurate drop in their unpaid work), while increasing the esteem of these roles.

In a truly gender equal world, roles won’t be assigned by gender (i.e. there will be no “mistake” in my first blog post, hurray). The Your Parenting Mojo podcast on patriarchy and parenting explains: “There actually isn’t any utility to defining human attributes as masculine or feminine… Ultimately what we want to do is get to a place where we can degender these attributes entirely. How much freer would we all be if we could just express whatever attributes of ourselves we thought to be true?”

In the meantime, Baby needs a top-up and – despite his best efforts rooting on Daddy’s chest – is crying for Mommy so I will sign off for now.

Introducing my Muse

Every birth story is unique. Comfy in Mommy, Baby was induced nine days after his April 17 due date. Following 36 hours of induction methods, he was finally ready to tackle our topsy-turvy world; in the early hours of April 28, he popped out with three pushes. Husband was dozy from waking from a catnap and my doctor nearly missed it.

While my birth story is unique, it was in part determined by my identity factors: Canadian citizen, white, upper middle class, heterosexual. In gender equality parlance, how these identity factors come together to shape my experience is called intersectionality.

Being Canadian and delivering in a Canadian hospital, I was confident I would survive childbirth. Canada’s maternal mortality rate is 10 per 100,000 live births, compared to 211 globally and 917 in Nigeria. As former Program Manager for Plan International Canada sexual and reproductive health and rights projects in Northern Nigeria, I witnessed severe gaps in health infrastructure and human resources and lack of women’s agency and men’s support in seeking maternal healthcare.

As an affluent white woman, I knew Baby would not be taken away from me shortly after birth. Some Canadian provinces, such as Manitoba, have “birth alerts.” Social services flag “high risk” moms, which may lead to babies being apprehended by Child and Family Services hours after birth (despite no evidence this is in the best interests of the mother or child). Indigenous mothers are significantly more likely to be flagged. Manitoba committed to ending birth alerts by April 2020, in line with a recommendation from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It has failed to do so.

Husband and I did not have to consider whether staff attitudes and hospital procedures would accommodate our relationship. While staff made efforts to upend heteronormativity – for example by not assuming my partner was male before meeting him – if they hadn’t I may not have noticed since heteronormative works for us. I cannot relate to the burden of navigating a system some families do not fit into. For example, COVID precautions restricted the number of support people to one, perhaps preventing two male parents from being present at the birth of their child.

I feel blessed to have had a safe birth experience — and hit the jackpot with my baby. I look forward to exploring our world through him, and hopefully leaving it a little better by being aware of our own privileges and working towards a better world for all.

Oh, Boy!

The most common question I have not been asked about my unborn baby is, “What is the sex?” People – including medical professionals, interestingly – avoid the word “sex.” They prefer, “What are you having?” or “What is the gender?” The former question could elicit a sarcastic “a human,” the latter, a lesson on the difference between sex and gender. Instead, eager to share what little information I have about the unknown life growing inside me, I reply, “A boy!”

(One especially astute friend asked, “What are you baking, a Brownie or a Beaver?”)

A lifelong Girl Guide, I have always been passionate about achieving gender equality. However, I rarely viewed my own life through the lens of gender equality. I did not attribute my personality and actions, others’ perceptions and expectations of me, or my successes and failures to being a woman. Being pregnant and anticipating raising a child has changed that.

Take parental leave. People ask me if I am taking the standard 12-month or extended 18-month maternity leave, presumably assuming Husband is taking none or the 5-week “use it or lose it” parental leave for the second parent. So far, I plan to take six months and husband plans to take six months. Because we have the same government salary level and benefits, we are lucky not to have an economic calculation to make (which often works out in favour of men remaining in the workforce). A friend countered Husband could not take parental leave “because he would be bored.” There is nothing about us, at least not biologically hardwired, which would dictate that caring for an infant would satisfy me and/or bore Husband. That said, community supports are skewed towards women, like mommy meet-ups and mommy and baby yoga. If our community doesn’t make room for Daddy and Baby, Daddy is less likely to feel comfortable during parental leave.

Speaking of biological hardwiring, I am curious to see the nature versus nurture debate play out with my own little guy. I hear from parent friends about how they are raising their boys in a gender-neutral way, but also how they are just more rambunctious than their sisters or can’t resist a toy truck. I believe that society’s expectations are powerful. For example, our parents mused whether baby boy can play with a toy kitchen set or join a dance class. I was determined to offer a variety of gender stereotype-breaking attitudes and activities, but I already tripped up by my 20-week ultrasound. The ultrasound tech informed us we were having, undeniably, a boy. In fact, a big boy (97th percentile at the time). Without bidding, my mind turned to how to raise such a boy, stumbling back on stereotypes like athletics and outdoorsmanship.

Gender, like other social labels, does serve useful purposes. It can anchor identity, build confidence, and quickly signal to others who we are. Brain Architects, a child development podcast, introduced me to the idea of giving children “mirrors and windows.” Mirrors reflect back to the child who they are to reinforce their budding identity, while windows offer new horizons for the child to understand and empathize with people who are different from them and their family.

“Wait,” Husband replied to my summary of the podcast. “You’re talking about physical mirrors and windows, right?”

Husband will be responsible for the physical mirrors and windows (also important) and I’ll lead on the metaphorical.