What Happened When a Husband and Wife Switched Places?
Back in October, a journalist named Zia Ahmed wrote a piece for The Washington Post detailing how he and his wife switched traditional gendered parenting roles.
The decision, he explained in his article, was one largely driven out of practical purposes: his wife had a more promising career and his job had the security of being able to leave and come back to a waiting position, so taking time off to care for their new baby would not be a problem at all. Despite the fact that his parents weren't exactly supportive and the fact that even the couple's more progressive friends smiled and nodded uncomfortably when they learned of the situation, Ahmed and his wife went into their new roles feeling optimistic.
Surely, modern-day couples aren't trapped by old and tired gendered norms when it comes to parenting, right? Surely, it wouldn't make that big of a deal who stayed home with the baby? Surely, the true path to “equality” would mean experiencing what the other gender parent gets to live on a daily basis?
Well, as they would come to find out, the experience turned out a little more different than they had anticipated.
As Ahmed openly admitted, to start out with, his standards for what the world would demand of him–as a male caregiver–were a lot, lot lower than what they would ask of a female caregiver. Did anyone try to get him to talk about how he was feeding the baby? Did they stare openly at him with disgust if he whipped out a bottle or clutched the baby to his chest? Did they judge him based on how much we weighed after having the baby? Did they assume he was a terrible parent if his toddler had a tantrum in public?
The truth is, as Ahmed discovered, it's pretty darn near impossible for a male and female parent to truly and equally “switch places,” because as a society, we judge mothers way differently than we judge fathers. Sure, it's not an exact science, but in general, we expect mothers to be darn-near perfect, with perfect houses and perfect bodies and perfect hair and perfect nails and perfect laundry systems and perfect budgets and perfect children and perfect exercise routines and perfect work-life balances and perfect sex drives, but for dads?
Well, we pretty much expect that they keep the baby decently surviving.
Going into their parent-swap experiment, Ahmed was honest about the different expectations that he encountered as a male stay-at-home dad. And yet, even with much, much lower expectations for him, he still struggled as a SAHD.
“Even by my low standards for success — a living baby and an edible dinner by sundown — I was unprepared for the relentless intensity of one tiny person’s demands on my innermost self,” he wrote. “A constant sleep deficit and my extroverted toddler’s endless energy brought me close to unfamiliar emotional and physical limits.”
Every mom reading those words is like yup. And just throw in our impossible standards for success and you realize just how much we are asking of ourselves each and every day–and how we can all learn to be a little kinder to ourselves as mothers.
Ahmed's piece was a refreshing look at modern-day parenting, because the truth is, there is no nice and neat happy ending about how he realized how hard “mothering” is, learned to appreciate his wife even more, and the kid was able to grow up fully liberated from the traps of gender roles, confident in his or her own skin to build a life of his or her own. Nope. Instead, he told the truth: that today's moms and dads are basically figuring it all out.
We are the pioneers, trying to forge ahead new ways of doing life and parenting and relationships on systems that were built for a much, much different time. Our school schedules, our work hours, our very idea of who does what, from driving on road trips to stocking the house with essentials, are based on a time when dads worked and moms stayed home.
We can be so, so hard on ourselves as new parents, but the truth is, it's not always us or our failings that make figuring it all out so difficult; it's the fact that we have to figure it out in the first place that makes it hard. We are dealing with new problems and new situations and new circumstances than our parents ever had to, and that doesn't mean we are failing.
So take it from the story of even just one couple who switched places and struggled; it's not you and it's not your partner that is the “problem.” It's a system that is set up for unequal parenting and instead of fighting each other, realize that the only way to move forward is to figure out a new way of parenting through life together.
Do you struggle with gender roles in parenting? What works for you and your partner? Have you ever switched things up?