I get to work with the most amazing couples. They are progressive and educated and intentional about how they live, how they parent. Most of them consider themselves feminists and picked me at least in some part for the strong opinions I have. They’re my people.
Most of the time, I didn’t get to meet them before they had kids. I specialize in couples with small kids. I should start counting but my gut tells me my average couple is between 35-40 years old, has 2 kids and have been married/together between 7-10 years. The majority are heterosexual in monogamous relationships. They know each other pretty well and have already been through some pretty trying times. They don’t hate the idea of divorce but also get that it isn’t easy and ultimately they still have to find a way to parent together.
Ultimately they end up in my office shocked to find themselves trapped in a marriage that looks a lot like a black and white 1950s tv series. Rigid, traditional gender roles, inherited from their grandparents, dormant for years rumble to the surface as soon as the test comes back positive.
The one who pees on the stick gets sucked into the role of mother. This requires her to read a million books about pregnancy, follow a million birth groups online, and join every breastfeeding community that will have her. She must make sure that every molecule that enters her body meets the highest standard of ingestion for her developing child. It is easy to see how this path takes us further and further down the rabbit hole of the unattainable earth mother goddess every child needs.
In heterosexual couples, the other person, the one that doesn’t pee on the stick gets stuck with the secondary, back up, traditional role of father. The evolution triggered by pregnancy can take a bit longer to manifest. I usually see it hit hard and fast somewhere between the first contraction and coming home from the hospital. Hipster, laid back dude somehow feels compelled to put on a tie, grab his briefcase and go buy life insurance. Fatherhood equals protection and security, worrying about the economy and a deep desire for world peace… and a greener lawn.
Men often report that they don’t know what happened to their strong, independent wives. Who is this emotional ball of mush who doubts her every decision? The impossible expectations of motherhood leaves women feeling terminally overwhelmed and undervalued. Women often report that they are so surprised that having kids didn’t make their husbands happy the way they thought it would. The crushing responsibility men feel around the dad role can make them super boring old men or rebellious, flaky teenagers who can’t be counted on.
These gender that no one seems to choose that take over are almost impossible to extricate from our families but they can be resisted. We can fight the pull backwards. We can focus on partnership and shared decision making. Dads can push to be included and trusted and partnered. Moms can push to share decision making and economic power/responsibility. If we are going to do this better, women have to take a serious look at the expectations that they have internalized. Do we really need to make organic baby food by hand while nursing and never letting the babies feet touch the ground? Are women asking too much of ourselves? If we are going to do this better, men need to take a serious look at the expectations they have internalized. Do you really want your value tied to your profession and income? Can you be the kind of father you want to be while still maintaining all the other roles you are committed to? Are men asking too much of themselves?
We can break free of these old models of parenting. With discussion and intention, we can move away from resentment and bitterness. Play with roles and expectations. Fight for partnership. If nothing else, we’ve got a great opportunity to raise kids who know we’re mixing things up and working to a better path for them to follow.
Come to STOP Yelling next week…with the last days of the campaign winding down, we could all use some new tricks in stress management.