The road to divorce is lined with societal expectations

Pink, Pixie and I have just returned from a two-month tour of the world where we caught up with countless friends and family members, many of whom are parents of young children. When you only see someone face to face once or twice a year, there is always an element of surprise: bellies have turned into babies, last year’s infants are toddling around and babbling. A kid who just the other day was buzzing around me in his parents’ living room pretending to be a race car, now leads Pixie by the hand and talks to Pink in newly learned English. And too many of last year’s newlyweds are filing for divorce in the wake of their first children’s first birthdays, all seemingly breaking up over the same issue.

There is no question that Pink and I handle more conflict since Pixie was born. Most often problems boil down to one of us not getting basic physiological needs met: me being sleep deprived or Pink getting hangry. Physical and emotional resources depleted, we get short and snappy with each other, or bicker about unimportant little things. But then I realise that Pink simply needs to eat, or he realises that I need a nap or a morning of sleeping in, we apologise to each other and that’s that.

Not in a million years would I even contemplate leaving Pink. Sure, there is love, friendship and intimacy that I don’t want to lose, but forget all that; life without Pink would simply be way too hard. Which means that anyone splitting from their partner while raising young children must be SO unhappy in that relationship that becoming a solo parent is still worth it, or they get SO little support from their partner that the difference between together and alone is not prohibitive. In either case, how do loving, happy couples get to that place in as little as a year?

There is only one big difference that I can see between Pink and I and all the young parents I know who are struggling to keep their marriages together. It is not better communication, more love, or less neuroses. Our saving grace is in fact rooted in a neurosis: Pink’s discomfort with some of what society traditionally defines as masculine, macho or attractive in a male. Our unspoken agreement as a couple, born from an effort to make Pink comfortable, now keeps both of us happy and maybe even married: we don’t give a f… a damn about what our gendered roles are supposed to be. I can no longer count how many times I’ve been asked if the way our relationship is set up makes Pink feel emasculated or me dissatisfied; it has even become a bit of an inside joke between us.

Here comes the story of Xavier and Yvonne, who are not our friends, but a story stripped bare from the many stories of people I know, simplified, cartoonish and taken to its logical conclusion. Xavier and Yvonne are a loving couple, married at 30, baby Zoe conceived soon after. When Zoe is born, Yvonne goes on maternity leave. She struggles with sleepless nights and long days of feeding, colic and isolation, but she puts on a brave face for Xavier, who has to leave early for work and barely gets home for Zoe’s bedtime. Yvonne is desperate for even 15 minutes of a break, but on Saturday, when she tries to leave Zoe with Xavier, Zoe cries and Xavier doesn’t know how to soothe her. When Xavier bathes Zoe he forgets to clean the neck folds. Xavier can’t put Zoe to sleep, so when she wakes up at night it’s Yvonne’s job to tend to her.

The months go by and Yvonne feels lonely and abandoned, starts resenting Xavier for not taking more responsibility for Zoe’s care. But when Xavier proposes a family bonding trip for the weekend, Yvonne finds the idea ridiculous: what about Zoe’s nap? When Xavier proposes to take 10-month old Zoe out for ice cream, Yvonne is horrified: the sugar! Xavier starts resenting Yvonne for shutting him out of Zoe’s life. Yvonne, feeling utterly disconnected from her life pre-Zoe, and from Xavier, starts referring to herself and the baby as “us” and to Xavier as “you”. (This particular detail is due to my father, remembering the first year of my life.)

Zoe’s first birthday is around a corner and Yvonne looks into returning to work. She finds out that her old role has been permanently filled by someone else, that the small company she had worked for is not obligated to take her back and indeed is not willing to, not at the moment. She pledges to look for work but it’s hard with Zoe always needing attention. She needs to find child care too, and Xavier can’t be trusted to help with that. Xavier, feeling disconnected from Yvonne, starts resenting her for having changed. He starts seeing her as lazy, as someone who has lost all ambition and has become merely a milk source and homemaker. Not a very competent homemaker at that, the house is always a mess and dinner is always late. What is she doing all day anyway?

Yvonne believes that she is entitled to make all decisions concerning Zoe since Xavier has no idea what Zoe’s needs are. Xavier thinks he is entitled to make all decisions about the family because he makes all the money. Neither of them is willing to cede any ground, not to this crazy, entitled stranger.  One day things come to a head between them, and they file for divorce.

When Pink and I took Pixie home from the hospital, our midwife (who was the Mary Poppins of midwives) hugged us and said to me “Your job is to feed this baby,” then turned to Pink and continued “your job is everything else.” We were lucky to be able to spend three weeks together before Pink had to return to work, and in those first few weeks just feeding Pixie truly was a full-time job.

Pink never thought that I was lazy or that taking care of a newborn was easy. But when Pixie was three months old, I had a day-long job interview and he took over all baby-care for that day. His report that evening was “Wow, this is hard work.” When Pixie was nine months old, after I returned to work, Pink became Pixie’s primary caregiver for the next nine months. He cherished that time with Pixie, and he is daddy extraordinaire: seeing them laugh and play and love each other is the most beautiful thing in my life right now.

As a result Pink and I both know exactly how hard it is to be a full-time parent, and we both know how hard it is to be a working parent too. Taking less leave was more manageable for each of us in our careers. We can each take full responsibility for Pixie when needed; either of us can go to a conference and know that our child will survive with the other parent. Neither of us thinks that we are some holy authority on child rearing, or work-life balance, or anything else. We don’t necessarily struggle with the same aspects of parenting or work, but we do have a lot of empathy for each other.

I know that the route we took is not available to many people and not desirable to some. I also know couples who shared caregiver responsibilities in different ways. A friend of ours used his built up vacation days, taking one day a week off for 20 weeks to care for his baby daughter. Another couple we know both work part time, four days a week each. Yet another friend, whose wife usually works part-time, took a month of unpaid leave to enable her to work full time during a crucial period in her career. And some friends maintain happy relationships within a traditional man-works-woman-parents setup: it is certainly possible with enough open communication, understanding and respect. But it seems hard, when the two partners’ lives diverge so widely and so suddenly.

So I’m going to get on my tiny soapbox here and ask, why does society still push us towards a family model that is so damaging to young relationships? Why do many countries and employers still talk only about maternity leave, as opposed to shared parental leave? Sure, it’s reasonable for breast feeding mothers to be with the baby first, but why not switch later when the baby is less dependent on milk*? Why doesn’t every birthing class emphasise how important it is for dads to take responsibility for as much of the babies’ care as possible from day one? How important it is that the many moms who start out ahead in the “bonding game” – due to breast feeding or maternity leave – don’t become the sole authority on the children’s care? Perhaps we should not only encourage but force dads to take parental leave at least for a few weeks. Most certainly we should not frown upon it. Why don’t we enable every family structure to thrive, make part time work worth the hours, and extend the same social support to full time dads as we do to full time moms?

“I have never seen a guy so good with a baby”, is a comment I hear over and over when people see Pink interact with Pixie. He is one amazing parent, certainly the best one I know and I’m not biased at all! But if he were a woman, there would be nothing unusual about this – not to the point where strangers feel compelled to point it out. In Canberra, Pixie had a male part time nanny; a lovely, quirky man who is wonderful with babies. When we moved to Sydney, my mother expressed hopes that we would find a female carer, because “otherwise Pixie might grow up thinking that it’s usually men who care for little kids”. Uh… and why would that be a bad thing!? Almost certainly social conditioning will do its best to beat any such ideas out of Pixie, but in my opinion, the more he retains them the better: for him, and, if he so decides, for his future partner and children too.

Feel free to share your experiences on parental leave and surviving having children as a couple in the comments!

*In Australia most women I know took 9 months to a year off, paid at half salary or more. This is way better than some other countries, except why only the moms?