With each pregnancy, I get asked this question way too many times
Someone: are you going home to have your new baby?
Me: I am home.
I know it’s a seemingly harmless question, and people do mean well, they usually just want to know if I will have the support I need, and I totally value the support and experience of older mothers and women in general, especially with new babies.
However, for me, there is a subtext to that question, an indictment on the role and participation of fathers in child care. The implication is that the icky, uncertain beginning phase shouldn’t happen around the dad, which of course says that mfkrs ain’t shit and they can’t/shouldn’t be expected to make any meaningful contribution to a family except a lukewarm presence and maybe some money.
The idea that a mother must go to a female relative, or that relative must come to her for a while, once she’s had a baby in order to rest, recover and receive help is great and terrible. On the one hand, new mums need all the help they can get, and they can take that help in any form they choose to, whatever works for them. Great. I understand that 1. it takes a village; and 2. Apartheid tore our families and communities apart, so our support networks are fragmented or non-existent in the cities where we work so our support system isn’t just down the road.
But, when a woman who has a partner has to rely primarily on other women for essentially what is co-parenting support in that crucial 0-12 week postpartum phase, the implication is the baby is her baby and that a father is just kind of there nje, while the father’s comfort, needs and whims are continually prioritized and celebrated, and he can parent as a “helper”. . Terrible.
A new mother leaving their partner behind/ moving someone in for those first few weeks post-partum often lets the partner “off the hook” from having to face the reality of his new parent – partnerhood responsibilities. Even our legislation with its nonexistent paternity leave seems to be on this tip. Fathers also need time to bond with and care for their newborns and partners. A bloated, tired, emotional mother and a screeching, squirming new baby come with the package of new fatherhood.
The gendering of parental and household responsibilities causes the contribution of women in the household (and their support networks by extension) to become invisible, and if something is invisible it’s not a real thing that needs just compensation, acknowledgement and respect. This of course is juxtaposed with how society fawns over every little thing a man does for his partner family, and we are all meant to kill ourselves with gratitude that a man is participating in his own life.
Yes, affirmation &recognition are important for male partners too, but hhayi we need higher standards, especially because we’ve come to realize that usually, when a man thinks he’s pulling his weight at home, he usually isn’t. This is simply because there’s a lot of unseen work called emotional labour that men don’t even consider as work, let alone their responsibility.
I’ve read two very good articles on emotional labour and mental load this year and it’s so important to understand these crucial but often invisible (read gendered) aspects of how we relate in and manage our relationships and families.
Until maybe 2 years ago, I didn’t know that the work of thinking, feeling, considering, initiating, articulating, planning and understanding in a relationship had an actual name. I just called it effort, but that didn’t really translate well and it was a point of tension between us for a while because Alliancepartner puts in a lot of consistent effort, but I didn’t always feel it was in the right direction but couldn’t articulate why. So in our feedback sessions I’d speak about effort but we weren’t really getting each other.
I remember soon after Kimathi’s birth, one day feeling so naar when Tim said he’s going to the grocery store but wanted me to tell him what to buy even though I hadn’t seen the kitchen in a week. I said “open the cupboards and look”. He was like “just tell me what to get”. It was a big fight. I couldn’t understand how a grown man didn’t “know” what groceries to buy in his own home. He didn’t understand why I was “tripping”.
Aaanyyywwaaay…🙄 during our counseling we really began exploring ourselves as parents and our perceptions of parenthood based on our childhoods, and it emerged that we both grew up in homes with present but not always emotionally available fathers, and our mothers were the ones who made a lot of that effort that I needed more of but couldn’t articulate, and he didn’t quite grasp, so we basically had to create new languages and ways of parenting and relating, and lay our childhood conditioning to rest.
It was very difficult to even begin to unpack how our races, cultures, childhoods and genders affected how we related as a couple, and how we contributed in our family.
In many ways, building our relationship is quite straightforward – here is ubuntu and friendship , mix with love, reciprocity, chemistry, respect and emotional intelligence, and serve on a bed of progressive, sound, political values.
But we have also had tears, projections, arguments, bland “I love you but I can’t stand you right now” kisses… “and futhi nje wena”side-eyes … before we got to the “I’m sorry, can we start over?” stage of communicating.
My own lessons have been to face and confront my own issues, such as how I express my needs, understand my roles in our home, as well as my internal nyovadam that caused my inability to recognize my own emotional labour as legitimate. And while it’s not my responsibility to “teach him nicely”, I do have a responsibility to be sensitive, clear and honest in how I hold him accountable to also brings the pots, recognizing that we are constantly teaching and learning as equals because we both need to give 100% to grow and protect what we have.