What Mums Want This Mothers' Day.
Once upon a time, I sent this graphic from my mum-crush Senator Larissa Waters to my own mum on Mothers' Day. Now as a mother, I want to stand on my proverbial mountain and shout her "gift ideas" even louder. But what can you as a partner get for the miraculous mother of your child, or do for her on her Hallmark Holiday?
Well, we don’t want stuff. We especially don’t want one of those light boxes to dry your painted nails in, and we definitely don’t want a new vacuum cleaner or kitchen appliance that has underlying messages to our daughters about the women’s perceived role as housekeepers. For those dads playing along at home, this is what the mums in your life want from you this Mothers’ Day. (I use the terms "mums" and "dads" for ease of reading, but appreciate that families come in all kinds of delicious flavours and dynamic care-giving compositions, and that the contribution of single parents to our society is beyond mind-blowing).
- Cook a meal. I don’t mean as a once-off Sunday breakfast cook up for Mothers’ Day. Choose a day to cook dinner every week for a year. We don’t care if you make Spaghetti Bolognese every Friday for the next year, so long as you cook it, have it on the table by 6pm and clean up afterwards.
- Write a letter. Not to her, not on her behalf, but as a parenting advocate. Notice something that is inconvenient to parents in your community or societal structure and engage in some form of advocacy. Before the pandemic I took my daughter to a program at our local council-run library. Despite hosting programs for babies and toddlers, there was no baby change table in the one bathroom (which I might add is a large, disability-access toilet room with plenty of wall space from which to hang one. Which also got me thinking, why not have an adult-capacity change table facility for people with a disability, also usable by babies and toddlers?). I raised this oversight with the library staff, who said they had applied to have a baby change table installed but that council had rejected their request for funding and it was now “up to mums to lobby council to have that changed”. (There are so many levels of ridiculous there I could be here all day). Dads are equally capable of letter writing, so harness your inner keyboard warrior and start advocating for all parents in your area.
- Take a task off her mental to-do list. Permanently. I read recently of one Dad who made it his responsibility to deal with all doctor appointments and vaccinations for his three kids after the age of twelve months. Sure, this may inconvenience your work schedule, so heaven forbid you may have to negotiate your work availability, seek an out of hours appointment at your GP, or deal with daycare to organise an early pick up or late drop off to make that happen. These are the organisational responsibilities for each and every child that make up the mental “motherload” of modern women that is often so much more exhausting than direct childcare. Choose one task together that will be your responsibility for remembering, organising and implementing for good. Make as many reminders to yourself that you need to follow through with it - if she has to remind (read: nag) you, the task is still in her mental task-basket, so commit to it and don’t bail out of it without significant discussion.
- Use your carer’s leave. If dads are too sick to go to work, they take a sick day and recouperate. If mum is sick, use the carer’s leave that you are entitled to so she can do the same. If your kids are sick and the little one is off their food and breastfeeding 24/7, she also needs your backup – if she’s not sick yet, she soon will be without significant help in this danger period. If your boss makes some smart-arse remark about sensitive new age guys, tell him to shove it up his (or her) own.
- Buy a book for both of you to read, then reassess. There is a new one named “Motherwhelmed” by incredible blogger Beth Berry that I can’t wait to get my mitts on, but I suspect its “call to be in arms” as parents and connected communities will be preaching to the converted if mums are the only ones who read it. If you are male, it may be uncomfortable to engage with content that challenges your inherently privileged role as a man in our patriarchal society, as it is uncomfortable yet totally necessary for me to learn about life as a non-white or non-hetero woman in Australia. It may be particularly challenging to reassess where you stand in society at a time when we are already facing personal feelings of unrest and discomfort and anxieties, yet now is the best opportunity we have to restructure our lives and systems to create a more inclusive, caring future for ALL of our kids. If this isn’t the best present a mother could receive, I don’t know what is.
- Watch your language. This goes for men and women. I hate that I still catch myself saying “I’m lucky my husband cooks dinner at least once or twice a week”. I never hear a man saying “I’m lucky because my wife cooks five or six nights a week”. Pre-lockdown, Australian PM Scott Morrison addressed the question of how he manages the leadership and parenthood "juggle" by using FaceTime to communicate with his kids, while journalists queried Jacinda Arden as to whether her baby was potentially distracting her from her diplomatic duties.
Male-to-female partner violence is based upon underlying discourse of male superiority and female inferiority which underpins our society - if that was not so, male-to-female and female-to-male partner violence rates would be equal. Instead, your perfectly innocent son is three times more likely to kill their intimate partners than your daughter is. Consider your equally perfect and innocent baby daughter and read the same statistic the other way around – your daughter is three times more likely to be killed by their partner than your son is. You can't just tell her to leave him and make it her fault for staying - the most dangerous time for male-to-female partner murder is soon after separation. Every time we label a male perpetrator of domestic violence a "monster", we switch off from the undeniable fact that our concept of masculinity as a whole is broken. Become acutely aware of your words and watch the unintentional, socially-ingrained messages behind them. Michael Flood, associate professor of law at QUT, outlines the plan of attack: “We must rewrite societal definitions of manhood, away from power and entitlement and towards compassion and nurturance”. This Mothers’ Day, think about how your words and actions can improve the safety of your children, and their children too.
- Trade self-care lip-service for community-care mindset. While you’re watching your language, never tell her that she needs to practice self-care again. She knows what she needs, be that silence, sleep or mountain biking, and will probably want to rip your tongue out if those words spill forth from your mouth. Instead, just cut down that time you spend on the toilet scrolling Reddit or watching Youtube and spend that time actively solo-parenting your kids so that she has a few more precious minutes each day to do what fills her cup. Take on an additional household tasks – if both parents work full-time, mothers do on average 9 hours more housework per week than fathers. Taking even one of those hours off her plate could be a game-changer for her energy levels. Consider organising a playdate or regular weekend ritual where she can join if she wants but isn’t a key player, so if she’d rather just sleep she can do so guilt-free. Become actively involved in building your family's village to raise your children and allow you to flourish as parents (yes, even in isolation). If we shift our mindset to community-care, self-care is the natural flow-on effect.
- Respect her aspirations and career. As a result of brain changes in pregnancy, mums are biologically wired to hear and respond to their kids in a way that men and non-mothers are not. Mothers' hormonal profile makes them more likely to wake to tend to infants through the night, while new Dads can seem to develop a superhuman ability to sleep through overnight feeds, nappy changes and crying. If you are not the birth parent, that is not your fault, but with awareness it can be worked upon.
As soon as the working-from-home phase of the coronavirus pandemic began, women around the world were reporting the juggle of caring for children through the night, and homeschooling or toddler-taming in the day while attempting to work-from-home. In general, men expect to be more fully able to work interruption-free, are better equipped to tune out child-noise, and largely avoid parent guilt when they escape to a home office. Since most academics have taken to working from home, more male solo-authored and mixed-gender collaborators research papers are being published, yet rates of women’s solo-authored articles have plummeted. Deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Elizabeth Hannon, tweeted that she’d received “negligible” submissions from women within the last month, noting she’d “never seen anything like it”.
The decline in female authorship is not a reflection of female or male work ethic, but shines a spotlight on western society’s beliefs child-minding responsibilities lie even when multiple caregivers are present in the home. Mainstream western society fails to value unpaid child-raising and paid work equally, with the flow-on effect of stalling women’s career progression and earning potential, for example winning research grants in academia, or achieving promotions to senior positions (the same ones that the pandemic has shown can be performed flexibly, but are usually reserved for male five-days-a-week office attendees) in other industries. I’m not man-bashing here even if it sounds like it – you don’t notice the tide until you start swimming against it. Unless you are okay with the idea of your incredible female partner (did I mention she grew a human?) and your brilliant daughter to retire with 47% less super than yourself or your son, we need to rewrite the rules of work. This can start now with re-evaluation of the working-from-home/parenthood juggle. The ball is in your court – from today you can start taking steps together to support whatever work, study or creative aspirations the women in your life have, simply by spending more time actively caring for and engaging with your kids.
- Push for better partner parental leave. What has this got to do with Mothers’ Day? Join me on an incredible journey of statistics and biology. Sweden, which already had the most “generous” parental leave scheme in Europe, passed a reform allowing both parents to take 30 days of paid parental leave simultaneously at any time during the child’s first year. The idea was to have more hands-on fatherly involvement in the early post-birth period. The result? Mothers were 14% less likely to need GP assistance post-childbirth for complications, 11% less likely to need antibiotics (possibly for UTIs, mastitis and other infections, which can occur when mum is overstretched and depleted), and 26% less likely to need anti-anxiety medication. In other words, mums coped better when dads were there to support them early on.
On the flip-side of the Swedish example, U.S. parental leave policy is so poor and narratives around "economic contribution" so dysfunctional that 1 in 4 American women return to work within two weeks of childbirth, and dads are frowned upon for taking any time away from work during the newborn period. Considering that it is illegal to separate a mother dog from her puppies before the age of eight weeks old in the very same country, the lack of legislated support for parents is degrading to say the least. With a maternal postnatal depression rate of up to 22.4% in some U.S. states, the lack of parental leave safeguards spell disaster for American dads too.
Paternal postnatal depression, affecting an estimated 1 in 10 Australian dads, is a strange beast in that the primary risk factor for developing it is not dad’s own history with mental ill health, but if the mother has postnatal depression. It’s not fail-safe, but if dads are home to help in the early days, mum is better able to recover from the massive physical exertion of pregnancy and birth, and able to bond with her baby. Her emotional and hormonal balance is restored through this care, she is less likely to feel isolated and develop maternal postnatal depression.
By simply allowing mum to rest and being hands-on with his child, dad is better protected from experience paternal postnatal depression too. If Dad really can't be physically available in the early days, he can still support her to create and implement a postpartum care plan to reduce stress and overwhelm for both of them. Lobby your government too - Finland, led by 34 year old female PM Sanna Marin, just legislated for seven months of paid parental leave each for both parents! Lobby your workplace for more parental leave for dads, swap shifts if you can to stretch it out as much as you can, and take every morsel of leave that you are entitled to. As per point four, if your boss makes some smart-arse remark about sensitive new age guys, tell him to shove it up his (or her) own.
- Step it up with every child you have. Dads – for the good of your own mental health and your relationship, take particular care of mum and your older kids after the birth of a second or subsequent child. Just because she's birthed before doesn't mean you can leave her to do postpartum solo second time around. The average length of a marriage to separation in Australia sits at 8.3 years. Remember the physical and emotional “motherload” I mentioned before? 8.3 years is around the time when most couples with children have two or three young kids, and having never been fully replenished after each pregnancy, mum is now exhausted by coordinating her own life and her kids’ life too. She has sympathy for your needs but not the energy to act on it, her metabolism is shot and her libido is at ground zero. Dad feels jilted and unable to see what went wrong, because he doesn’t know of the undercurrent of societal discourse that has infiltrated their family workings. I do not see it as a coincidence that postnatal depression in mums peaks 4-5 years after the birth of the first child (when there is probably at least one more child on her hip), which is around the same time of the 8.3 year separation peak, which is around the time that men are in two of the top three peak-risk brackets for suicide (85+ years is the leading risk time, followed by age groups 45-49 and 40-44 respectively). Step it up with every child you have, explain why and how you’re doing so to your mate, and support him to step up too. You might save his life.
Can you pick up on some themes? Mums want your time and solidarity. Choc chip muffins do not diminish in deliciousness by making them double choc chip. Dads do not lose out by mothers getting a better deal. These are not left-wing, idealistic, feminist demands of a sleep-deprived, deranged, hormonal basket-case. These are respectful co-parenting, co-adulting suggestions to demonstrate equity to your children and create a kinder world that will benefit not only the mum of the house but your personal health, your relationship with your partner and kids, and your work-life balance.
As a final note, we also want one of those double choc chip muffins. Just clean up afterwards and give us time to savour it in peace. Happy Mothers’ Day.
If you have read this far and disagree with me, thank you for sticking it out to the end. Think I'm being a little harsh? Violence against women is harsh. So is elder womens' poverty. So is the backbreaking work of western unsupported motherhood. As a Mothers' Day gift to myself, I will not be responding to comments on this post - I am a mum with limited time and energies which I would prefer to spend undertaking highly valuable, unpaid care of my child rather than moderating online forums. If you hold a different opinion about the standing of mothers in society and you would like to contact me directly, please spend hours researching and cross-checking sources, integrating this with the lived experience of yourself and your peers, and crafting and publishing your opinion piece, so I too can consider it in detail before responding to your opinion. If you would like to contact me to promote the standing of fathers in society be it in relation to wanting better leave and flexible work options for dads, strategies to enhance fathering capacity within our community, increasing mental health support for fathers etc., please do that too - I am totally supportive of these aims. I write and work seeking equity, which requires strategies that work to advance the needs of different groups using different strategies, not the one-size-fits-all equality approach of treating mums and dads with cookie-cutter initiatives and expecting all families to benefit. Adios, Amigos.
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