Back in September, MT* spent about 10 days on a solo holiday, enjoying a reunion with a group of friends who had travelled together back in the day. The timing wasn’t great, given that I’d not quite recovered from six weeks of solo parenting in the summer holidays. But I was happy for him to go. He works hard, and had earned a break and a chance to let loose and relive his youth.
Earlier in the year I too enjoyed a solo trip, when I took up the opportunity to join a writing retreat in Venice.
It’s not lost on us how privileged we are to be able to act on these opportunities. The expat lifestyle has its limitations, but it also comes with certain freedoms and flexibility. Yet most people around us have been surprised to hear about our solo excursions, and both trips inspired a few conversations with raised eyebrows.
I can reassure you though, that no one said any of the following to my husband in the days before his trip:
Who’s going to look after the children?
The children are going to stay with their mum??
She’s going to take time off work and spend all her time with them??
Isn’t it a bit far away to be from your children?
Won’t the children disturb her?
So she and the kids will be having pizza all week, right?
Have you filled the freezer with meals for the week?
We’ll have to have her and the kids over for dinner.
We’ll have to arrange an afternoon out with her and the kids.
We’ll invite the kids over for a playdate to give her a break.
Ooooooof! (This said in the tone of ‘oh-ah!’, like we used to say in the playground when someone had done something we all knew for sure would get them into trouble.)
In case you hadn’t guessed already, these are, of course, things that people did actually say to me (about him) before I set off on my solo holiday.
Here’s the kicker, the one that definitely nobody has said to MT:
Don’t you feel guilty?
I’ll just leave that one there for a moment.
If those comments above left me bristling inside a little, I didn’t always show it. We’re grateful to the big-hearted friends who invited my boys over when I wasn’t there, and were thinking of them, and making sure the family was on an even keel without me. I won’t be judging them for their kindness.
But, trying my best to be friendly, I did react to some of them. Who’ll look after the children? Well, their other parent of course. There are two of us y’know! Haha.
What’s most frustrating is not so much the belief that as the female parent I am by default the one devoted enough to look after my children properly (although, of course, that is so very frustrating).
No, what really raises my hackles is the assumption that my male partner in parenting is not devoted or capable enough to do it.
When we decided I could go to Venice, my husband booked a second week off work, and we planned to meet somewhere else for a family holiday. Which led one school-gate mum to comment, So you’ll have to pack for him and the kids as well before you go away. I’m afraid I reacted whole-heartedly to that one, with impolite unfettered incredulity.
Nope, I have never packed for my husband, and I think I can entrust him with the arduous task of removing our sons’ shorts, t-shirts and pajamas from the wardrobe, and placing them in a suitcase.
Feeding, entertaining and looking after children is not rocket science. Yes, it’s time-consuming and exhausting and some days uses up every drop of patience you have and it can be very, very boring. But it’s not difficult. At least, not difficult in the sense of ‘beyond the capabilities of the male of the species’. It’s not rocket science, or geology, or logistics, or HR, or co-ordinating drilling operations on several offshore oil rigs in central Africa.
That last one, my husband can do. He’s pretty bright. I know I wouldn’t have married someone who I thought might be literally incapable of putting a meal together for three people.
But he sure gets a lot of brownie points for doing so. Oh, so many brownie points! Around the same time I went away, a girlfriend went on a girls’ trip with an old friend. Our respective husbands were the talk of the town. Husband of the Year! Dad of the Century! How lucky we were to have husbands who were willing to spend so much time with their own children! Well, they are both fantastic of course: devoted to their children, partners in parenting, and committed to helping their wives live fulfilling lives.
But if they are award-winners for a week of solo parenting, we must be due a Nobel Prize.
The brownie points I got were more along the lines of praising me for ‘letting’ MT off the hook, as if not doing so would would amount to keeping him shackled to his domestic obligations. It’s a Good Wife who lets her husband have a bit of fun now and again.
As for that guilt question…
In fairness to the friend who asked, it could be that rather than judging me, she was coming from a place of admiration, as in: Well done for doing this and not feeling guilty about it despite the societal pressures we place on women as parents.
But it was spoken out loud, an implicit understanding that somebody, somewhere, would definitely think I was worthy of blame. No, I didn’t feel guilty that my children were spending a school week with their other parent; that he had the rare opportunity to be fully there for them.
It’s hard to hear modern women making some of these comments. But I know that it’s not because they think a woman’s role is in the home.
It’s because so many of us still seem to be conditioned to accept that a man’s role just isn’t.
And we perpetuate this myth every time we say that the dad is ‘babysitting’. Or when we imply that they don’t have the patience to spend a lot of time with children. Or when we complain that they don’t fold laundry the right way, or that they bought the wrong things at the supermarket. Or when we laugh at the TV ads for washing powder that show an incompetent man swamped by domesticity that one time he was left alone for the day.
It’s time we put the lie to this myth, and raise our expectations of working fathers. They can do everything we can do – maybe differently, but they can do it just the same. Don’t rush home to dad and the kids saying, ‘I’d better make sure the house is still standing! Lol!’
Because we need partners in parenting, not comedy sidekicks.
A friend asked the other day, ‘Oh, by the way, when you were away at the writing retreat, did it all work out ok?’ Yes. Yes it did.
As for my solo parenting time? I can assure you that despite many fridge-stocking fails, pizzas, Netflix hours, and monumental meltdowns (from the kids as well), everything all worked out, and the house was still standing. But I was glad when my partner came back, efficiently unpacked his case, and took over.