Much is written in the media about attaining a work/life balance, the rights of the working mother, equality in parenting and the role of the father. A family is no longer assumed to be made up of a stay-at-home mum, a working dad and a couple of kids. As a member of one of these seemingly archaic units (okay so we were greedy and went for the extra child) I am sometimes made to feel that I am failing feminism by choosing not to go out to work. I admit it – I live off my husband’s income. Some would suggest that this makes me a parasite.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a stable and loving home. My mum always engaged in paid work but, until her children were old enough to take care of themselves for a few hours each day, she did not work for anyone else. She was always there for us (and she still is); it was my dad who was the main breadwinner. He would take an interest in his children’s lives, but left it to my mum to ‘bring us up’.
Despite these parental role models I was vocal and determined in my desire for gender equality. I took the RAF to task at my university’s Fresher’s Bazaar for not being willing to accept me for student pilot training just because I was female. I was determined to do at least as well as any male recruit when I went out to work. I was good at my job and I was going to be a success. Being a woman would not hold me back.
Then I had a baby.
I still feel rather sorry for my husband over what happened next. He fell in love with and married an ambitious, outspoken professional. We spent the first few years of our married life working hard, playing hard and advancing our careers. My biological clock demanded a baby, but we had the workplace nursery booked and my plans were unchanged. Then the (male) midwife put my baby girl in my arms. From that moment on I trusted no one else with her care.
My husband is a great dad. He has never felt the need to grow up (other than to take full responsibility for providing us all with the very comfortable life that we lead…) and will still happily mess around with the kids. However, if I was not going to go out to work and he was then, however exhausted I felt, I was expected to get up in the night to see to the babies, to do the housework, cook the meals and generally take care of us all. This seemed fair enough to me.
Over the years our roles have become more ingrained. I once tried to paint the walls of one of our bedrooms. He found a strand of paintbrush in the drying paint, a portion of wall not properly covered, the track marks of brush strokes made with over thick paint, and suggested that he should do all of the home decorating thereafter. Early on in our relationship I ironed a couple of shirts for him, and he has not picked up an iron since. We each do our jobs around our home with little crossover.
I would still consider myself to be a feminist. I have made a lifestyle choice that suits my character and circumstances and do not feel obliged to conform to anyone else’s stereotype. I feel hugely privileged to have the choice to live my life this way and realise that it is my husband who has allowed it to happen. I feel fulfilled in being able to run a contented home and support my kids in the way that I feel is best for all of us. It would not suit everyone and I would never try to suggest that it is the best life to lead, but it suits us.
In my younger years I could never have imagined myself wanting to live this life. Perhaps it shows that we cannot predict how we will feel when we experience events that are truly life changing. My husband can drive me mad at times with his small, irritating habits and his taste in music (I mean, Frank Zappa?!?), but after twenty years I still believe that marrying him was the best decision I have ever made.
The modern family unit is often complex and diverse. I would guess that those which work are the ones that have adapted and accepted, without resentment, the choices made as individual circumstances have changed. Attempting to conform to an imposed stereotype in order to meet the expectations of others is unlikely to be sustainable and is a recipe for discontent and discord. Each family needs to work out what suits them, respecting the needs of each individual. Whatever the media may say, a successful family unit cannot be prescribed.