The worry that women feel about childcare should be shared equally with men. But is it really possible?
Mothers going back to work are twice as likely as fathers to feel guilty, according to a new survey: 80% of women worry about leaving their child in the care of others, while just 39% of men feel the same way.
Why, more than 40 years after the publication of The Female Eunuch are so many more women than men feeling guilty about a shared responsibility? How come a survey of my own, hastily conducted on Twitter this week, reveals that women still get asked by employers or interviewers about their arrangements for childcare? And yet their male partners, if they are the main carers, are praised by friends, acquaintances and the world in general for staying home to look after their own children?
Why do working fathers rarely get asked about how they juggle work and family? We may say we believe in equality and are aware of feminist issues, yet unthinkingly we regress into different expectations for men and for women, patronising stay-at-home fathers as if they are pets. Perhaps this is part of why women feel more guilty and why they are still made to feel guilty.
But what sort of guilt are we talking about? I’m going to concentrate on two types here: useful guilt, and neurotic guilt.
If you are not investing enough time in your relationship with your child – and what constitutes enough will vary from child to child – then, yes, you’re probably going to feel guilty. Guilt is like a warning light on a dashboard; it is a feeling that isn’t to be ignored. We can be pretty sure it is useful guilt if we can tie it in to a specific behaviour we are doing or not doing and it’s a signal that something needs to change.
But if you are doing your best and have a good, continually developing relationship with your child and still manage to feel guilty, then it’s possible that the guilt is there not because you are not doing your best, but because society has laid a guilt trip on you. This may be experienced more like angst that cannot be pinned on anything specific that we are doing. And society tends to lay a bigger trip on women than on men.
It is no bad thing to be uncertain about whether we are doing the right thing, but our uncertainty can be exploited by others who seem certain that their way is the only way and seem to need everyone else to do it their way as well. Thus opportunities for guilt inducement abound.
Having a child is an enormous responsibility. A child isn’t a chore, like so much washing to be got through, but a person who needs to be in a secure relationship to flourish into a functional adult. Instinctively we know this, and if we eschew this responsibility – a responsibility that emphatically belongs to both women and men – guilt is probably a healthy response to that. Feeling guilt may be an inevitable part of parenting.
In The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer wrote: “Bringing up children is not a real occupation, because children come up just the same, brought up or not.” Ah no, not quite, Germaine. We are formed by our earliest relationships. The more secure infants feel, the less children worry about abandonment, the more they can be curious about the world, the greater their appetite for learning about it, and the greater their comfort in being in that world. So it is important that we invest sufficient time in our relationships with our children.
I wish the guilt – occasionally neurotic, occasionally useful in nudging us to make adjustments – could be spread evenly between mothers and fathers, just as the responsibility for childcare should, for goodness sake, be shared equally. But is that possible? The inconvenient truth is that a tiny infant is primed to get used to one caregiver – the one lactating. The more securely bonded infant and mother are early on, the more secure an infant grows up to feel in all its relationships throughout its life. That’s inconvenient too.
Yes, babies can feel secure with their nannies, but it can be traumatic when that relationship is severed, as paid-carer relationships often are. And it’s the type of trauma that is often saved up for later when the child becomes an adult, and it re-emerges as depression. Yes, inconvenient.
**Philippa Perry is running Exploring Parenting, a parenting workshop at the School of Life in central London, on 21 February.
Source: The Guardian