One day, while visiting a friend with a new baby, I ventured
the timid question, “So, what do you do on maternity leave?”
Even at the time, in my childless twenties, I understood
that the question was rude. But despite being one of eight kids, I honestly
didn’t know why. My mom was a professional mom, or “home engineer” as she made
me put on my college applications. I had no concept of what mothering during
maternity leave even looked like.
My friend was kind. She told me about the lack of sleep,
washing diapers, cleaning spit up, naps and the sheer overwhelming exhaustion
of it all. “To be honest,” she told me, “I don’t know what I do. But I do know
that it takes all day.”
Two years later, I had my own child and experienced
maternity leave in all its exhausting glory. The care of a child, especially
in those first three months, is an all-consuming enterprise. Sure, I had lunches
out and trips to Target, but the leave was less of a “vacation” and more of a
mothering boot camp. During my three months, I learned how to be a human and
care for a human at the same time, all the while washing diapers, clothes,
organizing socks and cleaning puke out of my bra and off the floor.
recent piece for The Baffler, novelist William Giraldi wrote about how
paternity leave gave him a drinking problem. For Giraldi, paternity leave,
which his employer referred to as a “workload reduction,” was a time to drink
beer and finish his novel. He writes: “I cannot say precisely why my ‘workload
reduction’ coincided with my ‘drinking problem,’ except suddenly I had so much
time. Okay, the university made me sign a document that swore I’d be incurring
more than 50 percent of parental duties. But let’s be honest: Even in
self-consciously progressive households, it’s a rare new father who does as
much baby work as a new mother.”
Giraldi’s essay bothers me, not only for its lazy sexism, but also because it feeds that easy lie that men need something more, while home and children are “enough” for a woman.
Giraldi compares his leave to being laid off, and notes that
he requires more than writing to give him “psychic equilibrium.” Noting, “I am
not alone in this regard: Think of the tremendous ennui and the earthquakes of
personhood that can occur when men are laid off or retire.”
I’m sure his piece was meant to be humorous. But it strikes
all the wrong notes. Giraldi falls trap to the age-old sexist tropes: men need
occupations, women are fulfilled with being mothers. As a mother and a
writer and a woman who needs work for “psychic equilibrium,” I want to walk up
to Giraldi and hand him a basket of laundry. Think you have free time? Vacuum
the damn floor, Giraldi.
Had Giraldi actually participated in parenting, I’m sure his
essay would have been a lot more eye-opening and heartfelt. Instead, all we
have are sexist jokes and tropes. He was in “awe” of his wife. She was happy to
do the work. He was “bushwacked” with free time.
Giraldi’s essay bothers me, not only for its lazy sexism,
but also because it feeds that easy lie that men need something more, while home and
children are “enough” for a woman. And maybe it is for many women and that is
OK. But for me, it’s not. I often find myself explaining to people who ask
how I find time to write with two small kids and only two days of child care,
that I make time because I need it. I need work.
During maternity leave, I often found myself with my
forehead against the glass panes of my front door, staring outside and crying.
Postpartum hormones and stress, yes, but even more than that—a sense of
longing to get back to “work,” to get back “out there.” I’ve been told in sermons and books and even
to my face that to want more than what is in my home is selfish.
Sorry, Giraldi, tapping out of parenthood and tapping a bottle wasn’t some disruption of psychic equilibrium; it was a lazy choice made out of sexism.
Of course, when Giraldi expresses this desire, it’s just men
being men. Men having an “earthquake of personhood.” Men needing something more
important than the menial tasks of laundry and keeping humans alive. Meanwhile
for women? Feeling that way is selfishness. If we feel that way we are just
“dissatisfied housewives” who don’t find our value in the things that matter.
In his essay, Giraldi outs himself as a member of a league
of white male writers who had no time for the work of parenthood. Tolstoy,
Sinclair, Hemingway, Dickens, all writers who wrote while disdaining the women
and the work that raised their children. It’s an attitude that still exists.
Nobel-prize winner V.S. Naipaul has often disparaged the work of women and
female writers as "feminist tosh.” The privilege of this opinion is built
on the backs of the women these men call their wives and mothers.
What amazed me the most about Giraldi’s essay was that it
was published in the first place. It's 2014 and there still exists a culture
that finds men off-loading all the parenting on their partners to be not only a
given, but a humorous aside. Giraldi writes that mothers do all the work for
babies, which isn’t a truism, it’s a choice. There is plenty Giraldi could have
done, but he shrugs it off as inevitable that of course, his wife does all the
work. Sorry, Giraldi, tapping out of parenthood and tapping a bottle wasn’t
some disruption of psychic equilibrium; it was a lazy choice made out of sexism.
For an educated man, his assumptions are positively
medieval. And it’s this casual shrug—of course the mom will do it—that is the
reason why we are still here where we are. Women still earn less, we are still
the default parents, we are more likely to sacrifice our careers and the
entirety of ourselves for our families. Not because it’s so easy or so
fulfilling, but because men like Giraldi shrug off their contributions, raise a
beer and tell their wives, “I could never be you.”