Gwyneth Paltrow once gave an interview in which she talked about being in awe of her parents’ 33-year marriage and asking her dad how they did it.“Well, we never wanted to get divorced at the same time,” he replied.
As I navigate parenting, this quote often comes to mind. Not the divorce bit, (love you Ian!), but the idea that simply not wanting to throw in the towel at the same time is the key to an endeavour’s ongoing success.
Because we all have bad days. Days where if you have to repeat, “Brush your teeth. And the back ones,” one more time, while wrestling a miniature contortionist onto an Ikea step next to the bathroom sink, you’re going to unleash all of your pent-up tube rage from every journey since 2005. Or the mere idea of going to soft play – again – makes you dream of getting just ill enough that you have to stay at home in bed (but not ill enough to be actually, like, ill). This is when you really need someone to pick up the slack.
Stigma still seems to be preventing many willing men from taking up shared parental leave and research shows they’re more likely to have flexible working requests turned down, while women still do more unpaid household work than men.
But I’m lucky in that my husband and I do have quite an equal parenting arrangement, from both working a nine-day fortnight, which allows us to alternate a weekday with our son, to working hours that mean we can split the nursery run (my gripe is that I get the rushed and often-tearful drop-off, his is that he has the never-able-to-make-post-work-arrangements pick-up). I’ve also never been in the position of some mothers I know, who provide an extensive breakdown of what their child should wear/eat/do if they’re going to be away from them for more than two hours at the weekend. (Admittedly, during my year of mat leave, there were occasions when my husband forgot to pack wipes or clean clothes in the changing bag, but my attitude is that once you’ve had one nappy blowout in a public place and had to wrap your poo-sodden baby in your coat for the walk home, you don’t forget clean clothes again. There ends my parenting advice: let them fail on their own terms guys, and then you won’t have to police your co-parent because they will – quite rightly – find their own way.)
But of course, there are ongoing negotiations – and as I type this between loads five and six of laundry this week, I wonder if we have the division of household labour nailed. But it goes both ways. Like, who is getting the worse deal this week when it comes to early morning wake-ups? Who is marginally more patient in the face of food being lobbed on the floor and therefore should deal with mealtimes? And who’s having the sort of weekend where they could do with thirty minutes, alone, in the local branch of Costa with no human interaction beyond scrolling through Twitter and ordering a coffee and a brownie?
Sometimes just recognising the signs of the last one is what keeps our family equilibrium balanced. That, and closing ranks on our toddler after a particularly difficult parenting day. We’ve found that the best pressure valve is taking it turns to be the designated family cheerleader. And taking it in turns when it comes to wanting to throw in the towel. If my husband is about to have a breakdown because ‘the talent’ has sent his breakfast back for the third time, I step in and attempt version four. Or if my son has hit upon the exact pitch of scream that makes me want to start screaming too, my husband can give me ten minutes in the kitchen with the radio on and my parenting antennae turned off. That to me is equal parenting. Well that and always bringing the other one back a brownie, of course.
You can follow Helen on Instagram and Twitter at @itshelenwhitaker and @helbobwhitaker respectively. Helen’s debut novel, The School Run, about the comic lengths parents will go to for a school place, is out in August 2019