The question you have no right to ask a mother
I'VE been travelling rather a lot lately, visiting different cities and towns around Australia as part of a book tour.
I really, really miss my family so am taking every opportunity to talk about them. On stage I find ways to steer the conversation towards my husband and son.
But unfortunately the discussion everyone wants to have about my family is the only one I want to avoid. It's apparently the most popular conversation topic going around because so many people bring it up. In fact, I can no longer count on two hands the number of times I have been asked the exact same question:
"Who is looking after your little boy?"
While it seems straightforward it's actually a highly loaded inquiry. Beneath the simplicity of the question are layers of presumption, expectation, even judgment. I am reminded that I am a mother and I am here while my child is somewhere else. This is unusual. This is not the done thing. This is a state of affairs worthy of further examination.
Now, my son is only two years old. He requires adult supervision 100% of the time (or else white walls everywhere would be permanently defaced by crayons). So perhaps it's fair enough that his primary carer is asked who is looking after him when they are not.
But by that logic, my husband would be questioned in the same way when he's at work, when he's shopping, when he's at the pub or at the footy sans kid.
And he's not.
In two years, my husband has never been asked who is looking after our child.
Everyone just assumes that's my job.
However politely put and kindly meant, the question requires me to justify my presence in the world without my child at my side. I feel the need to defend myself.
I list off the modifications to a standard book tour that have been made to ensure I'm home as much as possible. I talk about how regularly my son and I chat on Skype and FaceTime. I go on and on about how being a writer normally maximises the time I get with the family and emphasise that this is an unusual period of travel.
If there were subtitles to interpret the truth behind my inane chatter they would read:
I'm actually a good mum. I love my kid. I promise.
Despite the enormous inroads being made by women into the paid workforce, we're yet to see the same progress for men in the home. Just four per cent of Australian fathers are full-time stay-at-home-dads. Children are still viewed as mum's responsibility. If dad puts in a bit of effort too, then mum should count herself lucky.
Occasionally I'm asked the question on a day that I'm feeling brave. In those moments, I will look the inquirer straight in the eyes, smile warmly and say plainly, "His father is looking after him".
This is usually met by baffled amusement and sometimes even a funny, funny joke, like: "Oh oh - dad is babysitting! Imagine the chaos you're going to return home too!"
The response leaves me grumpier than the original question did.
My husband is not babysitting. He is parenting. He is, after all, a parent.
Not only do these kinds of queries and cracks make mothers feel like they're not entitled to autonomy from their children but they insult fathers as well. When I return home after a period of being away, I don't enter a disaster zone. My husband is perfectly capable of looking after himself, and of course being a loving, nurturing and thoughtful parent. To suggest he is anything less is insulting and demeaning.
We have to shift our expectations if we want to shift reality. So long as we operate from the presumption that women shoulder the full burden of unpaid work and caring duties - they will have to. And that's not good enough. If we want to see more men stepping up and taking an active, engaged, hands-on role in raising their kids - then we must demand it.
Quit asking silly questions that box women into a role of sole child rearing responsibility and men into a role of being so hopeless they can't look after their own kids. Each of us is better than this.
Australian mothers deserve the social freedom to operate and function in society as people, as well as parents. And Australian fathers deserve respect for their parenting, not derision and a permanent assumption that they're failing. We can make a start on both by avoiding asking any parent where their young child is.
I promise you, we haven't just forgotten them.