Throughout my life, ever since my earliest memory, I have never even spared a single, solitary thought on the idea that I was in any way unequal to a man. It never crossed my mind that I would not have my own career, be in any way financially dependent on a wallet with testicles.
It never occurred to me that a woman could not run the country (I was born under Thatcher), that a woman could not be a boss (my mum was one) that a woman could not shoot, ride and fight like a man (yes, I may have watched a lot of Calamity Jane and Buffy growing up).
I have spent a lot of my career as a journalist, opining and writing about feminism. I have interviewed actresses and singers about equality, penned opinion pieces about female empowerment; tackled issues from the gender pay gap to sexual harassment.
Gender inequality? It was a systemic issue to be toppled, sure, but not a lived reality for me.
And yet now, at 31, I find myself wrestling with a belated and thoroughly unpleasant notion.
We are not equal.
Why? Because I’m in that decade, the one where marriage and babies becomes, not a ‘one day’ concern, but an approaching reality. And yet- should I be lucky enough to have a baby- the idea of having one fills me with an absolute, vicelike dread. Because it may take two to bonk that baby into existence, but after the fun part’s over; it’s all on me.
For all the nicey-nicey ‘we’re’ pregnant rhetoric in the world, the fact remains that the woman carries the baby. She is the one coping with nausea, illness, swelling, lack-of-sleep, physical exhaustion and then- the grand finale of often PTSD-inducing, excruciating birth, the after-effects of tearing, stitches, bleeding, incontinence and more.
Wow, slow claps for whatever f****r designed that division of labour when reproduction was on the table.
But the inequity does not stop there. In an ideal world, I would love to hop on a plane after giving birth, leave my boyfriend for nine months alone with the newborn, just for some sliver of the semblance of equanimity. Alas, pesky hormones, societal niceties and, yeah, I guess actually loving the baby, typically stand in the way.
So begins the ardour of breastfeeding, the sleepless nights, the beginnings of motherhood. Now here, breasts aside, is where the fathers can – and often do – step up. But even here, the cracks begin to widen.
I have seen this happen to countless women I know, often with incredibly progressive partners, partners who would openly call themselves feminists, partners who I have seen be amazing dads. The imagined equality in their parenting, an idea they probably designed during pregnancy, soon begins to slip away, as the women start drowning in a hormone-soaked-dry-eyed-insomnia, and the men are able to slip back to work (even if that office is the kitchen table during lockdown). Men’s bodies and psyches are not as ripped apart by the process of birth and parenting, whereas women are mentally and physically in it from the moment they pee on that stick.
For me, I have skin in the game. My father was a stay-at-home dad, and that is the benchmark I set for the men in my life- from my partner to my male friends- many of whom have had children this year. Full-time parenting is not for everyone, it is certainly not for me, and I don’t expect that of every man, either. But what I do expect, is for the brain of a full-time parent to reside in every father, because it sure as hell exists in the mind of every working mother. I want men to see life the way women are forced to. I do not want the burden of care to fall disproportionately on women- breast feeding or not.
It is a subtle but devastating reality, that men – for all their goodwill in the world – are still not viewed as full-time parents the same way women are. Men are not raised to be parents, the way women are. Society does not expect much from fathers- besides their sperm and a nominal amount of time with their children- whilst it unjustly wants (and takes) everything from women.
This permissive viewpoint can latch on to even the wokest dad in the world. Because subconsciously, I think even my most conscientious male friends, who I have witnessed be superlative parents, probably still view their female partner as the primary caregiver; the baby boss, the main parent. But this tiny thought is a dangerous assumption.
Covid has shone a harsh and unforgiving light on the alienation of women in parenthood, from birth and beyond. They are the ones isolated in the delivery ward, they are the ones disproportionately bearing the brunt economically this year.
The astounding pregnancy discrimination advocacy group, Pregnant, Then Screwed, had a 442% increase in calls to their helpline this year. Their data shows that 15% of mothers either have been made redundant or expect to be made redundant in 2020 and of those, a shocking 46% have said that a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy. A huge 72% of mothers have had to work fewer hours because of childcare issues, and 65% of mothers who have been furloughed say a lack of childcare was the reason. Many of these women are not single mothers, so why are they solely bearing the consequences of having a child?
This all goes to show that while it takes two people to make a baby; only one gets thoroughly, royally screwed over. Despite my fantastical daydreams of a world in which men can carry babies (seriously, Pfizer you came up with that vaccine real quick, can you do this next?), the fact remains that we cannot fight the biological reality women carrying the child. But we can, and we should, be fighting to level the parenting playing field.
Because, when it comes to babies, are we equal? Not a chance. Which is why I am afraid to have one, which is why I talk about this endlessly with my partner, agonise over a baby which hasn’t even been conceived yet but which I know, if and when it does, will take so much more from me than it ever will from him. And to me, as a feminist, as a lifelong servant of equality and fairness?
Well, it’s just not fair, is it?