A few years ago, a good friend revealed that several educated women she knew were seeking employment with the federal government strictly for the maternity leave top-up benefit.
I was incredulous. What were these women thinking? That all that mattered in life was getting full pay for a year while suffering sleepless nights, endless diaper changes and leaky breasts?
These were women with postsecondary educations - even graduate degrees, in some cases. Surely they had taken a couple of gender studies courses, I mused. How could they throw away their ideals and career aspirations for a standard-issue desk job, stretchy slacks and a few days of annual family leave?
I began to form a picture in my mind of what I smugly referred to as Mat Leave Woman. The kind of woman, I assumed, who would talk about the quality of her husband's sperm over appetizers and diet soda, the type of woman who shopped for mix-and-match basics at American outlet malls. These were women, I meanly believed, who settled for $30 haircuts and watched first-run blockbusters on two-for-one nights.
Meanwhile, throughout my 20s, I continued to work on my PhD in sociology while building my writing portfolio, co-editing an online journal and living in an overpriced loft with two purebred cats and a man whose income is only pennies above my own.
Over time, I gained a reputation for being a proponent of voluntary childlessness, writing a paper on the subject as part of my degree requirements and planning my moneyed, leisurely future with a sparkling kitchen, Sunday morning sleep-ins and plenty of time to write.
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"I'm not a walking uterus," I would complain to my partner when hopeful in-laws openly questioned us about possible progeny. He was in agreement. Only totally unimaginative people breed, we naively told ourselves.
But recently, I realized, I've been leading a kind of double life.
By day, I work studiously on campus, surreptitiously rubbing off my lipstick with a tissue whenever I spot a serious academic coming my way.
I have debates with colleagues about whether boy babies should wear dresses, and I listen to lectures on the confusion over contemporary masculinity in auditoriums filled with other like minds.
My shelves are lined with influential books on atheism, gender equality and reproductive choice. I eschew the feminine pleasure of wine spritzers in favour of beer, speak up when someone cracks a sexist joke at a party and sold my sewing machine to buy a new laptop.
In short, I strive to be the model genderless, odourless, politically correct and critical feminist.
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But at night, when I come home, I admit my life is a slightly different story.
There, I scrub the toilet every other day, scoop cat litter and plan endless iterations of the wedding my partner and I don't know if we want to have.
I find myself dusting the top of the closet and running the lint roller over the couch cushions while, in the background, Dr. Phil drones on about potty training. My partner, meanwhile, stomps around the house grumbling about the Lakers and ignores the 50 per cent of the housework for which he is responsible.
In some ways, our arrangement horrifies me. We've worked hard to leave behind rural, working-class roots and the drudgery of traditional North American family life, and still here we are seemingly reproducing the narrow roles we've sought to avoid.
But I have to admit, I also kind of like it.
I like that he is the kind of man who can get airline tickets changed without paying the fee. I like that he doesn't bore me or weigh me down with gooey talk about his feelings. He handles our investments, kills spiders, books rental cars and calls the building manager. In fact, he does all the kinds of things that I imagine George Bush-loving, SUV-driving fathers of two do.
And frankly, I'm not much better at sticking to a progressive gender role.
Lately, I have become the kind of woman who derives immense satisfaction from washing the household's entire collection of rubber flip-flops. I admit to becoming teary eyed over the simple, bucolic pleasure of slicing vegetables for dinner. I've stocked my living-room cupboard with puzzles, stuffed animals and tiny trucks - for our friends' children, I explain - and I find myself considering all manner of cringe-inducing beauty treatments.
Worst of all, I have pushed aside all but the most lucrative of freelance writing opportunities in favour of a full-time job with the federal government. We're thinking of having a baby, you see, and, well, the maternity benefits are really great.
Riva Soucie lives in Ottawa.
Illustration by Julie Morstad.
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