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I was recently talking with a colleague about work and specifically around a big start-up project we were heading toward. We were talking about what it would mean in terms of time, focus, travel and about what it meant to us personally to be a part of this enormous and important operation. I mentioned my kids and about how, as a mom, it was so important to me for them to see my time and energy going toward a positive impact in the world. I often talk about my mission to turn my dad’s oilpatch into my daughter’s energy garden, and this is exactly that kind of work.
My colleague was quiet for a moment. He shook his head. “You have three kids, right?” I nodded – yep, I do. “Wow. How do you do it?”
Now, normally I get asked this question by young mothers, struggling to reconcile a new identity as a parent with the old baggage of how parenting – especially for women – has historically looked. For young moms, I tend to be a bit more empathetic in my answer. I talk about getting help – childcare, home cleaning, meal-prep support; learning and accepting that outsourcing chores in a dual-career household is the only way for everyone to both go to work and have some down time.
But somehow, the way this question was asked this time hit me differently. My colleague also has three kids. Yet I bet a million dollars he has never, not even once, been asked “how he does it.”
Underneath that question is expectation. Expectation that I should have been home to do the diapers, the laundry, the cleaning, the cooking. The expectation that if I wasn’t there to do it, I should at a minimum be arranging it on behalf of myself and my husband. What most concerns me is that underneath that question is a world view that my colleague paints onto his co-workers, his daughters, his own wife that involves a clear division of responsibilities where the women’s world is in the home, while his is much wider. More insidious than the recognition of what’s underneath my colleague’s question was the recognition that I have been accepting this worldview. Not only that, but how I have reinforced that worldview by accepting that the question, “how do you do it?” is acceptable to ask women with kids and careers, but is not something that even occurs to me to ask men.
My mom and my dad both had significant, impactful careers. For me, the idea of duality between having a career and having a family never existed. It was all I ever knew – and I am incredibly proud of my mom for her example of painting her nails, grabbing her hard hat and heading to the refinery. She role modelled that being a woman and working in industry are synonymous.
That said, she still did the lion’s share of the housework, more owing to her own expectations of her role as a mom than anything my dad ever said or did. We enjoyed her home-cooked meals much more frequently than my dad’s occasional beans on toast, and it was always Mom who stayed home with us when someone was sick. I can see the difference in my household, where my husband is an incredibly equitable partner in everything (except cleaning, but then I’m not much for car maintenance, so it works out).
When my colleague asked that question, I think I responded with something innocuous like, “I get help.” But in the days since I have become incensed with myself for not using the opportunity to take a stand against everything behind that question. Every time we ask a working mom “how she does it” but not the working dad, we are reaffirming that it is her role to make it work, it is her role to find a work-life balance that is a bit more on the life side and a bit less on the work side. And we rob working dads of the recognition that it is difficult for parents of young kids – either parent – to manage all of the demands placed on their time, energy and focus.
Now, I know my angst on this topic doesn’t even begin to address the load single parents shoulder as they navigate providing for their families, meeting the needs of their kids and creating a home. I recognize how lucky I am to have both work I enjoy and work that pays the bills. I recognize that gender equity in the parenting load is a concern that comes after making ends meet and having someone to help. And I recognize that this entire article is written with the underlying language of “mom” and “dad,” when “mom” and “mom,” “dad” and “dad,” and every other wonderful definition of family is out there.
Next time I get asked “how do I do it?” around parenting and career, I’m going to start to unravel my own bias. I’m going to ask the question right back, to honour that working dads also have a lot on their plate. And I’m going to have my answer ready:
How do I do it?
By not accepting that every task in my home or for my children must be done or arranged by me.
By focusing on important, inspiring work.
By seeing my role in helping my husband create a fulfilling career at the same time as being a parent, too.
By showing my daughter and my sons that they don’t need to be bound by antiquated ideas on gender roles.
And the important question isn’t “how” I do it anyway. It’s “why.”
Teresa Waddington lives in Calgary.
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