Imagine if you lived in the sort of small community most people lived in until 200 years ago. Imagine if you lived within a few meters of where you were born and your parents and your in-laws, your grandparents and aunts and uncles and siblings and cousins all lived nearby. (Imagine also – for the sake of argument – that they are all nice, kind people and you get along with all of them. That would make life a lot easier, but I know it doesn’t always happen.)
Now imagine that you have a baby. Even if your culture cuts your available help in half by limiting child-care to women and girls, you still have an amazing number of people to help you out. Your mother and mother-in-law and aunts are there to give you the benefit of their experience. (And in those days, child-care practices didn’t change like fashions with every new book some kook published!) Your sisters and cousins might also be having babies, and might be able to nurse your baby for you if you didn’t have enough milk, or had sore nipples, or just needed to sleep. There would always be someone around to chat with, someone to make supper, someone to hold the baby while you go to the toilet.
And the men, while they might not have washed the clothes or cooked the meals, they would probably have helped by sitting around in the evenings and holding the baby. There would probably have been n old grandfather who couldn’t walk anymore who sat by the fire all day and was really good at patting babies to sleep. And as the babies got older, the younger men working nearby would have been fascinating for the toddlers to watch and imitate. (I remember when trades-people came to our house to repair something, how my kids would follow them around, gazing in awe and asking questions. Sure gave me a break!)
Nowadays, in Canada, we live in little boxes, little nuclear families, far away from the family and place of our birth. I often meet couples who are about to have a baby and have just moved to Victoria. I always feel for these isolated young things. I was like that once. My husband Randy and I moved to Edinburgh just two months before our second son Simon was due. We knew no-one. It was a very lonely experience. It was very hard on our relationship, and hard on Daniel, our toddler. Luckily, my mother came to stay, for a month around Simon’s birth, to do the work of many, cooking and cleaning and doing laundry and providing comic relief.
But even for new parents who are not living in such a completely new place, even if they have parents or siblings or other family living nearby, the expectation in our current society is that they are supposed to do this business of having a baby on their own. Our culture values independence and privacy and boundaries. It forgets to value support, companionship, belonging. And it makes for very lonely, depressed and anxious new parents.
I work with new mothers every day. I identify with them strongly and feel a lot of compassion for how difficult their job is. But I actually feel even sorrier for the new dads. (In the case of a same-sex couple, the non-stay-at-home, non-childbearing parent has the same challenge.) The Dad, without any experience of birth, babies or breastfeeding, has to do the work that used to be done by a mother, a mother-in-law, an aunt, three cousins and two sisters, not to mention the old grandfather and the fun young uncles. Not to mention the work that he has always done, contributing to the home and the family. No wonder he feels overwhelmed! And no wonder so many new mothers are dis-satisfied with the contributions their partners make to the work of a new baby. There is just no way he can do it all. One man cannot do the work of eight women.