It’s a weekday afternoon, I’m working upstairs – as usual – in the box room / laundry graveyard I call my office, when I hear an unexpected knock at the front door. Then I hear the racing footsteps of my two young sons as they run excitedly to open it, with my husband in tow.
An auntie has arrived for an impromptu visit. She’s not a true auntie, but a family friend of my kids’ grandparents’ generation. And she seems scandalised by what she sees when the door opens.
“Boys!” She exclaims. “Whatever going on here?” Briefly I worry that my toddler’s removed his nappy, again, to swing it solemnly around his head like a lasso, but it’s not that. “What has happened? What on earth is Daddy doing looking after you? We can’t have that. Where’s Mummy? Is she ill?”
The issue, it seems, is the children being in their father’s care, rather than mine.
But this is always the arrangement – my husband and I are both full-time freelancers, so we stagger our working hours to accommodate nursery, work and general existence. It’s a ramshackle system, but it works for us – and has done for the past two years.
I can hear my husband explaining this as he leads the auntie further into the house. I hear the auntie say, “News to me,” in rather disapproving tones, before their voices fade away. How weird, I think, and continue working
Later that week, my husband and I are telling a neighbour about our new vacuum cleaner – don’t hate me because my life is too glamorous for you – when the neighbour interrupts my husband with, “Rubbish! What would you know about vacuum cleaners?”
She’s smiling, but she’s also shouting. Then she says to me: “I bet he doesn’t even know where you even keep yours.”
Another time, I’m packing my groceries at the supermarket, trading toddler war stories with the checkout lady, as my own son wails in his trolley seat, because I stopped him from upending a magazine display.
But, when I let slip that my husband is cooking dinner tonight, the checkout lady makes this noise: “HAHAHAHAHAHAHHAAAA.” It’s a laugh, but one so loud and high and mocking that even my tantrumming son falls silent.
“Oh, excuse me, is it his majesty’s annual turn to cook tonight?” The checkout lady hoots. “I hope you’ve got backup fishfingers!
“Because they always ruin dinner, even when they’ve used every pan in the house. And do they wash up afterwards? Do they buggery. Hahahahaha.”
Following a successful first playdate with my older son (success criteria: no tears during; mutual tears on separation), my husband collects our son from her house, but it’s me the other kid’s mum calls to set up the next play date: “I did think of asking your other half just now,” she admits. “But then I thought, don’t be ridiculous! Ask the dad about your schedule? Yeah, right!”
To my shocked silence – this is possibly the first “yeah, right” I’ve heard since 1991 – she adds: “It’s okay, my hubby doesn’t know one end of a calendar from the other, either.”
ALL RIGHT, EVERYBODY SHUT UP. What is going on, please? When did we all decide, as mums, that casual and indiscriminate husband-bashing was acceptable as a social signal of goodwill instead of, say, the word “hello”?
My older son only started primary school last year, so I’ve only just graduated after five years in the warm, safe bubble of new-mumhood, and it’s jarring to find that, here in postgrad parenting, the social currency, at least in some parts, is the flagrant denigration of menfolk, regardless of whether they deserve it.
Now I’m awake to it, I hear it all the time – “he calls it babysitting”; “he’s so stupid I let him think he’s doing a good job, then I do it myself later”; “can you believe he just sat there?” – in cafes, in the schoolyard, even among my own parent friends.
I used to wonder, privately, why some of those friends were even with these people they seemed to hate so much. But when I paid closer attention, I saw the imbalance in their relationships.
I saw how my friends often maintained the cogs and wheels of the household, and how their partners would treat them a bit like an Alexa – wandering into wherever their partner was baking 500 cakes, entertaining upwards of five children, or writing a work report – asking for the name of one of their own relatives; which foodstuff their own daughter was allergic to – tree nuts, or shellfish (when even I know it’s both of those, and eggs); for a sandwich.
And I realised my friends, however inadvertently, had been sold a lie at the beginning of the relationship. A relationship they thought was equal, but that somehow ossified into stereotypical gender roles. I’d be bitter, too.
In our household, my husband is the domestic one. I’m not totally useless, but his cooking repertoire is much broader than mine; he’s better at playing with the kids; and when my chronic illnesses flare up, he’s the one who has to step up and take care of everything as well as providing the income.
So while I completely understand the background behind husband-bashing, I refuse to engage with it, and especially not as a virtue-signal.
Instead, I’m sticking with all the lessons I learned as a new mum. New mums offer each other encouraging smiles in the street; say you look amazing when you’re 90% Sudocrem and dry shampoo; and hold your baby because they understand what a 20-minute nap means to you.
As a new mum, I learned to pay that kindness forward by always having empathy, some spare baby wipes and a willingness to share them. I can’t think of a reason that any of these wouldn’t be relevant to mums of older kids, too, so that’s what I’m taking forward into this level of mumhood (including the baby wipes, because have you seen a five-year-old’s nose?).