Feature: Forgetting Clarke Gayford – The difference between mothers and fathers

Rachel Buckman discusses Jacinda Arderns pregnancy, parenthood and gender roles.

New Zealand has survived about a month of knowing that our Prime Minister is pregnant. I don’t know how Jacinda’s holding up, but for me personally it’s been an emotionally trying time. The constant see-sawing between the extremes has got me all twitchy. On a typical evening, I could be at a table surrounded by fellow young women celebrating the progressive path our country is on and feeling hopeful for the future that now seems realistically possible. Flash forward a couple hours later. I’m sitting in bed, in the dark, internet tab open to the Stuff Facebook page where I’ve begun a seemingly endless process of angry reacting all the internet trolls within existence (it’s hard to decide whether this process is more satisfying than it is self-destructive).

What unsettles me the most about the criticisms I read, is that my mind (naively liberal as it potentially/definitely is) cannot fathom the person that created such negative and unnecessary comments. They seem blatantly archaic, sexist, scare-mongering, and playing into stereotypes that belong in some Mad Men universe. None of these are characteristics I could imagine anyone in 21st century New Zealand wanting associated with them.

And here we find the ultimate paradox that plagues our world – I can’t understand them and they can’t understand me. So no constructive conversation can be had, and we progress nowhere. Settling with agreeing to disagree. (I know very few people who can peacefully disagree, so this still seems like a losing situation).

However, there is one argument I’ve seen circulating that I can engage with without descending into raging semi-feminist-preacher mode. Not because I agree with it in any way, but because I think I understand where it is coming from and believe, in this case, there actually is a constructive conversation to be had about where these opinions stem from.

Multiple people, both publically in the media and privately in the safety of their own social circles, have claimed that having a pregnant Prime Minister isn’t a good thing as it sets too high standards for women and working mothers. Jacinda is setting a dangerous precedent that mums can now do literally everything, regardless of it being practically impossible for any normal person to achieve. And since it can be done, women will be expected to rise to the occasion. New mums struggling to balance the work/baby load will be faced with the response: ‘If Jacinda can do it, why can’t you?’

Now this would be a completely valid argument if Jacinda had at any point said she planned to do it all. As far as I’m aware though, she never made an announcement stating her intention was to full time run the country whilst also popping home for every nappy change and to whip up freshly baked cookies for an afternoon snack.

People who make this argument have ignored what Jacinda said the plan was. In fact, they’ve completely ignored a whole other person who is vitally important to this process – Clarke Gayford. The man who will be staying at home to care for the eventual first child of NZ, meaning that his partner is in no way required to do it all. It’s as if there is an inability to accept the extent of the responsibilities he’s taking on. Or equally to believe that Jacinda has full faith in him and can leave him to carry them out independently.

Yet while I can tear apart their logic, our thoughts and feelings don’t necessarily play by the rules of logic. While I think what Jacinda is doing shouldn’t create impossible standards, that does not diminish how it genuinely it can be perceived that way. The fear isn’t driven by her situation at all, it comes from the culture we live in. One where women still feel they have to shoulder the brunt of the parenting burden, and a father figure taking charge doesn’t seem like a reality. All of this reflecting how ingrained the distinction between the mother and father roles still is. Instead of two equal units functioning together to create one cohesive parenting structure, we have two polar poles.

Mum. Dad. Both words come with different expectations.

A New Zealand Herald opinion piece complained that pushing the progression of working mothers would “normalise [women] giving up the reward (the baby).” With its Rumpelstiltskin, deal with the devil imagery, there are some problematic implications from such a sentence. If working full time equates to ‘giving up your child’, does that also mean it makes you less of a mother? Or love your child less? Or that time is the ultimate measure of a good parent?

Putting those problems to one side, how do the deeply negative connotation of this sentence fit with the fact we have been normalising such a thing for centuries when it comes to fathers. Centuries of males have been taught to take upon the ‘breadwinner’ role, and go out to support their family. None of these men have been accused of missing out on any reward while their wife stays at home with the children. The treatment is starkly different though, when we reverse the situation and have a woman in the workforce. It’s the same balance of people, one at work and one at home, yet the mother faces hysteria and judgement at every other turn as if it’s not really the same. As if each parent’s true value lies only in the status quo.

When we lament the curse of gender stereotypes we like to focus on women because historically they’ve drawn the significantly shorter straw. While I would never be one to suggest we forget the social oppression of women, when it comes to progressing the nuclear-family to something a bit more equity focused, we need to consider the other side of the equation. To legitimise both women’s rights and a father’s equal place in the parenting dynamic. If we freak out when a woman goes to work, isn’t that implying that men are incapable of nurturing a child just as well? Despite the countless examples of fathers who are incredibly capable and who prove their usefulness does not end at the insemination phase.

The parenting sphere is intertwined with gender norms. To call a woman ‘motherly’ isn’t all that different from saying she meets the standard social norms associated with females. So if you don’t meet those standards you fail twice over – as a mother and as a woman. Men are in no way immune to the pressures of expectations. A male friend once said something that scarred me to the point that I frequently quote him in outrage. “I’d love to be a stay at home father,” he tells me. He then followed this up immediately, without even a change of thought, with: “Don’t tell my friends.” The conclusions are easy enough to draw. He didn’t want to be seen as wanting to perform the role typically associated with women. It would make him seem, what? Weak. Softer. Less masculine.

By creating all these expectations and roles, what is dangerously threatened is the way we talk about raising children. When men and women meet on an uneven playing field riddled with intrinsic biases and complicated preconceptions, how can there be an open conversation about how they should raise their baby? The focus should not be about what the mothers and fathers are doing, it should be whether the environment and support is right for that family. We don’t live in a sixties sitcom which copies and pastes the typical family stereotype into every episode. Families who don’t follow the rule book of how a mother and father should behave – families with stay at home dads, single parents, two mothers, a combination of family members – they’re not lesser. If the baby is loved and cared for, the method shouldn’t matter.

We have talked Jacinda’s pregnancy to death, but it is consistently a story about her. Not to belittle how strong and able she personally is, but this isn’t just her story. There is a father actively in the picture too. Thank God for men like Clarke who are willing to break with the norm. The hope being that one day it wouldn’t be considered abnormal, but rather not considered at all. Instead, we can leave the individuals involved alone to make a decision that works for them. And then respect them enough not to comment on it afterwards, knowing it’s none of our business how they live their life.