Saturday, November 04, 2006

Primary Caregiver

Awhile back, I had to fill out this form for Harper's new idea of a monthly child care allowance. It's not an idea which I wholly support, but who turns down free money? Not I. On this form, I had to write down who was the "primary caregiver" of The Boy. I instantly wrote down myself, of course. But that got me thinking, and the more I thought, the more I got confused. What does this mean?

The Husband and I decided to have a baby together. When 'creating' The Boy, well, we obviously did that together. We painted his room, and bought the furniture and prepared for his entrance into the world together. So when did I become the primary caregiver?? When, I carried him inside me for nine months, I was The Boy's source of nourishment and transportation for that time, and although The Husband was a great help, I was essentially on my own. That's nature, and that's unavoidable. But surely, upon The Boy's first breath outside the womb, I stopped being the primary caregiver, and reverted to one half of a team, right? Well, yes...and no.

The Husband was the perfect support partner - always there to lend a hand. I simply could not have done it on my own. Frankly, I don't know how single parents do it, and I have no interest in finding out. But the reality is, that while you are breastfeeding, you are the primary caregiver. The Boy could survive without seeing The Husband, but could not go one single day without seeing me. What about breast milk in a bottle, you ask? Of course, yes. But I do think that some of the major benefits of breast milk do not come simply from consumption, but from the bonding that ensues, the close body contact. The repercussions of missing feedings are no fun either. And, for us at least, The Boy simply would not take a bottle for about nine months. So it was me and him against the world.

The Husband and I had a sort of unspoken agreement that, while I was on maternity leave, should The Boy wake up in the middle of the night, I was the one that had to get up with him. After all, The Husband had to work the next day. But then, so did I right? Granted I didn't have to look presentable, and I didn't have to speak in coherent sentences. But I did have to care for The Boy. I did have to feed him and change him and entertain him. I did have to get behind the wheel and take him to doctor's appointments and whatnot on days that I was literally blacking out due to lack of sleep. That is work, and possibly the most important work out there - raising a human being. But, as it was work, it was understood that everything concerning The Boy was my primary responsibility.

The question that remains is, once you're past the initial hurdles of gestation and breastfeeding, how, in a two parent household, there can even be the ranking of primary vs. secondary caregiver?

I don't know how it works with stay-at-home moms, and I don't pretend to. I did have have taste of it while I was on maternity leave, though, and what I do know is that when you decide to be a stay-at-home mom, while you may be accepting the position of primary caregiver, it shouldn't mean that you're signing up for a job that is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If I was at home now, you can bet that I would be lobbying for a SAHM Union in which we set out laws that determined the number of hours worked each day, and anything over and above those hours would be compensated, with official recognition being the minimum and expensive presents being the maximum.

But, why do so many women who go back to work end up doing two jobs: the one that pays them money, and the other of Primary Caregiver to their child(ren)? Is it unavoidable due to the gender requirements of the role? Are we such control freaks that we refuse to let our partners have more autonomy? Or are we so entrenched in the stereotypes of the male being the Primary Breadwinner and the female being the Primary Caregiver that there is no escape?

I don't think that our partners should be reduced to glorified babysitters who have no real authority. Unfortunately, I don't think that we, alone, have the ability to solve this problem. I think that many men enjoy handing over the reigns of power and simply going along for the ride. I have heard of men that boast of never having changed a poopy diaper. Ever. Is this something to brag about? That they enjoy all the benefits of having children without having to deal with any of the crap? I thank my lucky stars that The Husband was not one of these men.

On the flip side, though, the women put up with it for a variety of reasons: maybe they don't know how to ask for what they want; maybe they feel their "money jobs" don't compete with their partners'; or maybe they feel that this is what they signed up for when they decided to have children. But it begs the question: if a husband and wife were both professionals, making the same money and working the same hours, who would be the primary caregiver in this situation?

I don't know the answer to this. What I do know, however, is that the term "primary caregiver" should be considered outdated. Or, at the very least, should be considered outdated where both parents are working (as this is the only situation where I can speak with any authority whatsoever). I believe that for true equality, we need to think more in terms of "Co-Caregiver". What say you?


kittenpie said...

I say this is a really good question!
Misterpie filled out that form, and I have no idea what he wrote... hmmm. I really don't know which one of us I'd have put down, either, because while I do a lot of stuff with regards to her, so does he. I may buy all the clothes, research daycares, remember to bring what she needs, etc. and get her ready and out the door to daycare in the mornings, but he does the grocery shopping and cooking, and I work two nights and every other Saturday, so he is in charge of her then. It's a tough call. And you're right, it should be!

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to the meaning of 'parent'? I hate all the labels that forms like this demand. I suppose I should also say that I hate it when moms are asked regularly by pretty much everybody if they're working or not. My husband *never* gets asked this question when he's out and about with the Pookster; it's just assumed he is. So why do I?

Yes, and for the record, I'm not 'working' at the moment; at home being a mom for the time being. But still! It can irk some.

Mayberry said...

I think you're right and I'd love it if my husband were more of a "co-caregiver" instead of a "jr. asst. caregiver." I think one thing we do share pretty equally is the blame for having ended up in this unequal arrangement, actually (I'm speaking only for my own relationship here). It's partly the circumstance of pregnancy-breastfeeding-maternity leave-working fewer hours for pay; but it's also the control-freak tendency you mention. It's something I continue to work on, and it does get easier as the babies grow.

Beck said...

Interesting, thought-provoking post.I don't have any problem with being the primary caregiver - but I do see how it can be bizarre for two parents who both work to decide rather arbitrarily that the mother is the boss of the baby.

Suzanne said...

I so wish our arrangement were more egalitarian. But truly, it's me as primary care giver and him as if-Mom-is-on-death's-door helper. I exaggerate, but the caregiving duties are not nearly as balanced as I wished they were. This wasn't as true when I worked (for the first three years of my son's life), but it sure is now.

I'd sign up for that union you mentioned...

Lisa b said...

I'm interested in that union too.
I got put down on the form as primary caregiver for tax reasons as I make considerably less.
I went back to work in January and found that working the two jobs - mom and paid - was just too much. I used wanting to work (or committing career suicide as I called it )as major leverage to negotiate my better current working conditions. (I'm such a union girl)
That deal where you get up at night because you are on mat leave also sucks. You cannot function after a while. I also remember thinking I should not be driving.

Not-so-Sage Wisdom said...

I'd say that J and I have an equal partnership, and I'd be really stuck trying to name the "primary caregiver" in the family. J actually took 6.5 months of parental leave after our daughter was born, while I only had 5.5 months. Although that was largely a financial decision, I also really wanted him to have some stay-at-home time with our daughter. And I'd do it again...although I might split it into 9 and 3 next time.

Two things:

1. The one way that I'd say our partnership wasn't equal was that while I was getting up in the middle of the night -- like you were -- when I was on mat leave, I was also getting up a fair amount (though, admittedly, not as often) once I was back at work. And it was partly my fault: I just couldn't let her cry for 15 minutes at night before attending to her, and it took 15 minutes for J to drag his a** out of bed! It was either me getting up and helping soothe the munchkin or me lying in bed, gritting my teeth because I couldn't fall back to sleep!

2. Going back to work with a 6 month-old SUCKS when you're still breastfeeding...when the other partner goes back to work s/he doesn't have to worry about pumping milk in the bathroom stall every 3 hours, so I never felt that we were sharing the burden equally.

Still, I revelled in asking the hubby a few weeks into his leave about all of that music he had planned on writting while he was on leave. What had happened to it? Hmmm? Found he didn't have the time, did he? I think a lot of people (guys and gals, both) just don't get it until they're on their own 10 hours a day, 5 days a week for a long stretch of time.