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I recently spoke with a colleague about work and specifically around a major start-up project we were going on. We talked about what it would mean in terms of time, focus, travel and what it meant to us personally to be a part of this huge and important operation. I mentioned my children and how, as a mother, it was so important to me to see my time and energy go to making a positive impact in the world. I often talk about my mission to turn my father’s oilfield into my daughter’s energy garden, and this is exactly that kind of work.
My colleague was silent for a moment. He shook his head. “You have three children, right?” I nodded – yes, I do. “Wow. How are you doing?”
I normally get this question from young mothers struggling to reconcile a new identity as a parent with the old baggage of what parenting—especially for women—was like historically. For young mothers, I tend to be a bit more empathetic in my response. I’m talking about getting help – childcare, house cleaning, meal preparation support; learn and accept that outsourcing chores in a dual-career household is the only way for everyone to both get a job and have some rest.
But somehow the way this question was asked touched me differently this time. My colleague also has three children. But I bet a million dollars that he’s 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 would at least have to do it on behalf of myself and my husband. What worries me most is that under that question hides a worldview that my colleague paints on his colleagues, his daughters, his own wife, involving a clear division of responsibilities where the women’s world is at home, while his is much broader . More insidious than acknowledging what lies beneath my colleague’s question was the acknowledgment that I accepted this worldview. Not only that, but how I’ve reinforced that worldview by accepting that the question, “how do you do it?” is acceptable to ask women with kids and careers, but it doesn’t even cross my mind to ask men.
My mother and father both had important, impactful careers. For me, the idea of duality between a career and a family has never existed. It was all I’ve ever known – and I’m incredibly proud of my mom for her example of painting her nails, grabbing her helmet, and heading to the refinery. She rolled over as an example that being a woman and working in the industry are synonymous.
That said, she still did the bulk of the housework, more because of her own expectations of her role as a mother than anything my father ever said or did. We enjoyed her home-cooked meals far more often than my father’s occasional beans on toast, and it was always Mom who stayed with us when anyone was sick. I see the difference in my household, where my husband is an incredibly fair partner in everything (except cleaning, but then I’m not much for car maintenance, so you’ll be fine).
When my colleague asked that question, I think I answered with something as innocent as, “I’m getting help.” But in the days since, I’ve grown furious with myself for not taking the opportunity to take a stand against everything behind that question. Every time we ask a working mom “how she’s doing” but not the working dad, we reaffirm that her role is to make it work, her role is to find a work-life balance. which are slightly more on the life side and less on the work side. And we’re robbing working fathers of the recognition that it’s hard for parents of young children—both parents—to deal with all the demands placed on their time, energy, and focus.
Now, I know that my anxiety on this subject doesn’t even begin with addressing the burden of single parents as they navigate by taking care of their families, taking care of their children’s needs, and creating a home. I recognize how lucky I am to have both work that I enjoy and work that pays the bills. I recognize that gender equality in the parenting burden is a concern that comes after you make ends meet and have someone to help. And I acknowledge that this entire article is written with the underlying language of “mama” and “daddy,” while “mama” and “mama,” “daddy” and “daddy” and every other wonderful definition of family exists.
The next time I’m asked, “How do I do that?” around parenting and career, I’m going to unravel my own prejudices. I’m going to ask the question back in a moment, to honor that working fathers also have a lot on their plate. And I have my answer ready:
How do I do it?
By not accepting that every task in my house or for my children should be done or arranged by me.
By focusing on important, inspiring work.
By seeing my role in helping my husband build a fulfilling career while also being a parent.
By showing my daughter and my sons that they don’t have to be tied to outdated ideas about gender roles.
And the important question is not “how” I do it anyway. It’s “why”.
Teresa Waddington lives in Calgary.
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