Babies are sometimes delightful and hilarious and fun, sometimes more soul-crushingly boring than a conversation about landscaping materials. Join us as one man discovers this kaleidoscope of living for the very first time.
His name: Stuart Heritage.
His journey: Caring for his infant son for a single day.
His crime: Sounding like a caricature of a dude/dad.
His defense: Was trying to be sweet, appreciative.
Only thing worse than this story: The comments.
Writing at The Guardian, Heritage pens a column about barely surviving a mere single day with his roughly six-month-old kid while his wife is home sick with a migraine. Normally, he slips out to work without having to lift a finger with the boy, but today, that fateful day, he was Parent Number One.
It went well at first, he writes, strapping the baby to his chest and catching up on some laundry, an ENTIRE movie, and a few podcasts. If this is what his wife was doing all day while he “toiled for pennies,” it hardly seemed just. Then, things take a turn:
But then, in the afternoon, out of absolutely nowhere, time suddenly screeched to a halt. It was just me and him until bedtime, and bedtime was a million years away. What was I supposed to do? We stuck our tongues out at each other until we both got bored. We played with a set of plastic keys, but that got old just as quickly. Tummy time came and went, as did the new game I invented where I make a whistling noise and then bop him on the nose with my thumb. Copious unnecessary selfies were taken. After all this, I checked the clock. It was still only 2pm. I was outraged.
From that point, the structure of the day fell apart totally. It became a paragraph without punctuation, an infinite game of Buckaroo! where the sole objective was to keep my baby from crying. I love him and everything but, wow, babies are boring.
In his defense, this is also how I felt taking care of a baby during those early days. However, I was the baby’s mother, and I had no such luxury of nonchalance about my comical ineptitude. While I wrote freely about the experience, I received immediate, constant and sharp criticism: I should have never had a baby in the first place, I should shut up, stop whining, and stop acting like I was the first person to have a child, I should think of how awful it would be for my child to ever know it wasn’t a thrill a minute. In other words: how dare I be openly bored?
So, Heritage’s piece doesn’t really bother me personally, because I can relate. But his column’s existence stings nonetheless—that, while it’s well-intentioned and even admirable that he simply wants to thank his wife for being a good mother, and while I’m a firm believer that all parenting experiences should be widely circulated so as to normalize all possible responses, it also reinforces the worst disparity when it comes to parenting, which is this: Somehow, men still don’t have to be good at it. They can laugh it off when they aren’t. They can conclude that they simply don’t know how she does it—“it” being that terrible boring childrearing thing—and then go back to work, lucky they never have to sort through it.
Heritage jokes that “A week of this and I would be a permanently undressed alcoholic who subsisted on a diet of chips and biscuits, but somehow she’s kept it together for six entire months. It’s amazing.”
It is amazing—any woman who can’t get up to speed during those first crucial weeks or months of motherhood is likely to be wrecked with grief and guilt, juggling the baby blues or postpartum depression, in a fog of painkillers, crashing hormones, healing, and possibly learning to nurse, all while trying to get by one day at a time, dodging a slew of judgments, silent or otherwise, about her competence.
And of course,some women really do seem like natural mothers, and I too have envied them. I’ve had to learn as I go, and found that some parts of parenting do come naturally, but as for being able to ascertain which ones they are in advance—good luck. You don’t get to pick, and your strengths may not emerge until later.
But I think even the seemingly natural mothers have struggled, deeply, inside. Women are learned performers when it comes to telegraphing the femininity we know we are supposed to have mastered. We should be careful when we talk about how “naturally” women come at anything that they’ve historically had no choice but to do well—or else. Heritage marvels that his wife has “taken to it so naturally, so much more naturally than I have.”
She sort of had to, didn’t she? We never hear how it actually was for her in the beginning, only six months later, when she’s a pro. Here they are, in this essay, just another hapless dad and the type-A mom making it look easy. But he betrays that idea—the effortlessness—later:
She writes vast to-do lists, then beats herself up when she doesn’t accomplish everything on them. She compulsively reads bullshitty “A day in the life of a typical mum” blogposts written by smug liars with Smeg fridges and secret nannies, then worries that she isn’t keeping up – as if she’s somehow letting our son down by not baking fresh wholewheat muffins every morning while simultaneously feeding him and doing pilates.
But even though he sees this effort, his conclusion is the usual one—that, in the end, she “makes it look easy.” And maybe she does, but that’s what making it look easy really looks like: Rising to the occasion of something worth rising to the occasion for, loving it sometimes, dreading it other times, and finding yourself under enormous cultural pressure to do it right no matter how you really feel or what your strengths are in this arena of her life. Because what’s the alternative? Doesn’t sound like there is anyone else in the household up to the task.
Of course, the commenters are useful, in so much as they provide every possible response:
- How does your wife do it? It’s called biology
- I don’t know how this article could irritate anyone. I thoroughly enjoyed it!
- Wow! What a refreshing read! At last someone not afraid of saying that childcare can be boring.
- Between 6 months and 2 years was my favourite period with my sons, great fun. It made me feel free, rather than bitter and trapped. Guess I was lucky.
- I’m with you - I HATED it. Hated every moment and developed depression as a result.
- How convenient that women take to the mind-numbingly boring task of childcare “naturally”. “You are so much better at it, darling. I’ll see you when I’m back from work (where I’ll get paid and recognised for my efforts).”
- If his wife didn’t want to stay at home, I’m sure she’d have kicked up a fuss. She hasn’t. The idea of maternal instincts isn’t a plot cooked up to hold women back.
- This is sad. On the one hand it highlights the undervaluing of devoted parenting, still largely the work of mothers in our patriarchal society. It also says, sadly, that the author is missing the joy of truly connected fathering.
- Take him for a walk. Read him a story. Tell him a joke. Go to the pool. Dig up some bugs in the garden. Eat something sticky. Whatever you do, do it together. Not hard is it?
- Babies ARE boring, but it’s also a huge privilege.
- Babies and children aren’t meant to be brought up in an isolated nuclear family, but as part of a wider community. Some of the boredom that people mention surely have their roots in this fact.
We can’t seem to escape these presumptions about how parenting ought to feel, ought to look, who is best at it and who gets off the hook for never having to be. It’s not the most profound message around, but it matters enormously to all the parents out there who feel, for whatever reason, that how they really respond to parenting is somehow not the right response—that, because everyone’s making it look so easy, that the best effort they can throw at it is simply not good enough. And that group, I think, contains most of us.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.