Men and babysitting, Women and childcare
A message to dads - stop treating childcare as an optional extra
Back in the olden days, aka East London in the 1980s, when I was a kid, my mum, who’d been forced to leave school at 16 (back in the OLDEN days, aka The North in the 1960s), went back to uni as a mature student, and the guy who ran the greengrocer’s said it was “nice” (and he meant nice-nice, not niiiiiice). “Gets you out the house, dunnit!”
As we walked down Mead’s Lane, back home, my mum explained to me that this was sexist. It was sexist to say that it was nice for women to study, or work, and that these things got them out the house. What can I say? Like the hipster who burnt their hand on a lightbulb, my mum was an SJW (Social Justice Warrior) before it was cool.
There was one thing my mother never thought of as sexist though. To be honest, I don’t think it even occurred to my mother – or to either of my parents – that she shouldn't be solely responsible for paying for childcare. That childcare costs could – and probably even should – be shared between the two people, the primary and secondary caregivers, who brought the child into the world. Now my mum was lucky, she got a student grant (and God, speaking of the olden days, doesn’t that term sound old-fashioned now? Like wireless or larder or manageress or something!), instead of a student loan – but almost all of the money she got went directly to cover childcare costs – in our case, a childminder (known as a Tagesmutter in German).
In fact, back in the 80s and 90s, it was very usual to hear mums saying that it wasn’t “worth it” for them to work, because all of their wages went on childcare costs. Nobody seemed to ever consider the idea that men, too, could pay for their children to be looked after.
But, you know, this was the 1980s! My parents were both born in the 1950s! Of course they were old-fashioned – it was the olden days. Men still said they were babysitting their kids if mum went on a night out – something they did about once a year. It was the olden days. And those days are gone! Right?
In modern-day Berlin, most parents share the cost of childcare. In fact, childcare in Berlin is so cheap, so affordable – so subsidised – that you seldom hear the phrase “It’s just not worth it, me going to work!” If you do hear it, it will perhaps be in reference to the emotional cost of sending very young children to institutionalised care – and, by the way, that I’m not 100% convinced that pressuring or even forcing parents into being separated from their kids so that they can contribute to the economy is necessarily “worth it.” But here we are, modern and equal. In modern, equal Berlin, if the secondary caregiver (who happens to be male) decides to give the primary caregiver (who often happens to be female) a break, this would never be referred to as babysitting. Especially not by parents who are still in a relationship. It’s not the 1980s anymore.
But one thing hasn’t changed: organising babysitting for things that happen outside of the Kita hours. I know a lot of mums in Berlin. I know mums who are parenting with their partners, and mums who are co-parenting with their exes. I know rich mums and poor mums, German mums, Swedish mums, Russian mums, French mums. I know Hartz-IV-welfare mums who are co-parenting well with their student exes, I know Hartz-IV welfare mums who are barely co-parenting with their Hartz-IV exes. I know Hartz-IV mums who are doing things practically 50/50 with a full-time working dad. I know full-time working mums who are co-parenting badly with Hartz-IV dads, and I know self-employed, part-time working mums whose kids see their full-time working dads once a month for half an hour at McDonald’s.
Any constellation, I know it. Time-rich dads, time-poor mums, and anders rum: I KNOW THEM ALL.
And is what I have discovered: when mothers have money and jobs and the dads don't, they are responsible for arranging out of Kita childcare. It was this way for me too. Whenever I had to leave Berlin, or even Germany, for a show – no matter how busy I was and how little my ex had to do – I was the one who was responsible for finding, organising and paying the babysitter. It was my job. After all, I was the one who wanted to leave my kid behind, right? This just makes perfect logical sense! I was the one who wanted to go away? So, obviously it was my responsibility to get him looked after. I was responsible for organising the babysitting.
But when a guy does have a top job and loads of money – the woman is still responsible for organising the babysitting. I mean, his job is more important – and your job is less important – AND HE IS NICE ENOUGH TO LET YOU GO TO THE CONFERENCE OR THE BOOK FAIR OR THE VERNISSAGE! If he is home, and doesn’t have anything to do, he will gladly look after the kid. But if something comes up, then it is always, always, always the woman who has to organise the babysitting.
Once Kita is closed, men’s work, men’s engagements always trump women’s work. To be honest, men’s pleasure, and leisure, is more important than women’s work, too. Men’s work is set in stone. Women’s work is always optional.
I am a single mum-poetry-slamming Lesebühne-freischaffende Künstlerin, which is a long-winded way of saying slightly mad. I know about organising babysitting. I’m not going to say I have the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree in How to Organise Last-Minute Babysitters – but, basically I’d get an A* in the GCSE. I have left my boys with girlfriends, let them stay the night with people they barely know. My oldest once spent the night with a Chechen family who couldn’t speak a word of English and hardly any German. He learnt the word mischka there, and thought it meant pink teddy bear. I’ve fallen out with people who won’t babysit (bitches). I’ve picked my kids up at one in the morning and carried them home on my hip because I was too ashamed to get a taxi. I’ve dragged my kids along to shows – they heckle – I’ve begged friend and neighbours.
You know what else I’ve done? I've done a lot of babysitting for others. There’s certain people whose names appear on my phone and my heart – not gonna lie – sinks a bit and I sigh, wearily, and think “Come on, Jacinta, it’s time to pay the butcher!” I babysit other people’s kids out of the goodness of my heart – but also out of the desperation of my situation.
And my ex-partners have never done this. Either of them. For them, it’s clear. For men, it’s easy. Manchmal können sie halt nicht. Manchmal schaffen sie es nicht. Arbeit hat Vorrang. Etwas ist dazwischen gekommen. If they could help, they would, but they can’t, so I better find a babysitter. Because they are, sadly, not available.
I know what you think I'm going to say now: COME ON LADIES, SORT YOUR LIVES OUT! COME ON WOMEN, SET SOME BOUNDARIES! DON’T LET MEN GET AWAY WITH BEING UNRELIABLE! FORCE THEM TO BE GOOD DADS! COME ON, MAMA, EXPECT MORE! YOU ARE ENABLING MEN BY LETTING THEM GET AWAY WITH IT! COME ON: TEACH YOUR PARTNERS AND YOUR EXES TO BE MORE RELIABLE, TEACH THEM TO ACQUIRE A NETWORK OF EMERGENCY BABYSITTERS, OF LAST-MINUTE SUPPORTIVE FRIENDS. Let’s school them in what it means to be a parent!
You know what, though? I am here to say: fuck it, girls.
I want the men who read this article – the dads who read this article – to read it and ask themselves why they let themselves off the hook so easily and so, so, so completely. Why is their work always so important, and their “support” in arranging childcare so optional? I want the dads reading this article to meditate on these questions, and then look at their phones, which don’t have seven potential paid babysitters’ and eleven potential unpaid babysitters’ numbers stored in them, and feel really fucking ashamed. Because, like seriously. Sort your lives out, fellas.
Meanwhile, the mums reading this article will carry on doing the only thing they can do: somehow making it all work. Looking after their own kids, looking after other people’s kids, distracting the crying kid who is missing his mum by putting food colouring in the bath, putting on Paw Patrol on Netflix and then Blippi on YouTube, taking the kids to the forest, taking the kids to the playground, ordering pizza, putting frozen pizza in the oven, feeding the kids fish fingers, buying the kids Smarties yoghurts, turning up late your show because the babysitter was late. It’s not the olden days anymore. But for some reason, figuring out childcare is optional for men, while it's expected of us. Our life outside of childcare is optional, and men’s isn’t.