Recently a friend of mine posted a link to an article, with the pithy comment: “Well-meaning father discovers that parenting a baby is hard work”. In this article Prof Ernest Young from Duke University School of Law published a few thousand well-meaning words about his experiences of paternity leave.

Given the article was published in 2020 and knowing what journal turnaround is like, I imagine he wrote this prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Reading it before the pandemic might have made me sigh a little; reading it in our current context certainly makes my blood pressure rise! For instance:

My mother held back the chaos in our family for over two decades while my brother and I were kids. In many ways in our family, she still does; as life wore on, she took up other caring roles—looking after my parents’ parents, refereeing
disputes in the extended family, orchestrating family gatherings—that had a similar quality. I recall no reason to think she found this mode of work unfulfilling. But I suspect it is a harder role for men. We are socialized to think that we need to go out and build things—a building, a company, even a book or a symphony. We formulate goals and try to work toward them, and these goals usually involve a change in our circumstances, not simply the maintenance of our present condition. We closely monitor our progress toward those goals. Men need something to show at the end of a day—or a life.

“Chaos, Accomplishment, and Work, or, What I Learned on Paternity Leave” – Ernest A. Young

Yikes. The idea that women are satisfied with work that leaves “nothing to show” (a whole other can of worms) is very frustrating, but let’s leave that to one side for now. What I’m interested in is that Young felt it was necessary to write the article at all; that writing his perspective on care of an infant while juggling an academic career was something that needed to be added to what is already a pretty bulging field of work – but perhaps that doesn’t count, because it’s nearly all been by women. After all, men apparently need “something to show” for the work that they do for their families, and just getting baby Caroline through her first six months of life happy and healthy was apparently not enough to “show” – there needed to be a peer-reviewed journal article come out of it.

Young – who I’m sure is a good father, seems to have done a good job of raising his kid during paternity leave, and I’m sure is a good law professor too – has in this article the air of someone discovering for the first time that the domestic labour of running a house and raising a child is pretty all-consuming. Which got me wondering about how many men in heterosexual relationships and have kids have also discovered this for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is very easy in the modern world for someone with a white collar job to be out of the house say 8 am to 7 pm Monday to Friday. A man with this kind of job would tend to be seen as “hands on” if he put his kids to bed a couple of nights a week, made dinner once a week, and took the kids out on Saturday so mum could “have a break”. It would also be quite conventional for a man of this type – someone who loves his wife and kids, who values his time with them, who is not a bad person – to not really notice that his spouse is filling in all of the rest of the labour, or what that labour involves; to really appreciate what she has potentially sacrificed in her career and private life to fulfil those necessary tasks.

In Covid times, those of us privileged enough to be able to work from home have had our work and domestic spheres brought into an intimate context not really familiar to modern life. But they were pretty normal in the past!

Baby Jesus toddles in a wooden walker while his mother and father work. From the Book of Hours of Catherine of Clèves.

As I wrote in this post a few years ago, “Mary and Joseph are both doing work along gendered lines – weaving and carpentry – but they are also sharing the same domestic space. Those historians who are preoccupied with labelling domestic and public spaces as “female” or “male” seem to forget that the domestic space was, in the middle ages, always a workspace, and the boundaries of that workspace were undoubtedly flexible, based on the family’s needs. Baby Jesus may be talking to his mother, as the speech bubble seems to indicate, but he’s in Joseph’s sightline. Many medieval fathers, I am sure, would have worked with babies and toddlers underfoot, and would have roped children into work, too, long before they were old enough to become official apprentices. Just in very practical terms, the idea of the distant father, in a society where much of the economy was based around the household, simply cannot hold up to scrutiny. Perhaps the medieval father was the primary breadwinner – but in many medieval households, his wife had a vital economic role, too, and increasingly our studies of medieval urban life in particular suggest that a neat division of space and responsibilities into female/domestic and male/public is doing an injustice to the medieval family, patriarchal though it was.”

Now, I’m not going to claim that premodern fathers were more active and involved parents than fathers today, or that they had a better appreciation of women’s work. But I do think that domestic labour would have been far more visible to them, and also that they would have expected the noise and bustle of domestic life to take place all around them. For many people, moving office life into the heart of the home has been a shock, and trying to keep a clear distinction between the private and personal has been difficult. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that for much of our history, such clear distinctions would not have been possible – and that there’s nothing invisible about the work that keeps that household functional. I hope when in particular heterosexual married men return to their offices next year, that work doesn’t once again disappear from their frame of sight.