99 Problems

Published on May 30th, 2024 | by Becca Rose Hall


I’ll Nurse the Baby, You Sharpen the Knives

We had pictured our parenthood as modern, egalitarian: him in the Laz-e-Boy rocking the baby at two in the morning. We weren’t going to be our parents, talking about equality while locked into cycles of hyper-competence and choreographed ineptitude: my dad, master of pie crusts and chemistry, whose dinner repertoire is 90% White People Burritos, my mom so all-knowing she a) says she can tell when I have my period by looking at a picture of me fully dressed and b) corrects my dad about stories from his childhood. 

We were feminists, millennials. We were going to be different.

But not only did he sleep through our daughter’s cries, she and I just wanted to nurse. Soon, I did all the night waking and most of the daytime caregiving. I also earned more money, tracked almost everything in our household, and mowed the damn lawn with the kid on my back. And did I mention I was writing a novel?   Meanwhile, he commuted an hour each way to an underpaid job that was no longer his life’s passion. He made Instapot roasts so I could eat while he worked. He wanted so badly to feed me. Overwhelmed and depressed, he hunkered into his Laz-e-boy, taking refuge on the internet. The air felt perpetually porky and thick. He was maxed out, but the weight of our lives still fell on me. 

Everything became so heavy. Our marriage, especially. Twenty months into parenthood, we split up.

When I look back from the distance of four years, I can say that what I needed in that strange early parenthood time was something awkwardly traditional: a protector and a provider. And I can also say the same thing with very different words: I needed care.

Protection is so often cast as a kind of violence, a shotgun behind the door, and I didn’t want that. But varnish, seat belts, plastic film, furniture pads, Styrofoam, bodyguards, raincoats, amulets, bubble wrap, deer fences, amniotic fluid, ear plugs, condoms, moats: all are forms of protection. And the kind of protection a baby and their nursing parent need isn’t anything as violent or phallic as a gun. They need a shelter, a nest. Sure, if some lions show up, they’d like someone to bang some pots and yell, but mostly they just need people to handle the world while they nestle. Or at least that’s what I wanted.

Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash

As for providing, I didn’t need someone to make all the dough or come home and slap a couple of dead rabbits on the counter. I needed a full glass of water within arm’s reach, hot meals I could eat with one hand, a steady stream of burp rags. The post-partum egg sandwiches my ex-husband made me (the half-melted butter and egg oozing off crunchy sourdough toast, the tomato, the crisp lettuce) linger in my mind like some kind of life raft. I needed care so badly.

I needed someone to take care of me, but also just to take care of shit. To take some things off my plate. I couldn’t delegate gestation or birth or nursing, and I didn’t want to. Our daughter didn’t just pop out a fully autonomous person. We were still a unit, and that unity begged respect. Pregnancy and infancy created a biological division of ability, but only in one direction. No lack of a penis kept me from mowing the lawn. Only a social contract or his generosity could redistribute the weight. 

Unfortunately, generosity is a tenuous basis for equity. Generosity implies the ability to extend beyond the necessary, and new parenthood was pure survival. Despite his fierce love, my ex-husband had nothing to spare. And in bucking off the old gender roles and stereotypes, we lost the conventions telling him how to step up. I began to wonder how it would be if norms were reframed so they weren’t about telling women what they couldn’t do, but telling people around anyone pregnant or doing that early mothering work how to offer support? My husband couldn’t give birth for me, but he could carry my groceries. He could open a door. 

But in our relationship, where so much was undelegated, there was no slack. How easy it was for me to still be responsible for everything I’d always done, only on five hours of sleep with a baby suckered to my chest. 

You can hear it: this makes me angry. Actually, I’m righteously pissed. These tensions are one of the great quandaries of my generation. Here we are, still clearly in the quagmire of patriarchy, but standing on generations of feminism. If women can’t pursue the careers we want and the love that blooms within us, there is probably more at work than simply gender. And yet something is wrong in the daily workings of so many heterosexual relationships. 

Photo by Glib Albovsky on Unsplash

We don’t need to go back to the old chauvinism (please, no), but we do need a way to divide labor fairly. To do this, we need to take all the work into account. My ex-husband and I did manage, a year before the end, to equitably divide chores. I wrote down every chore I was tracking, he said that covered everything, and we divided up my list. (Apparently, I was tracking everything, just like my mom.) 

It was an effective conversation. However, even that didn’t take the weight off. Looking back, I see that caregiving was still invisible. We didn’t put it on the list. We didn’t include the care each of us gave our daughter, the care I needed as a new mother, the care he needed for his heart and mind. And so it often did not happen and when it did, it was unacknowledged labor.

No matter how good your politics or intentions are, it’s hard to attend to work you don’t see. When our whole society doesn’t value work that skews traditionally feminine, that bias shows up in our intimate relationships too. I know it was in me.  If I’m going to be carrying all this, I’d at least like to get the credit, I’ll admit I thought many times when I contemplated divorce. Yet even as I could feel the weight of everything I was doing, it was still hard to act like nursing for hours a day was doing more than sitting on the couch. 

Now, the state mandates how much of the parenting is mine. There are clear and defined lines between my ex and me. In my house, all the work and all the credit fall on me. My community shows up for me regularly, my needs as a single parent visible in ways they weren’t when I was married. (This of course, is a whole other layer: how actually impossible it is for only two people to raise a baby, how much we need our larger community to be part of parenting if we want to be happy and healthy.)

As the sole adult in my household, I don’t find there to be vastly more domestic work than there was with two adults, because when I was married, I was still tracking so many of the things my husband did. He took the trash out with his body, but I took it out with my mind. And yes, it was that obnoxious, self-perpetuating cycle of hyper-competence and manufactured incompetence we swore we would never do. Now, taking the trash out is a simple trip to the alley, no diplomacy, project management, or telekinesis involved.

Interestingly, I find there are a few jobs that my brain is still sure aren’t mine. Weed-whacking, cleaning gutters, fixing door knobs, using superglue: surely someone else is on it, right? And knife sharpening! I know how to sharpen knives, but for years after my divorce, I felt I would never, ever actually do it. I figured I’d just ignore the knife situation, and if someone else sometime took some initiative after watching me bludgeon an onion, then great. Sharpening knives was simply not my job. Then this Christmas my brother gave me a new sharpener and I had no excuse. I pull the knives through this device three times, holding them roughly vertical, and voila! Sharp knives. It’s that easy. Unlike, say, childbirth. 

I think it’s telling that the tasks I find the most gendered male are so un-urgent. Sure, sharp knives are great, but you can go a long time with a dull one. Even if chopping becomes more like hammering, it still gets the job done. I’m fascinated by the job’s dispensability, especially because it is so intimidating to me. Knife sharpening had been presented to me, by my father and ex-husband, as an arcane and delicate art, shrouded in masculine mystique. It needed the perfect angle, the practiced smooth stroke. Done wrong, it could fuck up my knives forever. They showed me how to do it, inviting me in, but in a way that scared me off. I wonder sometimes if this mystique wasn’t just a way to feel useful.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

I’ve been mulling this all over ever since my divorce, and I don’t know how to fix any of this, not in practice. I do know I’d like to hand over much more than a three-minute chore, no matter how phallically mystical. I want there to be significant things I don’t think about, things I don’t do, not because I can’t do them but because someone else can. I know this will mean working out the details. When I have those conversations with a future partner, I want all kinds of work, including care work and detail tracking, to be included. I want to share domestic work and power fairly. I want all work to be honored, all people respected. And if I’m gestating, birthing, nursing, mothering, I want someone to take on some other things for me, not because I’m incompetent, but because I’m doing essential work and that work is enough. 

feature photo (knives) by Stoica Ionela on Unsplash

Tags: , , , , , ,

About the Author

Becca Rose Hall writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared recently in Third Coast, Pacifica Literary Review, and Orion, and was shortlisted for the Bechtel Prize. She is a 2024 Jack Straw Writing Fellow and recently finished writing a novel set in the Pacific Northwest feminist music scene in the 1990’s.

Leave a Reply

Any comments left on this article will be sent directly to its author. We do not at this time publicly display comments. (If you want to write a public post about this article, we encourage you to do so on social media). We love comments, feedback and critique but mean or snarky comments will not be shared and will be deleted.  

Your email address will not be published.

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe to Mutha

    Enter your email address to subscribe to MUTHA and receive notifications of new articles by email.

    Email Frequency