picture the scene: a mother of young children is going out, leaving her husband at home to hold the fort. To ensure things run smoothly in her absence, she issues him with a list of instructions pertaining to everything from food (what to feed the kids, where in the fridge to find it, and possibly even how to make it) to laundry (can he please do some) to miscellaneous tasks (there’s a spider imprisoned beneath a glass upstairs, which he might like to deal with at some point).
Sound familiar? That’s because, sadly, the scenario is all too common – a fact Amazon was presumably banking on when it released its recent advert. The allegedly “sexist” ad for the company’s Echo smart speaker shows a father struggling to look after his baby on his own. He’s not, however, entirely alone because – praise be! – the wonders of modern technology allow his other half to issue him commands via Alexa. (“Laura says your teething ring is in the freezer”; “Laura scheduled a playdate for 3pm” and so on.)
The advert has garnered opprobrium from some fathers, who have complained online that it’s “condescending” and “lazy”. At the time of writing, Amazon had not responded to requests for comment.
All told, the row is a regrettable one. It being 2018 and all that, it would be nice to think we might be getting close to putting those old stereotypes of male domestic incompetence to bed. Failing to do so does no-one any favours, including women. As Vicky Bingham, headteacher at South Hampstead High School, suggested earlier this year, “infantilising” men in this way not only propagates the myth of male domestic ineptitude, it also sends our daughters the message they must be perfect at everything.
But she also admitted to knowing friends who leave just the kind of instructions the advert sends up. Amazon, I’m afraid, did not make this whole thing up. I barely know a mother who doesn’t do this themselves. Speaking on behalf of ‘friends’, of course.
That doesn’t mean that we have to, though. Our partners, if left to their own devices, are no more likely to burn the house down or lose the children, after forgetting to feed them and clothe them, than we are.
Deep down, I think, we know this. So why do we continue? Here are the six reasons…
1. Force of habit
Although the number of men taking shared parental leave is gradually creeping up, it’s still the case that in the majority of couples, the woman will take time off after having a baby, while the man returns to work after (very often) just two weeks statutory paternity leave.
We therefore become experts on the subject of our child, and come to believe no-one else can master the routine as we have. It’s easy to forget that if things happen in a slightly different order, at a slightly different time, the universe most probably will not actually implode.
Being absent from the family home when you have young children in it can be as guilt-inducing and nerve-racking as it is exhilarating and invigorating. We like to assuage this guilt by retaining control over everything that’s going on at home, even when we’re miles away. Hence the instructions, the lists, the commands and the regular check-ins. Just walking out the door with nothing more than a “bye, see you whenever,” would feel incredibly reckless.
3. Learning by example
Quite often, we have grown up seeing our own mothers do the same thing. My own used to leave a whole series of lists of instructions, not only for my very competent father, but also for the older children in the family. On at least one occasion, she even left us some suggested reading material in the form of a newspaper cutting she hoped we might look at that day. (Something about the dangers of drugs, I seem to recall.) We all learned to depend on her infinite wisdom so heavily that even today, she still fields calls from her grown-up children about what to do with a piece of chicken breast or how long something keepsin the fridge.
4. Control freakery
Let’s admit it, sometimes we just like to be in charge of absolutely everything. “No, don’t worry, I’ll do that,” we’ll insist manically when someone else tries to help, before later complaining that we have to do everything ourselves. This is slightly like having our cake and eating, except that we’re not only having it, we’re buying the ingredients for it, baking it, serving it and washing up after it. Sometimes, we don’t have time to actually eat it, in fact, as we’re too busy helicoptering over the whole process.
5. Taking the moral high ground
Issuing instructions when we go out enables us to go around telling people how we have to issue instructions when we go out. “It would be absolute chaos if I didn’t,” we’ll say, rolling our eyes and sighing. Eye-rolling and sighing are also deployed liberally when we return home only to find our other half has gone and put the wrong stock cube in the dinner. I mean, can’t we even for once leave the house without worrying whether the rich beef will be used in the chicken stew in our absence!
6. Sometimes we just can’t help ourselves
If my husband is working from home, I occasionally have to stop myself suggesting to him what he might eat for his lunch while I’m out. He is a grown man. He knows where the food is. I suspect, just maybe, he’s got this.