Is this the reason marriages break up after kids?

Is this the reason marriages break up after kids? thumbnail

One week after Jancee Dunn gave birth to her baby her husband decided to take up long-distance cycling. And train for a marathon.

“On weekends, he would disappear for six-hour rides… He traveled the country for group bike trips. At night, he met friends at bars and restaurants while I stayed home. In the morning, he’d go for a run while I got up with the baby,’ writes Dunn in Lenny.

Dunn, who is the author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, notes the “amazing coincidence” of her husband’s sudden interest in hobbies that required him to be away from the house more than ever at a time when he was most needed there.

The most amazing thing about this “amazing coincidence” is just how commonplace it is. I’ve lost count how many fathers suddenly become exercise fanatics once children — especially very young children — are in the picture. Men, whose most sustained form of physical activity, up until children arrived, was dancing drunkenly to Hunters & Collectors’ Holy Grail, suddenly claim they simply cannot function without running 15 km every morning and spending large chunks of the weekend training, competing or recovering.

Or they insist on going out with the boys on Friday nights to blow off some steam after a long week – and nurse their hangover for most of Saturday. One friend’s husband spends most weekends restoring motorcycles. When my friend mentions that she’s been home alone all week with the kids and would really like a break, or family time which includes him, he gets angry and says, “I’ve worked hard all week, the weekend is my time”.

He seems incapable of understanding that the last time his wife enjoyed some “my time” was when she had a functioning pelvic floor.

Of course, these are extreme cases and not all dads are so negligent in their parenting responsibilities, but research consistently shows that fathers, on average, get more child-free leisure time than mothers, both during the week and on the weekend. While Jancee Dunn was resentful that she was left holding the baby while her husband was off self-actualising, she accepted it because she had mistakenly believed men needed time to themselves in a way that women didn’t.

“So I did some research — and, surprise, found out that this notion wasn’t true”, writes Dunn. “Among other experts I talked to, Joseph Henrich, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, was stumped. ‘I cannot think of any evolutionary approaches that might illuminate this,’ he told me.”

While it is socially acceptable, normal even, for men to retreat to their “man caves” the idea of a mother regularly absenting herself from morning or evening child care routines and large chunks of the weekend for a leisure activity is almost unfathomable. Unlike dads, mothers are expected put their kids first — 24/7. The fetishisation of mothering makes the time inequality appear natural.  Motherhood is a privilege and pure joy, right? So if you want time away from your kids you either don’t love them or you’re selfish.

The word “selfish” is rarely used as a weapon against dads but there really is nothing worse a mother can be.  And being called “selfish” as a mother is easier than falling off a log. Any time a woman spends on an activity that is not directly for the benefit of her family is considered an indulgence. We now tolerate mothers working outside the home, but in many cases it’s justified as a necessity to earn money to put food on the table and a roof over her kids’ heads.

Occasionally we’ll allow women to take some time for themselves to have a massage or exercise. But again, it’s not really about her needs, but rather an opportunity to recharge the batteries and stay heathy so she can be a better mother. The notion that a mother might engage in a child-free activity for the sheer pleasure of it is as foreign a concept as consent is to Harvey Weinstein.

Mothers internalise this belief to such an extent that even when it’s possible to have child-free leisure time we feel guilty doing it. Even though I’m fortunate to be in a marriage that is genuinely egalitarian, I rarely allow myself to have leisure time. The closest I get to a regular child-free leisure activity is going to Coles on my own. The inequality of child-free leisure time between mothers and fathers comes down to entitlement and is something that both men and women need to work on. We need more dads to think “the buck stops with me” rather than “I’ll babysit when I haven’t got anything else on”. And mothers need to feel entitled to be “selfish”.

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