I have a relative who often sends the message, subtly and not-so-subtly, that she sees me as my daughter’s default parent.
“We’ll ask Mom whether you can have a cookie before lunch,” she might say to my three-year-old daughter, as I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my husband.
It frustrates me to no end.
My husband and I equally share parenting responsibilities — both emotional and logistical. We both changed our daughter’s diapers, we both pick out her clothes with her, we both take her to the bathroom when we’re out, we both run errands alone with her. I’m not the default parent because I’m a girl, and so is she, nor am I the default parent because I’m the mom. She sees both of us as her caregivers, and she goes to us indiscriminately for support.
Equal parenting came naturally to us, just as sharing household responsibilities had. But in my experience, it hasn’t come as naturally to society. There are many ways to dissect how that’s reflected back to us. The relative with the cookies, obviously. But also the cheers my husband gets from elderly women for grocery shopping with my daughter, or the way waiters tend to look to me for permission to grant my daughter’s request for chocolate milk with her lunch.
The thing that’s been on my mind lately, though, particularly as I expand the ways in which I write about my own life, is the type of language used in parenting topics. I think, when appropriate, we should strive to use “parent” as a blanket term, rather than defaulting to “mom” language, as so much parenting-focused writing does.
There are, of course, some types of writing where using language about moms and motherhood makes sense. But so much parenting-focused content is actually about themes that would be of interest to both parents, yet it’s geared towards moms. By directing parenting-related content toward us, we’re tasking moms — and only moms — with reading it, and that’s adding to the emotional work we bear.
I see using inclusive parenting language as a more honest reflection of my own parenting experience. I also see it as a way to continue to push forward the idea of equality in parenting roles.
Much ink has been spilled about the “emotional work of motherhood,” and about how despite more women being part of the workforce in the past, in heterosexual relationships, moms tend to carry the load of “emotional work.” The definition of this work is fluid, but it tends to include tasks like scheduling appointments on behalf of the family, remembering birthdays and coordinating gifts, planning meals, and keeping general order in the household.
A report from The Independent said that research from Arizona State University and Oklahoma State University found that almost 9 in 10 women felt “solely responsible” for the schedules of her family.
Another report refers to emotional labor as remembering “children’s allergies,(designing) the shopping list, (and knowing) where the spare set of keys is” and talks about handing over emotional labor as the next big feminist issue. And this article, which tells dads that perhaps a good Mother’s Day gift would be sharing emotional labor with mom, says, “Current theories suggest that these gendered patterns in families are based on the false assumption that women are ‘better’ at dealing with the emotional and domestic needs of the home than men are.”
I would argue that one way we are keeping alive this standard that moms are “better” at worrying about stuff — be it the grocery list, birthdays, or the latest trends in pediatric medicine — is by writing content that assumes it is to be read by moms instead of by parents.
In fact, in my own life, I have found that parenting-related content algorithmically pushed toward me and not my husband adds to my perception of the emotional labor I’m burdened with. If I read an article geared toward moms that raises an important point about behavior or development, I’m then tasked with sharing that information with my husband, either by communicating it directly or by getting the content in front of him by emailing him a link (which feels like assigning him homework, and is an uncomfortable position for me to be in).
If we want our co-parents to think more about the types of lunch boxes we buy or the food that goes in them, then they need to be included in the conversations about those things. I realize that this is not something we can snap our fingers and have happen. But I do believe that using inclusive language in writing about parenting is one small step toward that movement.
For me, this means that when I write something that relates to parenting, I ask myself: Is this piece of writing about womanhood and/or motherhood specifically? If the answer is yes, then I allow myself to use terminology that reflects that. But if the answer is no, and the piece is about something that may be of more general parenting interest, I use “parent,” “parenting,” “parenthood,” etc. throughout.
It’s my small way of acknowledging that I feel like I am a part of a community of parents, not just moms, and that I think all parents can, and should, have a seat at the table and a say in who, and who doesn’t, get to eat a cookie before lunch.
I’m not a mom on an island. I’m a parent with a co-parent.
Lauren Harkawik is an essayist, fiction writer, and small-town reporter in rural Vermont.