In one of my more lucid moments during labour for Benji, I remember screaming at V: “My God, you and Benji better buy me diamonds for this.” Later, I reconsidered. Benji had not asked to be born or for his mother to suffer while bringing him into the world. But V was a different matter. Both V and I wanted and loved our children. But only I paid the physical price of carrying, birthing and breastfeeding him. And what a price it was.
V, who witnessed what I went through, I think realised that no amount of support, praise, encouragement, love (which he did give unstintingly) was going to compensate for the sheer physical price I paid. And so he did acceded to my suggestion that I be paid in cash or its more palatable equivalent – gold.
This idea seems to bother many people. On IHM’s post on “What do you think of romanticisation of men buying jewellery for women”, I shared my very unromantic story – of my husband buying me jewellery in payment for huge job I did for our family.
To explain to those who cannot understand how I can be so transactional, let me first say that in any modern marriage there is a give-and-take from both partners which ideally should even out for the marriage to work. Mostly, it will never completely even out but love overrides that imbalance. But the mutual give-and-take should be more or less fair or the marriage will rock due to underlying resentments.
Traditional marriages were predicated on men being the breadwinner and women being everything else, that ‘everything else’ never quantified or expressed in financial terms, even though it was huge. Because they were never paid for their work, women were always financially vulnerable and socially vulnerable, treated like secondhand class citizens. Many women today find they are unwilling to play this unpaid role of provider of ‘everything else’. Thus, we either go out to work or if we stay at home, and have any sense, we make sure we are compensated financially with assets to our names and the work is acknowledged as work.
In my marriage, my husband is the banker, cook, and handyman. I am the occasional cleaner and home organizer, social instigator and empathetic listener. With regards to childcare, post the early infancy stage which I will deal with later, my husband and I share the duties but I do a bit more in terms of diaper changing, waking up at night, getting on the floor and playing with the kids, going to doctors appointments etc. This is okay by me because my husband does much more than me in terms of regular chores. I must also say that we have helpers for housework and childcare.
The one thing that does not and cannot even out is pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. Many commenters on IHM’s post mentioned that a husband should be supportive and helpful during this time. Hell yes, they should be. That is the bare minimum. But even the greatest support from a husband is only a drop in the ocean of what a woman goes through and what only she can go through.
Let me explain my own situation:
Before pregnancy: I had a prestigious but stressful job. I realised that it was not ideal for carrying a child. I started to look out for more peaceful options and found one, quit my job and took a nine-to-six job. Thankfully, I got a small raise when I switched jobs but I have no promotion prospects and essentially it’s a dead end career wise. But it is best for our family and I’m sticking with it.
- Most women in their first trimester will feel severe nausea, puking a couple of times every day. This lasts three months. Three months of waking up and running to the loo with bile burning your throat and filling your mouth. You need to eat to keep the nausea down but most of the food available makes you retch. Just thinking what to eat can drive you nuts. In my case, I needed to go to work. So the added joy of the commute while nauseous, retching in the work loo after someone peed in it, and trying to be quiet while doing so. You cannot be 100% at work when you are trying not to puke and your boss knows it. You can probably forget a promotion or a raise that year. During my pregnancy, I was bleeding slightly. It was terrifying every time I saw blood on my underwear. I also had a vaginal infection. I had to take antibiotics. Antibiotics make me sick at the best of times and now I was already battling pregnancy nausea. I kept them down not for my own sake but the sake of my baby. The prenatal vitamin also made me sick. Since it was more important to take the antibiotic, I stopped the vitamin. This meant that for three months my body leached nutrients from my bones, my blood, wherever it could get them. Please note that a huge number of women suffer from osteoporosis later in life, where essentially their bones break, due to to exactly what I did.
Then, you stop puking – hopefully… some continue for nine months, and start feeling ravenous and eating all the time. You gain weight. You carry that bulk everywhere. You can’t stand for long and you can’t do all that standing work at events you would otherwise do. You can’t attend after-work networking dinners, you’re too tired. Your bosses understand. But yeah, your career suffers. Finally, you go on 3 months or more of maternity leave which though legally required, no employer cherishes. I got pregnant with my second child soon after my first. So I have had 3 years of career on standstill, if not more, since my kids are still young.
This is my story, other women have it so much worse, healthwise and careerwise during pregnancy.
So just during pregnancy there is a physical cost and a financial one that can be quantified. And it is a cost only we can pay. My husband could cook for me, rub my back after I puked, withhold his irritation when I smelled something he just cooked and ran to the loo, etc. but he could not do the puking, the lying on the bathroom floor with puke coming out of one end and blood the other, terrified that I was going to have a miscarriage, the telling my boss I can’t come to work yet again. Only I could do that.
- Childbirth: No man, I’d wager, has ever been asked to go through that kind of pain without a painkiller. My husband was present at the birth of my son and he saw what it entails. There is nothing romantic about it for most women. My husband was my rock during labour, I could not have done it without him, his support is what I remember when I am furious with him about something else. But at the end of the day, only I could give birth to our child. Only I could go through that physical hell. And only I could go through it all over again, knowing what was coming, for our second.
My husband was keen that I deliver naturally and possibly without an epidural, and I did it. We both got a healthy child but he got a child without going through what I did.
For our second child, because I didn’t want to add to my husband’s financial stress at a tough time in his job, I chose to deliver public. I saved our family at least $100,000 by sacrificing my own comfort. My husband acknowledges that – now that we are more secure financially, that $100,000 is mine.
I had a c-section and that was brutal in its own way. On the very first day itself, I got off my bed, nothwithstanding the searing pain of the HUGE, thanks to junior public hospital doctors, wound on my stomach and hobbled to the loo so I could be mobile to breastfeed our child. And continued to get off that bed, gasping and swearing in pain, day and night every four hours to the nursery to breastfeed my baby and then rocked the baby to sleep.
And four days after I gave birth, with cut still burning and all, I slept on a pull-out couch next to my baby in the pediatrics ward so I could breastfeed her. Only I could do that because only I could breastfeed her. Breastfeeding was not only my idea though, my husband was also very keen on it.
3. Breastfeeding: Only I had to be at the beck and call of the baby, could never roll over and say I’m sleepy, had to bear the stress of being the source of food, had to deal with bleeding and cracked nipples. At the most my husband could wake up and sit with me, or change a diaper, which frankly is a cakewalk compared to breastfeeding, especially breastfeeding my babies that had reflux and colic and wouldn’t go back to sleep and had to be rocked endlessly. Only I had to stress that everything I put in my mouth could be irritating my babies’ intestines and so go on a punishing diet, even while breastfeeding. Only I will pay the physical cost of doing that. Only I have to sneak off twice a day to pump in some godforsaken toilet at work, cringing every time someone comes in and wonders what that whirring noise is and lurking outside the pantry to sneak my breastmilk into a freezer.
Why must all this be free of charge? Why is love and fresh air deemed good enough for such hard work, literally blood, sweat and tears?
Many people are comfortable and advocate this idea that the work of homemakers be acknowledged and moreover quantified and compensated for. Heartfelt appreciation, gratitude for sacrifices made, comments on how only women can, etc. are well and good but financial security is also important. But somehow childbirth, which ironically is called the most honest name of “labour”, and entails such a huge physical, emotional and financial cost that biology deems only women can bear, still seems to fall into the heartfelt-thanks-and-support-should-be-enough category. Because I suppose the idea of a baby is too romantic for money to come into the picture. And we are supposed to be so happy that we have a baby that we forget the price we paid – traditionally this was the answer women were supposed to give when they were asked how painfull their labour was. Besides, you have a baby at the end of it, so you got your reward right? Um, yes, and so does the woman who keeps a lovely home but she would still like something more than “such a lovely home dear” at the end of it. And so does my husband, who didn’t pay half this price.
So I would say, if pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding was a lovely and enjoyable experience for you and you see negligible cost to your financial situation, health etc. as a result, write it off. Or if it was hard but you think you have enough assets to your name to write it off as a gift to your husband, fine. Or if your husband makes so much other contributions to your marriage that the labour that only you could go in pregnancy and childbirth would even out, fine again.
But otherwise, I suggest you think more closely about why we are so ready to perform this labour, which will always be a labour of love even if we are paid for it, for free.
Dear all, thanks for a frank and largely polite discussion. I’ve now closed comments because I have too much on hand to do and cannot keep track of comments anymore.