The personal is political: my family’s childcare role-reversal
We never wanted to assume standard roles as parents – so we didn’t
Kevin Webster at home in Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin, in 1995 with his sons Naoise McTeirnan and Finbarr McTeirnan. Photograph: Derek Speirs
I love slogans, and “the personal is political” is possibly my favourite. No one knows who coined it but it has been embedded in my family’s heads for the past two decades as we tried a calculated experiment to subvert the social and gender norms we inherited.
Not for us a stay-at-home mother prone to outbreaks of baking and bathos and a thrusting, briefcase-carrying, disciplinarian dad. We were going to do things differently. And we did. Sort of.
In 1995, just as our second son reached 18 months, a job came up in the sports department at The Irish Times. I was a freelance journalist, and this was a full-time, permanent, pensionable job, previously occupied only by men. I got it.
So we decided to swap roles. I was to be the main wage earner, Kevin was to go part-time and do the bulk of the childcare.
Last week, son number two explained his parents’ decision as logical because his dad, as a social worker, had the far more stressful job helping children. Mum, on the other hand, only had the soccer results to worry about. It was a no-brainer for the one whose job demanded more to do less. He had a point.
At the heart of the juggling act was a belief we shared that men should have an opportunity to be present in the home and in their kids’ lives and that women should have a shot at doing work outside the home with all the financial, personal and social benefits that can bring.
The perfect solution would have been an exact split between the two of us: employment and caring in equal measure. What we did was the nearest we could get.
Their dad’s choices and actions have opened up those same choices for our two sons. And their mum’s choices and actions have shown them some of the possibilities for the other half of the population. So far so personal. So far so political.
Did I miss out on time with my children? Some time, sometimes. They are still talking to me, if that’s any measure of the success. Did Kevin miss out on career opportunities? Not long-term. He has just returned to the workforce full-time with enthusiasm and experience.
A quick survey of the recipients of our alternative parenting endeavours elicited the following response from our elder son: “It never felt different to me because as far as I was aware at that age it wasn’t different.
“I am aware now though that most people might be used to their mother being more involved in childcare, but I still can’t say if I would have preferred it the other way around. I feel that dad did a good job at looking after me and that I turned out reasonably well.”