My husband was sitting opposite me, his body language slightly defensive, the air about him stale with a combination of annoyance and disappointment.
And fair enough. We were having a date night, a proper meal sans kids, and I had hijacked the conversation, a roll of thoughts springing off my tongue. They were thoughts that had been percolating for over four years, but I had only just managed to find the right words to express those thoughts in the last few months.
I hadn't planned to ambush him, but when most of your conversations are yelled over, or pushed between, the yelling, fighting, laughing, crying cacophony that can only be produced by two small humans under 5 years of age… well.. sometimes the words escape when they see an opportunity.
He was expecting delicious tapas, a cold beer and some casual adult conversation. Instead he got a dissection of the gendered expectations of parents, and how those expectations had messed with my own identity as a mother. That dissection included his own, unconscious participation in that.
Let me explain.
My husband Daniel and I work in creative industries, and that means our hours and financial security have always been patchy. He's a photographer, and I work in radio.
Over time it became apparent that my work was more consistent, and once we had children, that meant he spent more time at home with them.
Essentially, we flipped the "traditional" roles. At the time, I didn't think it was anything radical. There are plenty of stay-at-home dads now, aren't there? And Daniel wasn't staying home every day, he still worked, and we used a mixture of care to cover our work commitments.
As it turns out stay-at-home dads are still in the minority, according to Samone McCurdy from the Gender, Leadership and Social Sustainability Research Unit at Monash University. She says they account for about 4 per cent (in Australia) of the population (though this figure has doubled from 1986, it's still quite small).
I soon came to realise that it wasn't seen as normal for Daniel to stay at home. I was consistently told how lucky I was that he was so capable with the kids, that he was an amazing dad.
And Daniel is an amazing dad, in our own private family circle he is the best thing that could ever happen to myself and our children. But how much praise do you hear for women who do the same thing? Does the X chromosome somehow make it more incredible and unique?
As I worked more, and Daniel stayed at home more, I found myself telling Daniel about the unacknowledged financial value of having him at home. Even though we were both happy with the arrangement somehow he still felt inadequate that he wasn't earning more money.
Samone McCurdy says that we still see fathers as bread winners, "There is an assumption that fathers work and mothers care. When that is not the case it is still seen as 'exceptional' and it is more often than not assumed to be a circumstantial outcome and not a 'choice' to take a step back from work to care…"
His friends would make jokes, on one memorable occasion texting him to say "happy Mother's Day" on that special occasion. They called him "daddy daycare" and seemed to find the whole thing pretty amusing.
This was all happening at a particularly vulnerable time for me. I was, as post-partum Doula Julia Jones says, a "newborn mother". She defines a newborn mother as a woman who "…acknowledges that the birth of a mother is even more intense than childbirth, and that she is as sensitive and vulnerable as her baby."
Becoming a mother, for me, was equal parts joy and pain.
In my early 20s I imagined myself in the future (ie now) to be an incredible super woman with three kids and a partner who was happy to stay home and do the boring domestic care.
Once I had brought my own child into the world I discovered that all I wanted was to be with her. She was fascinating, completely absorbing, and I thought that I could never return to work.
But I did, both out of financial necessity and because I love what I do.
It was a confusing time. I felt like I was doing everything wrong - both at work and as a mother. Nothing was ever enough. Every minute of my working day was rushed and compressed so that I could get home in time to see my daughter.
I started to fold in on myself, on my mother-self. I wasn't a good cook - I folded in half. I wasn't playing with my daughter enough, I folded in quarter. I wasn't feeding her the right foods, I folded again. And so it kept going.
On top of my own internal monologue the messages coming to me from outside were all saying how well Daniel was going. And it wasn't just other people saying it, I was saying it too.
Instead of patting myself on the back, I was busy patting my husband on the back. Telling him it was more important that he was at home than out earning money. That it was doing wonders for our daughter. It was all true, but essentially I was building my husband up, as I was crumbling down right beside him.
And this was what I was trying to communicate to my husband on that ill-fated date night.
Society has shifted. There is a lot of talk now about the changing role for dads, how they're expected to be more involved, even when they're the main bread winner.
And I think this is a very important conversation that needs to be had, but what about mums?
Mother are often trying to tick every box, and are very rarely acknowledged for their efforts in the way men are for doing the same thing.
My husband's response was that it wasn't his fault. It wasn't his fault the way society's expectations had formed around what makes a "good" mum or dad.
And he's right, it's not his fault alone. It's complicated and it's subtle. I had my own role to play. As did our friends and family.
To be clear I don't need a medal for what I'm doing. I'm doing it because I love my children, I love my husband, and I love my job. In so many ways I'm very lucky and very privileged.
What I am saying is that while the conversation around fathering has changed, it hasn't for mums.
Dads are expected to pitch in more now than they ever did before, and they do, and that's as it should be. We still need to talk about how those expectations impact on men, but at least we're talking about it.
The truth is our perceptions of what makes a good mother are still stuck in the 1950s. The sexism that builds up men for doing work women do every day without thanks can bring a girl down. It brought me down anyway.
And that's a conversation I feel that we all still need to have.
- Sydney Morning Herald