I’ve just read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book, Dear Ijealwele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. I found it brilliant and affirming, full of rich wisdom and powerful insight. I particularly enjoyed the ‘second suggestion,’ that child care is a responsibility that should be equally shared between mothers and fathers not disproportionately borne by female parents. However, I was struck by the writer’s claim that this sharing of care was not possible for a single mother, that in this case ‘ ‘doing it together’ would then not be an option.’ I must disagree with Ms Adichie here. In most cases, co-parenting and shared child care between parents who do not live together is indeed possible. In fact it is arguably a matter of critical importance.
Apart from the obvious benefits for children, child care that is more equally distributed between mothers and fathers could improve the circumstances of many lone mothers as typical caring responsibilities make a career and/or education more of a challenge. Clichéd assumptions of poverty and ‘benefit dependency’ are one of the main reasons single mothering is stigmatized. What is less discussed is how less gendered childcare arrangements could ameliorate the predicament many women face around choosing between – or trying to balance – earning and/or learning and caring. Why is it not being imagined how fathers – those not deemed a danger to women and children – could be a part of the solution?
In Dear Ijeawele, Ms Adichie asserts:
‘…please reject the language of help. [The child’s father] is not ‘helping’ you by caring for his child. He is doing what he should… you both made the choice to bring a child into the world, and responsibility for that child belongs equally to you both.’
In my view there is no reason why fathers who do not live with their children should not be held to the same just standard. While these fathers are often assumed to be ‘absent’, the reality is that the majority are present and active in their children’s lives to varying degrees. In reality some fathers want more involvement. Sometimes communication problems between parents prohibit this. This is where a specialist mediation service could help. The positive benefits of supporting separated families to resolve familial difficulties would be felt beyond the individual family unit. Doing nothing would only leave the current asymmetries of responsibility in place, in which mothers and children, as well as fathers themselves, lose out.
There seems to be little current discussion around how single mothers could be freed up from unreasonable caring duties. Feminism could play a role in this. In fact I want to suggest that there should be a more fully developed feminist vision for single mothers. There exists an erroneous assumption that single mothers are not interested feminism. As a part of this category of mothers I would argue that in our self-reliance, independence and autonomy we live feminist ideals every day. A desire for fathers to do their fair share of care is not a contradiction of this. It is an extension of it.