Caroline Overington: "When it comes to actually keeping a baby alive, who does the work?"

You are a mum, and it goes without saying that you would do anything for your child.

Assuming you’ve got a partner, and he’s the dad, well, ditto. He would kill for the baby, with his bare hands if necessary.

And yet, when it comes to actually keeping a baby alive, who does the work?

I don’t just mean the feeding, the changing, the burping. That’s the physical load. Who in your house carries the mental load? Who actually takes responsibility for absolutely everything the baby needs to thrive?

I think I know the answer.

mums mental load Caroline Overington
Separate the "physical load" from the "mental load" says journalist Caroline Overington. Image: Supplied.

Let’s say you’ve got a new baby, and you have to dash to the shops. No longer can you just walk out the door. You have to plan the operation – pack this, remember that – or else, if your partner is home, and you’re thinking of leaving the baby with him for a bit, well, you’ve got to ask permission.

What is this, an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale?

No, that’s the way life is for mums, even in Australia. They carry the load – the mental load – to the point where it’s not even a little bit unusual to find women turning to their partners to say: ‘I’ve just got to run to the shops, is that okay?’


Is that okay?

Why shouldn’t that be okay? Why do you have to ask? It’s his baby, too.

And yet we – the mums – feel compelled to seek permission. And why? Because of what he’ll say, by way of response, which will usually be something like: ‘Okay, but how long will you be gone?’

Or else: ‘But when will you be back?’

Well, I don’t know. Half past never? Why do you have to know? Maybe an hour, maybe two, can’t you cope?

Of course he can, for a bit, but let’s be honest, he can’t in fact cope for very long, because the answers to the life-essential questions – when baby last ate, or what baby should eat next, or when baby needs to go to sleep, or have medication, or whatever – all that stuff is stored in your head.

Which is also why, when you go out – a very rare occurrence – he’ll inevitably call to say: ‘Where is the …?’

Or: ‘How do I?’

Gee, I don’t know, honey. Why not try to figure it out?

And it’s not just with little babies. One day soon, believe it or not, or maybe it’s already happened, it will be time for you to go back to work, and so you’ll need childcare.

Guess who is going to find the childcare centre? Guess who is going to make the appointment to meet the staff? Guess who is going to fill out the enrolment form, and find the immunisation records?

You are.

And now comes the best bit: guess whose wages the childcare fees are coming out of?

Right again: yours!

‘It costs me almost as much to go to work as it does to stay home.’

I can’t even tell you how many times I heard that from a mum, and nobody ever corrects them.

‘Childcare takes up 90 per cent of my wage.’

No, it doesn’t.

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Video by MWN

Childcare is a cost that should be shared by both parents, yet hardly anyone thinks about it that way.

In the Sydney Morning Herald recently, a mum wrote a piece saying: ‘Under the new childcare subsidy scheme, I will be required to pay $45 a day to go to work.’

What she meant was: I’m paying more in childcare fees than I’m earning.

Except that she was married. Her husband also earned an income. She was behaving like the cost came out of her wage alone.

Here’s another way of looking at it: for as long as you’ve been off work, your partner has been getting extremely high-quality, immensely flexible childcare for free.

Now you’re going back to work, somebody else is going to have to do it, and probably nobody except you is going to want to do it for free.

Therefore somebody is going to have to pay.

Yes, you could pay, but you earn less – inevitably, in almost every family, you being the woman, will earn less – therefore he can afford it and you can’t. But remember: they are his kids, too.

Somebody needs to take care of them during the day, and for six weeks, or six months, or six years, it’s been you.

Now it’s his turn. You found the place. You secured it. You filled out the endless forms. Now let him do his bit. Let him pay.

Caroline Overington’s latest book, The Ones You Trust, is about a frantically busy mum – Emma Cardwell, who also happens to be host of a popular morning TV show – who turns up at the child care centre to find her little girl isn’t there. Has somebody taken her? If so who? And why?