I’m writing this newsletter on a day like so many other days in this pandemic: We don’t have childcare (in this case due to President’s Day, not Covid, and I have never felt more resentful of a made-up, patriarchal holiday). It’s too cold to go outside (also, Covid, so there’s nowhere to go). And my husband and I both have work to juggle. So we’ve diced up the day into hours he’s on the kids and I’m hidden away in my home office working and hours when we reverse that. And then there are the dreaded hours when it just is what it is, and we’re both trying to parent and work and manage life simultaneously—which is why I’m writing this on my phone while my 7-year-old draws and my 3-year-old sings to me about wolves. In a few minutes we’ll put on their third parent, Netflix, so we can both be doing other things, hopefully without interruption.
It is not news to say that this pandemic has been rough for working parents and brutal for working mothers. And as I wrote on Instagram recently, I struggle with how to talk about that because I do have an equal partner. Often when women like me pause to give our spouses credit, it sounds like we’re bragging, overly praising these men for doing what should be extremely standard and unremarkable, or blaming other women for not having that in their life. None of which is helpful.
But after I posted that, a lot of you said that actually, you would like to know more about how it can work. Many of those comments came from couples who are still pre-kids, so things still feel pretty 50/50, but the women are rightfully worried about that changing come parenthood. Some were from women miserable with their current situation, but hoping to make progress through some frank marital conversations.
I want to be clear that none of the strategies I’m about to share will fix the inequity of your life if you’re married to someone who does not recognize or acknowledge this systemic cultural issue and his own complicity within it. For that scenario, Jessica Valenti may have the answer you need. They also do not constitute any kind of replacement for the federal paid leave law, affordable, high quality childcare and pro-family corporate workplace policies that we so desperately need. There are no top tips for navigating our way out of hundreds of years of institutionalized misogyny.
But within all those caveats, here are three strategies that have helped us navigate the last year (and six years of parenting before that) on relatively equal footing:
1. Define work hours, even for non-working parents.
I do not accept that stay-at-home parents should work 24/7, cleaning up the dinner they also cooked and getting up for every middle-of-the-night crying child, while even the most hard-charging professional likely cap their work week at, say, 60 hours. Last summer, it made sense for me to be our primary childcare during work hours because we had hit a pandemic brick wall. Something had to give for a bit, and my job has more inherent flexibility than Dan’s. But me taking on extra weekday childcare duties was not a license for him to do nothing. Instead, we talked through what this new daily routine would look like and Dan volunteered to take over nighttime bath time duties (previously alternated) because he knows bathing children is my least favorite parenting task. He also arranged his day so he could pause work in order to put our toddler down for her nap every afternoon. That’s a 15 minute task if you’re coming in fresh for it, but it can be a 45 minute hellscape of negotiations and whining if you’re already crispy from a long morning of toddler emotions. This arrangement was specific to our family’s current needs, obviously. But the larger point is applicable to anyone: The parent doing primary childcare during business hours does not continue doing everything indefinitely. You clock out on that “shift” and go back to being 50/50 parents during non-work hours.
2. Democratize information.
A few years ago, Dan took one of our children to a dentist appointment that I had booked. Right before the cleaning, the hygienist said, “she took her antibiotics right?” Nope. I knew that this child is supposed to take a dose of antibiotics before dental cleanings, and I assumed Dan knew, but he didn’t, because up until that point, and without either of us fully realizing it, I had been the primary keeper of such medical details. I immediately felt guilty that I hadn’t remembered to call the cardiologist, get the prescription filled, and get the dose in the child before the appointment. But Dan had a different take: “It’s my job to know this too,” he said. Now we much more consciously trade off on who goes to doctor’s appointments (and debrief the other one afterwards). We also set up a shared family email (firstname.lastname@example.org) that forwards to both of our personal emails, which we use for all medical appointments, school communications and other household correspondence. And if the babysitter texts me (because everyone, always, defaults to calling the mom), I immediately add Dan to the thread and then let him answer the next few questions, to reinforce that we are both equally likely to know where we keep the blue snack cup or how long the toddler’s nap should last.
3. But know when to silo.
Here are some things about our life that I don’t know: When the HVAC filters need changing (or how to change them or where to buy the filters); how to clean our 7-year-old’s fish tank; when the water softener needs more… something (or what a water softener is); how to get snow tires on or off the car that needs them; how to trim a baby’s fingernails; and if we’re running out of pull-ups, dog food, cat food, paper towels, toilet paper and most other household staples. I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting, and there is an equally long list of tasks that Dan never thinks to complete. It’s important the lists be roughly equal in length, and it’s important to be able to acknowledge that your spouse is doing these things, because the big risk of invisible work is that it can triple in size without anyone noticing except the person who is burning out doing it all. But if you start from the same baseline of “everyone does all of the things,” it’s okay and even good to have some tasks you each just handle, without the other person having to deal with it. It means you have to trust each other to each meet some agreed-upon standards and not backseat drive anyone. It’s also more efficient: I don’t need us to have an email thread debating options every time I buy a child new rainboots. But it also prevents that thing where one person (inevitably the woman) ends up doing the mental load of a job (buying the HVAC filters or researching fish tank supplies), essentially sous chef-ing for the other person to then swoop in and do the easiest (or just the most physical) part.
I will say, baby fingernails aside, it’s important NOT to silo too much around childcare, both because childcare is so huge and never-ending, and because it’s so important for kids to see their parents as equal caregivers. But I will continue to live my life happily trusting that Dan is managing our toilet paper supplies without my input.