Before we had our daughter, my husband and I talked about what we wanted our family life to look like. He has a fairly intense career that he loves, which requires a lot of travel and long hours. I knew I wanted to work on my coaching business part time and also have time for a few volunteering projects on the side which I am very committed to. And we both knew that we wanted our daughter and any subsequent children to have one of us as the primary caregiver.
I have the career flexibility and – more than that – the desire to be with my daughter throughout the day, and so that’s what we went with.
This is a fairly traditional set up. My husband works. I am primarily within the realm of the home. I pursue my interests and goals part time, alongside everything else – which I believe to be necessary and important. And that is certainly a long post for another day.
But this isn’t an argument for that particular dynamic – if the roles were reversed, for instance, and I had a high powered career that I was passionate about and which really fulfilled me, and my husband was willing to be primarily at home, we probably would have fallen into that way of being.
But my husband loves his job – ticking off his career goals and “slaying buffaloes” to bring home to our family. And I love being with my daughter – making sure she doesn’t fall into the pond (which I am pretty sure is her life goal), and doesn’t eat all the chocolate (which she would if she could) – while also poking away at my side projects. We are both happy with our choices, and we both feel fortunate to be able to pursue them.
So, what this IS an argument for, is the concept of teamwork.
This past year when my husband received his yearly bonus, he referred to it as “ours.” It had struck him, over the course of the year as a new father, that if I had not been willing and happy to take on the majority of childcare and the organisation of our home life, and had instead returned to full time work, he would have had to step back at his job to help out with nursery drop off and pick up, grocery shopping, and meal prep. However, because I was holding down the home front, he was able to push forward on the career front and achieve quite an incredible year.
His success was “ours” because we had worked together to manage and balance our life as a whole. He simply wouldn’t have been able to do it without all the “behind the scenes” work I did.
One day, a few months after this, after finishing a morning of volunteering, and feeling both exhilarated and energised, I phoned my husband. “Thank you for being ok with the fact that the majority of the things I do don’t make money. Thank you for supporting me in the work I do.”
He laughed. “The things you do,” he said, “help me value my work even more. I am glad to be able to support your work. When you do good, I am doing good through you.”
It helps, we concluded, to think of our family as a team. We need a certain amount of income to be comfortable. The baby needs to be taken care of. The groceries need to be bought. The meals need to be cooked. The house needs to be cleaned. Leisure time needs to be planned. We want to give of our time to causes we care about: We are blessed and want to give back.
And so, we divide up those tasks according to skill set and interest. My husband is really good at making money. I am really good at taking care of our baby. He is amazing at planning holidays or fun weekend activities. I am excellent at cooking. Everything we do is for “us,” for the benefit of our team. The money he makes isn’t “his” – it allows our team to function well. The meals I cook aren’t “mine” – they fuel our team for the business of life.
This isn’t to say, of course, that the lines are strict and that we don’t cross over into each other’s realms. It is not as if, for instance, our daughter is “mine” to take care of. She is, after all, half my husband’s and part of her flourishing depends on his presence in her life. If he doesn’t have an early meeting to get to, or something to prepare for, he generally gets up with her whenever she wakes up, so that he can have an hour with her before work, and I can get an extra bit of rest. I don’t know what they do, but they sure seem to have a lot of fun: my relationship with her is about quantity and his is about quality. And that works.
It was with fairly intense anger, then, that I read on Facebook a few months back, an acquaintance’s comments on an article in which a stay at home mother kept a diary of her week. It sounded like pretty standard fare: wrangling sleepy kids out of bed for school, trying to appease a teething toddler whilst doing the grocery run, handling bath time alone while her husband was on a business trip, trying to not to burn dinner while answering her toddler’s questions. A day in the life. Par for the course. Endlessly exhausting, but immensely rewarding all rolled into one. Her week sounded remarkably familiar to me.
My acquaintance’s reaction (I can’t bring myself to call her a friend) was to mock the woman along the lines of: “Stay at Home Mom life is a joke. Why isn’t she at work too, and her husband helping to take care of the kids and groceries and bath time?”
To which I couldn’t help but wonder: What if they don’t want it that way? What if that dynamic doesn’t work for them?
And also: What this woman is describing doesn’t sound exactly easy. How can her week be labelled as “a joke”?
The automatic assumption here, is that this is an unequal situation: that the husband is neglecting the dictates of feminism by not being present at bath time, and that the woman is somehow wasting her life by tending to the needs of her family.
The automatic assumption is that, in order for things to be “equal,” they must each be doing fifty percent of EVERYTHING, regardless of inclination or talent.
But that’s not what feminism is about. And that’s certainly not what family life is about. Feminism opened the doors for women to pursue what they wish with regards to the organisation of their career and family life. Feminism did not happen so that a working mother could mock a stay at home mother for her choices.
And family life at its best is not a rigid exchange of favours and duties. Family life should encourage the flourishing of the individual for the benefit of the whole. I would be miserable stuck in an office, wondering if the nursery workers were giving my daughter the back rub she likes when she falls asleep. If I was not pursuing the various activities I have committed to which provide real meaning to me, and benefit others, I am sure some part of me would shrivel and die.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, my husband’s energy is filled up and his sense of worth solidified when he can call me and tell me about a big deal he has just accomplished, or a new client he has brought on. He becomes more fully himself in the eager and dedicated pursuit of the work he loves, just as I do in mine.
In figuring out what each of us is good at, and dividing up the tasks accordingly, we have a system that works. We are energised and happy in what we do, and what we each do complements the work of the other and builds up a complete picture of family life in which needs are met, interests are pursued, and everyone is flourishing in their own individuality.
I cannot imagine a life where everything had to be strictly divided down the middle. I cannot imagine a life where we weren’t supporting each other in our pursuits, and balancing each other out with our natural abilities.
I am not a big football fan, but my husband’s analogy for family life works well. “Did you see that goal? It was incredible. But he wouldn’t have been able to do it without that last minute pass.”
Your team wins when you each do your best at what you are good at. When you figure that out, you can pass the ball seamlessly back and forth and end up with the winning goal.