Raising Children: Marriage Inequality
When Andy and I moved in together, fourteen years ago, we never talked about the division of labor in the house. We never sat down and had a direct discussion about who would mow the lawn. He mowed the lawn. When it snowed, he shoveled (and, now, he snow blows). He didn't ask me if I was ok cleaning the toilets, I just cleaned them. I made the bed. When we got married, and opened a joint bank account, he started paying the bills. I sent the Christmas cards. Yes, it seems as though all of our household tasks fell in line within traditional male and female stereotypes. It seems like I took on tasks that women have always done and he was responsible for tasks usually completed by men.
Yes, it's true, we didn't talk about who would do certain tasks. You see, I am not skilled at many of those particular tasks assigned to my gender. I tried, with much effort, to cook. After many an inedible meal and much wasted food, Andy took over and we became a mid-western casserole eating house. My starch intake increased over the last decade but at least we weren't starving, which was the alternative with me in the kitchen. This also means that the cook shops and Andy is better known at the grocery store than I am.
While I do most of the laundry, Andy isn't shy about throwing in a load. Unfortunately, he is shy about drying, folding, and putting it away. If a button needs to be sewn, and the wearer would like it to stay on, that's a job for Andy. I still clean the toilet but he is almost OCD about clearing dishes in the sink. I see him at his most flexible when he's on his stomach vacuuming under the couch.
In our marriage, with nearly no discussion, our division of labor has been divided simply- the person who does it best, does it, and ever so rarely, the person who likes to do it does it, and every once in a while, the impatient person does it and then yells at the other person who said they were going to do it.
With this completely non-planned, non-systematic approach to household work, it's no shock that, at periods in our marriage, one of us has felt we were doing more (sometimes much, much more) than the other. For example, a particularly snowy winter might make Andy feel like he's doing nothing but snow removal. Or, before a friend from out of town visits, I may feel like I've done little other than clean the house and plan our visit agenda.
Or, when the children were birthed out of my body, I might feel like I'm doing nothing but raise children.
In all of our years together, there has no imbalance of responsibility greater than rearing our kids. In many moments, filled with tears, anger, frustration, and desperation, I have asked (ok, shouted) if, because they came out of my vagina, the children, and all aspects of their lives, are my responsibility. I get how some of it fell to me. I was their food source, so I couldn't ask Andy to breast feed when they were infants. I worked part-time (summers off) for many years so I couldn't ask him to watch the girls for me when he was at work. And, while I've heard that some husbands refuse to change a diaper, Andy was always there to assist with a big poo, bath, and that time when he had to help hold Caroline down so she could get the flu nasal mist. Yet, as the girls get older, 90% of tasks related to their care fall on my to-do list.
And I get tired and pissed about it. I am the one who plans their after school care and arranges for the sitter every time we have a work conflict. I write the lunch checks and the after school plans. I email with the teachers. I make sure the homework is done. I manage the seasonal clothing process. I schedule, and take them to, their hair cuts and their doctor's appointments. I pack their back packs and snacks every day. I do Girls Scouts and horse shows. I manage anything related to Caroline's special supports, both at the school and in the community. Most nights, after a long day in the office, I am home alone, making dinner, (Oh! I cook now!!) plus bath, homework and bedtime alone. They are living and breathing. Wanting and needing. It never stops, day and night. Twenty Four. Seven.
Again, I've heard horror stories that some dudes don't help with any of this-ever. Andy is the bagel maker in the morning. When he is home at night, he always reads to Charlotte. He helps herd the kiddy cats to bath and bed. He (and does a terrible job) makes their beds. If the girls are sick, he takes a day off and watches them just as often as I do. And, lately, with my cajoling, he is responsible for dental appointments- making them and taking them.
I've been at my breaking point so many times that I have pleaded with Andy to help me more with the kids. He argues back that he does help. I argue, in return, that while I understand he is helping, his help comes in touch points or fits and starts. His help with the girls ebbs and flows, it is not regular nor is it continual. It's HELP. He is not the leader of the childcare, a responsibility that often, in my darkest hours, feels like a burden. A burden too hard for me to bear. A burden I'm not good enough or strong enough to shoulder.
There is a difference between being the helper and being the one standing where the buck stops. In an effort to explain this to him, I put it in his terms. I told him that our family is a non-profit and he is the volunteer and I am the staff. A big event is coming up and the volunteer signs up for a slot from 2-4. The staff got to the event at 8 am and leave at 8pm. The next day the staff thank the volunteer with a pancake breakfast, hoping this will lure the volunteer back next year. The staff should feel so lucky to have the volunteer.
I question my parenting abilities daily. I think, did I sign up for this job? Why didn't I know it was a job? Would I have signed up for this job if I'd known it was so hard? I ask myself, where is my pancake breakfast. On my lowest of low parenting days, my fight or flight instinct kicks in and I know I can not fly. So, I fight.
Andy recently shared that, for all the stress I externalize, trying to manage work and home, he, too feels the weight internally. He is engaged in meeting after meeting, traveling, often in crummy conditions at night. He has deadlines to meet. The bills must be paid by a certain date. The house won't be warm if he doesn't fill the pellet stove. No one can go to work if he does not clear the driveway. The house smells like crap if he doesn't clean the litter pans. The list goes on and on. Twenty four. Seven. He reminded me that he does those tasks so I can focus on the girls. I think, when it comes to the kids, he doesn't want to step on my toes or do the wrong thing (aka what I think is wrong.) And, I want to argue that paying bills is not the same as raising two living human beings but I have to respect the fact that every task we each do has it's value.
The division of labor is never even. Responsibility in a marriage is not always equal. Sometimes we give more than we take and other times we take so much because we know the other will not stop giving. We each feel the burden of our responsibility and we take the completion of our own tasks so seriously that we often forget the burden the other carries. From our perspective, the other does it so well, so effortlessly. The other does it best. Why would we interfere? We interfere because it is our responsibility to make it easier for the other. A marriage is a promise to share the burden. We must be willing to divide and conquer and to meet one another half way. While we don't often (or ever) say it, we both appreciate the tasks we accomplish every single day, no matter how big or small.
But, just to be clear: I'm the best parent and Andy is the best kitty litter pan cleaner.