There’s a new hierarchy in our household.
It became apparent on a recent evening when my husband and I came home from work at about the same time. Our three kids were already finished with dinner and playing happily with their babysitter and grandparents. The older children rushed up to give me a big hug. The baby broke into a huge grin … and crawled right past me. Straight into the open arms of my husband.
Nine-month-old Charlie gurgled happily as my husband, Adam, scooped him up and nuzzled his belly. Adam toted the baby around on his hip for the rest of the evening as he made bottles, prepped our dinner and tidied the house. Then he put Charlie to bed using his miraculous technique that knocks the baby out for 12 hours straight.
This has been our new normal ever since my husband took an extended paternity leave after Charlie was born. It may not sound that radical — dad takes care of baby! — or, at least, it shouldn’t. He was home for four months, shorter than a season of hockey.
The experience has been a game-changer for our family, especially since we didn’t even realize the game needed changing. Just a few months of gender-role reversal — Daddy at home, Mommy at work — taught us how much we both had been missing.
Adam noticed the difference right away.
He had flown solo many times before, when I traveled for work or for a weekend with the girls. But that felt more like holding down the fort. Now it was just him and the kids while I worked 12-hour days. Now he was in charge and calling the shots in a way he had never been before. That meant figuring out the answer to a lot of questions on his own.
When should the baby go down for his nap? How long should he cry it out? Has this bottle been sitting out too long? Does this sleep sack smell like pee?
He churned through the endless cycle of drop-offs and pickups, loading and unloading the dishwasher, loading and unloading the washing machine, making meals and clearing the table.
Of course, it didn’t come easily. Adam wasn’t a new parent, but he was in a new role. After the first week, he dug out the electric heating pad to ease the back pain from carrying a chunky baby around all day. Wooden blocks, silicone teethers and puzzle pieces lay strewn across the playroom floor. Some days (many days) he didn’t shower.
Don’t get me wrong: My husband has been a wonderful and deeply involved father to our older children, 6-year-old Eleanor and 4-year-old William. He was never one to shy away from a dirty diaper.
But during the early days, he simply was not around that much. His company provided three weeks off through a combination of vacation and leave when our daughter was born. He took two weeks when the second child arrived. At the time, it sounded like more than enough, especially because many men stay home for only a few days. In retrospect, it was barely a blip.
I, on the other hand, was able to stay home for six months after each of our first two children were born. We were grateful for the time but soon learned that those early months establish a family dynamic that lasts well beyond the baby stage. Because I was home, I was the one who got up with the children at night — even after I had stopped nursing and was back at work full time. I determined their schedules and made sure diapers and wipes remained in stock. I could tell the difference between a tired cry and a hungry cry.
The pattern is self-reinforcing: The more you understand your child’s wants and needs, the more likely they are to want and need things from you. So even when Adam tried to step in, they asked for me instead.
Mommy, read me a book. Mommy, put me to bed. Mommy, hold my hand.
But when Charlie was born, Adam was working for a new company with a progressive leave policy: four months of parental leave, meaning not only moms could take the time, but dads, too.
Adam took the company up on it. I went back to work four months after Charlie was born. Adam stayed home for the next four months, plus a few extra weeks using accumulated vacation as well. He was the one by Charlie’s side just as he began to wake up to the world, babbling and playing peek-a-boo. The investment in time paid off in a way he didn’t expect: Charlie is definitely daddy’s boy.
I remember Adam telling me that I ought to be grateful on the days our older children were especially needy. I remember bristling and not-so-patiently explaining that I was emotionally exhausted, their demands overwhelming and relentless.
At least they aren’t rejecting you, he shot back.
Now I am second banana in our baby’s eyes, and with the benefit of experience and hindsight, I understand what he meant. During leave, Adam got to lead a lesson at our daughter’s elementary school and volunteer to plant flowers at our son’s preschool. He took long walks with the baby and caught up on neighborhood gossip at the bus stop.
I was out of sync. I typically left for work while it was still dark outside, before the children were awake, and sometimes arrived home after the baby was already asleep.
Can the kids have dessert? Is this bottle clean? Do you want me to get dinner going?
Those questions used to annoy me when my husband asked them. I’d roll my eyes, mistaking them as male cluelessness because I thought the answers should be obvious. I mean, if the bottle looks dirty, don’t use it, right?
But now that I’m on the other side, I can see they were really an act of deference. They were an acknowledgment that there is a method to the madness, and you just don’t want to mess it up. It’s an attempt to slip back into the rhythm of the family life.
And sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t make up for the time you were away. In those moments, there is a twinge of heartache as you hold your baby in your arms and his little hands reach out for Daddy.
My husband and I are both back at work full time now, but the dynamic of our family feels fundamentally altered.
On a practical level, we’ve redistributed the household chores: Adam now does all the cooking and puts Charlie to sleep every night, while I help the older kids with homework and bedtime. I order the groceries, but Adam packs the lunches. He shuttles the kids to swim class, while I take them to gymnastics. With three kids, no one can sit on the sidelines. We divide and conquer, and even then we need what feels like an army of help from friends and family.
The biggest change has been mental. The time off has given Adam more confidence as a parent and a deeper bond with our baby. Meanwhile, I don’t feel so resentful anymore, and I have greater respect for Adam as a father. His way works just as well as mine, and sometimes better.
We’re not a perfect family. But I like to think we are part of something bigger, a movement toward greater equality not just in the workplace, but also at home. All it takes to get started is a little bit of time.
Ylan Mui is a Washington correspondent for CNBC and former reporter for The Washington Post. She is mom to three kids and two cats.