When my husband and I decided to start a family, the basic math showed that full-time child care was beyond our means. Glowing and blissed out on pregnancy hormones, I saw myself as an attachment parent from the moment the pee stick turned pink and volunteered to stay home indefinitely, nursing, baby wearing and doing mama-baby yoga classes.
But the math also showed us that if one of us was going to be the primary child-care provider even temporarily, it would not be me. So my husband became a stay-at-home dad.
We assumed that this would be for a year, maybe two. But both our kids are in elementary school now, and we still haven’t seriously entertained the idea of my husband going back to work full time. It’s come up several times over the years, and every time it goes the same way: Of course we need that second income. But how much are we really talking about? Women who stay out of work for a year or more risk a 20 percent pay cut when returning, and the statistics for men are even worse.
After staying home for nearly a decade, he would be all but starting over. Without an advanced degree or a steady career, he would be competing with new grads 20 years younger, and he’d have no leverage to negotiate for the salary, benefits and flex time he’d need to cover the amount of time I spend traveling for work.
Could that kind of job be worth the effort of finding, retaining and paying for the child care we’d still need? Our younger daughter has a significant disability and would need specially qualified caregivers. Would we be able to afford that? And what about the million other tasks my husband has taken on as our kids have gotten older? Like most parents who do not work outside the home, he is also the family’s personal assistant, guy Friday, housekeeper, cook and handyman. He works five jobs to my one. Could he really find a job that paid enough or that he’d love enough to make this shift the right one for our family? We don’t think so.
When I’m working from home, we get the kids on the bus and then, over coffee, run down a list of things that need to be done every day, including child pickups, chores and errands. His work is cut out for him; almost all of this falls to him while I sit in my office and take eight hours’ worth of Zoom meetings. Occasionally between calls I run the dishwasher or throw in another load of laundry — but most of the time, my husband does it all.
When I leave for a work trip, I make a calendar with a column for each child, tracking every activity, appointment and play date. There’s a column for me so he knows when I’m coming and going. There’s also a column for him, so he doesn’t forget garbage day, or to pick up my prescription or to call the plumber or even to open the box with the walkie-talkies I ordered from some random conference room in Los Angeles that he needs to wrap and bring to the birthday party a week from Saturday when I’ll be in wherever.
We both keep our family running: If the family is a computer, I am the storage system, the cloud, the big-picture memory of the family holding all the music, the photos, the calendars, the information. My husband is the RAM: the power and memory needed to run 10 apps at once, have seven screens up simultaneously, to access everything we need to get through a day.
Because of this division of labor, he doesn’t have to wake up early, work for a company, wear a uniform, sit at a desk, clock hours. He can ask me 10 times for the same piece of information; he knows I will always have it and because I do, he doesn’t have to remember it. My husband likes to think of himself as a provider for the family; this is how he was raised to see success as a man. Maybe he doesn’t provide the income, but he provides the excitement, the fun play dates, the loud music in the car on the way to and from events and activities, the hands-on care. This job doesn’t come with pay raises or promotions, but he gets to take a book along and read in the car between guitar lessons and art class while pulling off the stuff I’ve set up.
I am a busy, type-A, do-it-all know-it-all. On top of my work, I book the play dates, schedule the appointments, sign up for classes, rent the instruments, book the summer camps and plan the meals. I love the planning and organizing, the strategizing and envisioning. I would rather sketch things out, set everything up, make lists and plan, all without ever having to make small talk with other parents when picking kids up at a play date or an after-school event.
As a society, we claim to have escaped the stereotype of the stay-at-home mom and the dad who is never around. But if the mom as the breadwinner is no longer so out of the ordinary, why is it a thing people often call me? I hate being called the breadwinner, because if I were male, no one would feel the need to call that out. If the dad as the primary caregiver is no longer so out of the ordinary, why do I see wives applauding their husbands by posting on social media every time they do the dishes or spend one-on-one time with their daughter?
Gender in general is more undefined in society than ever before, so why not gender roles in the household, too? In our house, we are both mothering and we are both fathering. Maybe we can let go of who has what body part or who identifies as what gender and recognize that the jobs that need to be done as parents need to be done no matter what.
Someone has to earn a paycheck. Why not me? Someone has to get the kids to dance class. Why not him?
That’s not gender role reversal. That’s just parenting.
Aimee Christian is a freelance writer and parent living in Concord, Mass.