Back in my Before Kids days, I fantasized about the family life my husband and I would one day create. We’d both change diapers, and both contribute equally to our family’s income. In my imagination, we’d be the ultimate flex-working power couple, collaborating on the minutiae of parenting.
Of course my idyllic vision didn’t quite play out. The exorbitant cost of daycare and the physical demands of raising babies and toddlers prompted me to scale back in my professional roles. The early years of parenting morphed me — as they do to so many moms — into the default primary caregiver, household manager, and carrier of the “mental load” we all know so well, while my husband commuted and worked long hours at an office job. Yes I still worked, and he still parented. But his job got priority while mine got whittled into one flexible enough to swing both school drop-offs and pick-ups.
Don’t misunderstand. My husband is a great dad who enjoys spending time with his kids and is quite possibly—okay, is definitely—a more fun parent than I am. It’s just that his job was linked to stuff we happen to need, like health insurance. And while his employers liked and appreciated that he was a dad, that never translated into tangible flex-time (don’t even get me started on the can of worms that is American family policy).
So, while I knew we were both working hard, parenting in our house was nowhere near a 50/50 split. His life as a parent—who didn’t really need to read teachers’ emails or take time off when the kids were sick—seemed, I don’t know, simpler? But mine, which involved solving my daily list of combined kid/household/ job problems, felt like a multivariate equation. I was never really off work. Never quite done for the day, though, naturally, I’d fall asleep exhausted. And I understood that it wasn’t just me. This just seemed to be the way of working moms.
But if I’m being honest, there was something—one little thing—I liked about our lopsided arrangement: I got to feel that I always knew best. My husband just wasn’t around enough to understand the kids’ day-to-day like I did. Doubting, undermining, and sometimes straight-up overruling my husband’s dinner choices (Dino nuggets?!) and screen time edicts (another hour of Minecraft?!) became second nature for me. Even as our kids got older and I transitioned back into full-time work, I continued to choose the kind of gigs that I could do from home while preserving my family time and my greater parental authority.
Then the pandemic hit. My husband’s job suddenly required him to stay home, so we set up a workspace for him similar to the one I’ve had for years. And, poof! An extra several hours a day of Dad-time materialized into the family schedule. My husband could—for the first time— handle the morning routine while I got an early start on my workday. Then he’d head to the bedroom-turned-office for his morning Zoom while I umpired virtual school for the next couple of hours, alternating my time between the kids’ rooms and my desk. We got into our own kind of tag-teaming groove, sitting together every night before bed to plan the next day based on the needs of his work life and mine.
For the first time ever, he was around enough to know the details of the kids’ schedules and to notice when we were due for a grocery run before I even told him. If there were dishes to unload or school forms to fill out, he was on it. I realize that for many moms, the conditions of this pandemic have disproportionately added to their workload —especially single moms and those working from home and caring for kids while their partners work outside the home. But for me, the opposite has come to pass, which is that my partner and I have been able to juggle work and family demands more equally than ever before.
I was so grateful for the second pair of adult hands throughout the (endless, soul sucking) spring of 2020, but I also noticed that giving up my place as the parent-in-charge didn’t come naturally. For the first few months I had the hardest time checking out and focusing on my own work because I still felt like I needed a voice in all the parenting decisions. I’d overhear everyone talking in the next room and immediately jump up from my desk to make a strategic recommendation. I really did want 50/50 parenting, but, as it turned out, ceding half the parental authority was another matter entirely.
So, there were a few arguments. Many heated discussions. It took months for me to gradually learn to back TF off and let my husband parent his way. And here’s the not-so-little gift that the pandemic’s sheer emotional exhaustion has bestowed: I now have the ability to let go of all the control and trust my husband’s ability to handle it—whatever it is—even if it’s different from the way I would handle it. When he’s the parent on duty, I now do my best not to insert myself into every little thing, and, instead, inwardly repeat the mantra he’s got it. And he does. Even if that means Dino nuggets. Again.
These days, when my husband takes his lunch break with the kids, I lock myself in my office and just turn up the white noise. I can still overhear the giggles when my husband cracks dad jokes and I can even catch snippets of arguments about exactly how much time our son has spent gaming. But I’ve learned to take a deep breath and keep my butt firmly in the chair. It’s helping my productivity — and my marriage.
Look, I’m not saying that working and schooling from home isn’t without mega-challenges, or that I don’t sometimes sob quietly over my laptop because, as we all know, it’s not supposed to be this way. But I will say that almost eleven years into this parenting thing, we’re finally on more equal footing in our home life and I don’t want to ever go back. Living as equal parents-in-charge these last several months has also meant that I finally, finally trust my husband’s parental authority all the way. It only took a pandemic to make it happen.