Quarantine Diaries Day 211: Controlled Burn

For the first few years of my daughter’s life my mind and my newsfeed were consumed by stories of women leaving the workforce. That wasn’t an option for me but I was obsessed with the idea that my life would be better if I’d at least had the choice, as well as with the idea that everybody was doing it better than me whether they hired a nanny or quit their jobs to stay home or never went into the workforce in the first place, and I sought out story after story to test my highly self-centered and ultimately fear-based theories. When my daughter went off to school and I started peeking over the other side of early childhood parenting, I want to shake all the women having and raising babies with with men by the shoulders and implore them:

If any part of you wants to work, find a way to make it happen. It doesn’t matter if childcare eats up your whole salary* a significant chunk of your combined household income. If you can afford it and you want to work even a little bit make it happen. Early childhood is over fast unless you’re having a million babies and before you know it all your kids will be out of the house for 6+ hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about what to do with this next phase of your life you’ll be solidly into your career and thanking all the ladies who who showed you that life can be so good.

*Don’t measure the cost of childcare as coming entirely out of your salary. Your partner is paying for and benefits from childcare too.

It may have been un-nuanced, unsolicited, and unwanted, but that was my advice from Before Times and I thought it was pretty damn good. Now, another wave is here and it’s even bigger than the one that washed over my life when it felt like everyone in my orbit was having babies. 800,000 women dropped out of the workforce. One in four are considering leaving or at least scaling back. I don’t have that option but I understand why women would take it if they did. A mom of a kid in my daughter’s school works full time out of the house and does e-learning late into the night with her second-grader. A partner at a law firm is on the verge of quitting her job. A colleague is working double time to pay her kid’s tuition at his dream school that could close any week. My sister launched her second book and wrote and pitched a third with her three kids running wild at home and an essential worker husband working longer hours than ever. More friends than I can count have had to trust that their kids will be safe at daycare or bring caretakers into their already overcrowded homes, and are paying a premium to do it. Even more are running themselves ragged running e-learning themselves at home while also working full-time. Quitting, if it’s an option, must feel like the only one. Of course, the stay-at-home moms don’t have it any easier. My sister–in-law wrangled five kids entirely on her own while her medical resident husband finished out a three month rotation in another city. A friend who was supposed to go back to teaching this year is homeschooling her two kids instead. An acquaintance who was supposed to go back to school herself and figure out what kind of career she wanted when her youngest went back to kindergarten this year is instead watching herself disappear.

I don’t have a speech for these women who are raising children with men. I don’t have any idea what they should do. It’s not fair that the burden of all the extra childcare and attendant emotional labor is falling on women but I understand why they are the ones picking it up. I understand how it is easier to let even the most carefully constructed egalitarian marriage fall to pieces than to try to keep that wobbly tower upright in harrowing times.

Last week, when I was complaining yet again about how impossible it feels to raise a happy, healthy kid at this moment in time, my therapist gently suggested that some women might be envious of my situation. She’s not wrong. I don’t know a whole lot of women whose lives haven’t been made immeasurably harder by the pandemic, but when it comes to work/life balance–that ever elusive, always illusory, annoying buzzword–my life got easier.

In March I realized my long-held dream of eliminating my commute and working from home. I sleep in an hour later every morning and eat a full breakfast with my family. When my husband stands up to clear the table for school and my daughter starts fussing about brushing her teeth, that’s my cue to head off to “work”–i.e., a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. By the time I make it back and set up my computer in the office downstairs, I can hear my daughter in her first video call of the day. I work for a few hours, come up for a quick lunch with my family, and disappear back downstairs for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes sounds of my daughter’s cries or my husband’s mounting frustration drift down the stairs. My heart breaks and I put on a pair of headphones. I try to finish work early so I can exercise and then call my mom as soon as she finishes up her shift at a school where the kids been back for months. I come upstairs at the end of the day to dinner on the table.

The evening shift with our daughter is mine. It’s not always easy but it’s usually fun. We dance wildly to Parry Gripp and read Harry Potter and throw balls inside the house and play card games and go for walks and draw with sidewalk chalk. I used to try to look at her school work in the evenings but now I don’t bother because allowing her to maintain some sense of separation between school and home seems more important than proving I’m as involved as moms who don’t work. I used to shuttle her to and from activities in the evenings but now they’re mostly cancelled and I refuse to put her in front of a screen more than she needs to be. We eat dessert every night. We unload the dishwasher and put away a few toys and then it’s off to bed. After a bath and jammies and a few chapters and a few songs, she’s down and the night is mine again. My husband cleans the kitchen. He charges the devices for school the next day. I burn incense and read and meditate and play music and then sit on the couch to watch TV with a bag of candy corn on my lap. I go to sleep before he does.

The weekends are all different, but the balance is there. This weekend, I put in the emotional labor to plan a playdate for our daughter, but my husband cleaned the house on the off chance anybody might need to come inside to use the bathroom. I supervised the kids playing outside but my husband brought out the snacks. We both played for hours with our daughter and did chores and took a few hours for ourselves both days of the weekend. Our dryer that has been on the fritz for months finally gave up the ghost and instead of freaking out I let my husband order and arrange install of a new one while celebrated a week off of laundry duty.

I don’t have any advice for women trying to sustain an egalitarian heterosexual marriage with kids in a pandemic. What I do have is advice for constructing a marriage that will rise to the occasion when crisis hits:

Get yourself a stay-at-home husband. Switch the traditional roles so completely and shift them so far out that the seesaw hits the ground on the other side and you’re sitting up high legs swinging in the air. Make your income indispensable. You will feel the weight of responsibility but there will be no question your job comes first. Understand that everything that needs to happen in the home is also a job, and it’s not yours. Let your husband make the appointments and the beds or let them go unmade. You will feel the pain when it’s not done right but there will be no question whose job it is. Undoing all the cultural programming and fighting your way into social structures that weren’t built for families like yours will hurt like hell but one day life as you know it will fall apart and your kids will be home for 24 hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about how to keep all the balls in the air you’ll go off to work and leave your husband to deal with this fresh new hell and you’ll thank me for telling you that life can be so good.

It feels unfair, how much harder my husband’s life got this year while mine got easier. It is unfair. But it’s not like it was fair before, when the bar I was working so hard to clear was set to Perfect Mom instead of Pretty Good Dad. It’s not like the scales are perfectly balanced today. I probably still do too much, way more than my dad ever did, more than my husband would do if our roles were reversed. Luckily for our marriage, I’m not aiming for fairness; I’m playing the long game of self-actualization. The pandemic might have set me back, put me into survival mode. It might have destroyed my marriage. The only reason it didn’t is because we had someone at home to track down toilet paper and masks and wait in line at Trader Joe’s and take over our daughter’s early elementary education and that someone was someone other than me.

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