There seems to be a misconception out there that having a stay at home husband is some kind of pinnacle of feminist achievement. You go out, focus on your rewarding job, come home to slippers warmed, the paper and a brandy while your hubby gets dinner ready and bathes the kids. I don’t want to be a party pooper, but. Well actually I do.
I love my job, and I love my husband and the job he does with our kids. But I don’t think being the breadwinning wife with stay at home husband is the best we can do. The happiest times for all of us have been when we have both worked part-time (either half days, or shared out the days between us) and shared the care of the children. The most difficult times have been when the babies are little and I have had to divide my body between babies and work, with minimal sleep and low productivity and just a general all round hatey feeling emanating from deep within and, for some bizarre reason, directed at my husband. Why is that? Isn’t he the one I should be most grateful to?
Teamwork and Negotiation? Or Roles and Responsibilities?
When I am the fulltime breadwinner and the night-time breastfeeder, I have extremely high expectations on what he should do as the stay at home parent. That is, everything else. The teamwork seems to go out of our relationship, and the general feel of ‘us working stuff out together’ becomes some kind of competition on who is the most tired and who has the least time ‘to themselves’. I win the first, generally, as being the night-time breastfeeder of a baby. Husband wins the second, generally, because I get time to myself in my academic job (although perhaps time *by* myself is not the same as time *to* myself). But the fact that it even starts to be a competition is not healthy.
When we first got engaged as naive 19-year-olds, I remember seeing this illustration of how a Christian marriage should work: you each pour out your love for the other and put their needs above your own. And so your needs are met because your partner is doing the same. The problem with this view is that it assumes you each are able to ascertain your partner’s needs. And the longer I have been married (coming up 14 years), the more I realise how this is rarely a possibility. I have recently become aware that I communicate my needs poorly — we both do — and have been trying to be clearer about asking (using my words!). One of the things I have had to be specific about since becoming fulltime breadwinner is that I no longer want to be the household organiser.
Because, back to the pinnacle of feminist achievement idea, being the fulltime breadwinner makes it really hard to be the household organiser for a family of five. I now have NO IDEA where the socks are, or which child used the gluestick last, or whether we are allowed to eat the box of crackers in the pantry. Most of the time, my husband also has no idea. So as you can imagine it is pretty chaotic at the moment. With the addition of a third child, I also really resent having to make decisions about what is for dinner or whether the kids should have a snack now when I didn’t do the shopping and wasn’t home at afternoon tea time, and have my arms taken up with baby when I am home, and have used up most of my brainspace writing and teaching during the day. Sometimes I just think it would be so much easier if we had clearly defined roles that we just stuck to so we didn’t have to negotiate and talk about everything, about what we need and why. Mum at home and dad at work.
Asking and Negotiating
But in our household, we have to negotiate all those things. I really have to clearly communicate: “please ask Daddy about that”, or, “honey, I will cook dinner if you like but you need to tell me what to cook, I just can’t cope with thinking about it now” and “I need all of you to go into the bathroom and sort out which clothes are dirty and which are clean on the floor, and put the dirty ones in the basket and the clean ones on your hook” (yes, that specific. With polite repeats).
It turns out I really hate asking people do things, and I really hate being that specific. It seems patronising to direct people (adults or children) to that level of detail. But if I don’t do that, I end up getting resentful that things are left for me to do. Previously, I was under the impression if I pointed something out (of place), it would be enough for family members to do the math and go fix it. For example, “hey guys, you all left your clothes on the floor in the bathroom and I don’t know which ones are dirty for the load of washing I am putting on”. I felt that it was a nicer way to outline expectations than direct asking. But I am now aware that some people take this as a criticism and prefer polite requests. Slow.Shift.In.Gears.
I haven’t yet decided if I asking is the best option. It is better than sighing and banging pots around in the kitchen, I reckon. But I still feel like if I do all the asking and initiate all the negotiating, then I am still doing the ’emotional labour’ of being household organiser. How do we share out that emotional labour in a non-traditional household? Or is it the final frontier of ‘women’s work’ that we have yet to transcend? If we both worked part-time, would I still have this job primarily? Or could we work out how to share it?