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Learning to Juggle by Dropping the Ball

Our exchange started out innocently enough. The nanny was asking about a tiny detail in our baby’s morning routine; my husband had given her slightly different information than I had.  She was asking for clarification.

Then I made The Face: the smug, condescending face complete with eye-roll that women tend to use to communicate that their husbands don’t have a clue about how to care for their children.

It was practically a reflex.

I clarified the detail with more than a hint of moral superiority (“he usually goes down for a nap 1 to 1.5 hours after waking up, and my husband thought it was only 45 minutes?! Pshhhh.”) and didn’t think twice about it.

But it got back to him. 

He asked me about it a couple of days later. He was hurt that I had downplayed his ability to care for our children. He didn’t like that he was portrayed as a second-rate parent. He politely pointed out that he was still the only parent on record to have handled both children during the evening dinner/bath/bedtime rush.

And he’s right. When I work in the evenings, he’s on his own, and he handles it all with remarkable grace and ease. Since the birth of our son four months ago, he has yet to leave me alone with the kids in the evening (though I do my fair share of solo parenting during the day).

He is far from second-rate parent material. In all honesty, he is one of the most absorbed and involved fathers I know.

In retrospect, my reaction sort of grosses me out, but I know exactly why I responded the way I did.

For better or worse, a significant portion of my identity is wrapped up in my ability to be a good mom. Somehow, being a Good Mom has become synonymous with being the supreme, omniscient authority on all matters related to my children. There simply isn’t room for anyone else to know things about my kids without it detracting from my identity as a mother, even when that someone else is their father. 

Truth be told, it’s pretty hard to be everything to anyone without losing yourself and your sanity in the process. It’s basically impossible to do so when you work outside the home.

Like many other women, I want it all: I want to be everything to my children, maintain an immaculate household that runs like a well-oiled machine, AND pursue interests of my own. But this is an irreconcilable contrariety.

Something’s gotta give. For me, this has looked a lot like letting go. 

We are in the midst of a global conversation about the roles women play in and out of the home. Over the past few decades, it seems the debate has shifted from whether women should work outside the home, to how they make it happen, logistically. To brutally paraphrase: Sheryl Sandberg urges women to “lean in” to their careers, to find their seat at the proverbial table and stay there.  Ann-Marie Slaughter points the finger at the societal constructs that are holding women back from truly succeeding in the workplace. Katrina Alcorn posits that the current pace of the working mother is simply not sustainable, and it causes physical, mental, and emotional harm.

But the voice that has resonated the loudest with me is that of Tiffany Dufu

In Dufu’s book Drop the Ball, she calls on women to examine their priorities and to only perform the tasks they feel they are truly best equipped to do, while delegating everything else. She describes her own incredible partnership with her husband, and how they came to share responsibilities, lean heavily on friends and family, and outsource whenever possible, so they could each play the roles they felt they were meant to play in their respective places of work and at home.

Even when her husband was working overseas for an extended period of time, they managed to share household tasks: a situation military families know all too well. Dufu asserted that this division of labor between spouses should apply both to actual tasks and the more nebulous mental load.

I found myself nodding along furiously and dog-earing every other page while becoming fervently evangelical about her message. She put words to the ideas my husband and I had worked to implement in our own partnership — albeit with variable success — and gave practical advice for how to further divide tasks and define roles as we worked toward a common goal: maintaining a firm grip on our sanity while enjoying life as much as possible.

Her book came at a time in my life when I felt I was drowning. The tasks inherent to a family of four with two working parents were piling up at a rate much faster than I could stay on top of. With a bit of skepticism and trepidation, I approached my husband and laid out Dufu’s game-winning strategy. He loved it. I came with specifics and a solution, and he was ready to put it all into action. 

It was liberating to discover that my husband was more than willing to share the load; all I had to do was communicate the need.

photo credit: Love, The Nelsons

So we share the responsibilities of running our household. Every week this looks a little different because our schedules change all the time. Sometimes I shop for groceries and cook, sometimes he does. Sometimes I take the animals to the vet, sometimes he does. He pays the bills; I plan vacations. He mows the lawn and picks up the dry cleaning; I negotiate cable and internet packages and act as our in-home tech support. And the pendulum is forever swinging: some work weeks are more labor intensive for one of us, and so the other picks up the slack; the next week, the reverse may be true.

It’s an intricate dance that has taken us years to learn, and we still misstep all the time. There are times when the general workload feels incredibly unbalanced. When that happens, we talk about it (read: fight about it), then work to find a new happy medium and move along. 

Over time, I have noted that there is a distinction between being a good parent and being a good partner. We are good parents because of who we are to our children. We are good partners because of who we are to each other.

It is possible for two spouses to be amazing parents to their kids while leaving one another high and dry on the home front. From the earliest days of our relationship, my husband and I have tried to establish a well-balanced partnership. This got much more difficult as we had kids. Not because he was unwilling to help but because I was unwilling to let go. My identity was too wrapped up in being a martyr of a mom. I hated feeling exhausted and overworked, but I felt guilty whenever I relaxed. 

It was stupid. 

When I took a closer look at the things that were really important for me — and just me — to do, the list was much smaller than I  expected.

It has been incredibly freeing — and relationship building — to work together with my husband, instead of letting my resentment build up as I begrudgingly bear the burden alone. 

I feel that the military particularly struggles with overly conforming to traditional gender roles. While it is true that a large percentage of military spouses are women, it is not enough to exclusively cater to a female demographic when offering support to military spouses. When I deployed, there were programs in place to change the oil in my husband’s car, but none that offered evening childcare for when he needed a break from parenting after working all day.

As an active duty member, there are numerous occasions where I have had to ask for an expected end time when ordered to attend a mandatory formation, so I could ensure I had adequate childcare. Despite the large number of female active duty members, the military institution still assumes that for every active duty member, there is someone who stays home full-time with the kids. This assumption excludes a vast number of modern families who are non-traditionally structured: single parents, dual working parents, divorced parents, geographically separated parents.

We need to get with the times. If the military is comfortable deploying women to combat zones, then at an absolute minimum, they also need to make room for men to remain at home and find a way to support all families. 

Society has begun to make room for women to both work and mother, but we still have a long way to go. And for all the slow progress that has been made to empower women to choose both motherhood and a career, even less has been done to enable men to have larger roles at home.

For me, it was simply unsustainable to continue on without my husband sharing the load. When I was finally ready to cry for help, I discovered a partner who was willing and eager to step in and shoulder the yoke with me.

I hate that it took me so long.

Jessica Lorren photography

3 Responses to Learning to Juggle by Dropping the Ball

  1. Avatar
    Sue Easter September 22, 2017 at 6:15 am #

    Wow! So beautifully and eloquently written! I’m sure many families of all configurations will be blessed and encouraged by your words – I sure could have used them way back when.

    • Avatar
      Emily September 26, 2017 at 9:35 am #

      Thank you, Sue! Here’s hoping (: We’re all in this together.

  2. Avatar
    Megan October 29, 2017 at 11:45 am #

    Wow. Beautifully put. I followed your blog when it was up a few years back and am so happy to find your writings again! You have a beautiful way with words.
    Great partners are key! I couldn’t function a normal life without the help of my wonderful guy. Cheers to you!

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