When Eric and I got married, I was six months into a pregnancy that felt like the world’s happiest accident. We had already decided that he would quit his job to care for our daughter. My publishing job offered creative freedom and a decent paycheck. Eric was still struggling to get a toehold on his culinary career. We both felt strongly that one parent should be with the baby, so this seemed an easy solution – I would make and manage the money, he would handle childcare and household duties. Our new marriage was a partnership and we felt confident that each of us would play an equal role.
For a while, it worked. Eric was a natural at fatherhood, and Madeline blossomed in his care. As much as I hated being away from my baby, knowing that she was with her dad made leaving her bearable.
Yet, even during the best days of our marriage, I felt constant pressure to bridge the gap between the countless hours Eric was able to spend with Madeline and the meager time I eked out on weekends and evenings. Even when I was exhausted, I refused to allow him to get up with the baby when she cried in the night. Those quiet moments of bonding belonged to me. I declined social invitations, afraid to miss a minute with my child. But to admit to jealousy made me feel guilty. This was the way things were, a simple fact of our lives together. Madeline was home with a parent who loved her – even if that parent wasn’t me. I could live with it.
Slowly, though, things began to change. My job became less satisfying, my commute longer. We had a second baby. Eric struggled to adjust to parenting an increasingly busy three-year-old and a newborn son. I frantically juggled giving Madeline constant attention while still finding time with the baby, who was often just minutes from bedtime when I arrived home at night. Eric kept a handle on the childcare, but his grasp on most other responsibilities began to slip. My work woes left me no patience for the many nights when he prepared little more than a cereal bar for dinner. We both felt overwhelmed and exhausted. Worse, we felt trapped in our roles.
In the years since Madeline’s birth, my paycheck had doubled. My new salary meant a new house, one that we would not be able to afford if I quit my job. Eric could go back to work, but his comparatively modest income would barely cover the cost of childcare. I felt there was no way out of a bad job, Eric felt that his return to work would be little more than a gesture – one that would leave our kids with strangers, something neither of us wanted.
To add to the pressure, much of the nuts-and-bolts logistics of our family life still somehow ended up in my lap. I bought the birthday presents, made the doctor’s appointments, organized the social calendar, and planned the vacations. I announced when it was time to buy new shoes, or get our son a haircut, or join a tumbling class. I decided if we could buy that new rug or splurge on the fancy cell phones. And, to top it all off, when I was home, I insisted on calling shots with the kids, too: no SpongeBob marathons, no sandals in November, no spaghetti and meat sauce for breakfast.
Without question, I was the boss. I believed it was because I had to be. If I didn’t notice the details, Eric could go weeks or months without realizing that the baby needed a booster shot, the rugs screamed for a thorough vacuuming, and Madeline had outgrown her pants. Eric argued that I was in charge because I wanted to be. If I just got off his back, he said, he’d eventually figure it out on his own. But I could not stop myself from criticizing. I wanted my house to operate as if I were running it all the time, even if I wasn’t there. I couldn’t let go.
All the things that made our arrangement work in the beginning – Eric’s relaxed attitude, my much more assertive approach – had slowly pushed us into our own corners. He saw me as shrill and unbending. I believed he was unmotivated and under-involved. Needless to say, we were barely civil.
Strangely, during this whole period, neither of us felt comfortable talking to anyone about how we felt. It seemed like such a betrayal – and not just of one another. To let on that our gender-equal, new-millennial arrangement was falling apart felt like admitting to a much bigger failure. Besides, who among our friends could understand our points of view? My best friend is a stay-at-home mom. She identifies more with my husband’s plight than she does with mine. The few women I knew in my own situation seemed, like me, unwilling to admit that things at home weren’t always ideal. Unable to confront our frustrations honestly, Eric and I found ourselves going to head-to-head over weighty issues such as whose turn it was to unload the dishwasher.
Not surprisingly, things blew up. Or perhaps they melted down. Either way, we were not in a very good place when, a few months ago, we agreed to try something new. We’d sit down weekly to discuss our finances, to make a weekly menu plan, to create a family to-do list. I promised not to nag about any item on the list, as long as he promised to get things done in a timely manner. He vowed to make a meal three nights a week. We created a budget and agreed to consult one another on any non-essential purchases.
Amazingly, just this tiny, pedestrian adjustment has made a world of difference. Sunday nights, we dole out allowances in cash and discuss, item by item, where our money is going – a process that I had kept invisible to Eric for years (and, admittedly, had not always managed as well as I pretended to). Sharing that burden has been a relief. We talk about what the coming week will bring, who needs a flu shot and when to call the electrician.
As tedious as these meetings sound, we both look forward to them. They give us a chance to talk not just about the mundane day-to-day matters of our life together, but about how each of us feels. We have started discussing what we might do when our debt is paid off, or how things might change if we sold the house. We are strategizing. It feels quite a lot like a business meeting between partners. It’s strangely romantic.
Eric and I need to find a new way of doing things. I grew up in a military family, one where my father was deployed for weeks or months and my mother held down whatever fort we happened to be living in at the time. Looking at my parent’s marriage, I would never, ever say that one or the other of them was more essential to our survival as a family. It was only in their working together and supporting one another that they were able to support us. Isn’t that the essence of marriage? And yet I had completely lost sight of it in my own relationship.
People often remark that it takes a special kind of guy to raise children full-time. I agree completely. But it also takes a special kind of wife to concede the duties so long reserved as “mother’s work” and accept that everything won’t always go her way. I’m striving to be that woman, to realize that I don’t get to be the domestic goddess and the financial decision-maker. Nor do I want to be, really. It’s pretty clear that Eric and I need to find a new way of doing things. Perhaps in the discovery, we will invent a different marriage for ourselves.
Eric has been talking about getting back to work, taking a part-time chef gig to earn some cash and get out of the house. I am trying to think of a way to pull back on work, eliminate my commute and spend more time with the kids. It won’t happen overnight, but the sense that we believe it could happen has given our marriage new life. In a way, we’re back to where we started: a place where each of us believes that, if we work together, somehow it will all turn out just fine.