When my husband and I got married six years ago, we knew that we wanted to have children together eventually. But we didn't just know that we wanted them, we also knew specifically how we planned on raising them: together, sharing our parenting roles equally, both just as important to our children as the other. We agreed that neither of us would know more, or become the "default" parent who took care of everything while the other one "babysat." We wanted to raise our children with the same feminist values that we brought to our marriage — and our kids wouldn't expect mom to have certain jobs while dad had others, just as we'd never expect our kids to act a certain way or like certain things just because they were boys or girls.
By the time we got married, we'd already spent five years together, tag-teaming life and figuring stuff out as partners, both equally responsible for the outcome of whatever was happening in our relationship. It seemed not only natural, but also totally reasonable, to expect that when we had kids — one of the most important things we'd ever do together — we’d do that as a team, too. And not long after we learned that I was pregnant, we found out that we were actually expecting twins. It was something that neither of us saw coming (to say the absolute least!), and we realized that not only would equally shared parenting be the goal, it would be a necessity; there was no way we'd be able to handle the insanity of having two infants at once if we didn't band together.
The more we talked, the more I realized that I'd screwed up too — I took on all of the responsibility and expected nothing from him. I hadn't let him grow as a dad the way I'd grown as a mom because I never left him alone with the kids long enough for him to learn how to take care of them on his own.
My husband Matt took a three-month parental leave when the babies came home from the hospital, and we quickly became a two-person assembly line: feed, burp, change, cuddle, nap, repeat. It was exhausting and overwhelming, but it also forced us to start our parenting journey exactly the way we'd wanted to: on completely equal footing, neither of us more capable or knowledgeable than the other. But three months goes by fast when you have infants, and before we knew it, it was time for Matt to return to work full-time while I stayed home with the kids.
Matt and I both have similar backgrounds, the same level of education, the same kinds of personal hopes and dreams. In theory, we both wanted to contribute more or less the same to our partnership financially, and we both wanted to have careers that meant something to us. That's not at all how it worked out, though. Matt graduated university with a job in hand and moved seamlessly up the ladder while I bounced around from job to job, frustrated and uncertain. By the time I got pregnant, Matt was making enough to support us both (a huge advantage and privilege in itself), and I wasn't attached to anything that I cared enough about to return to after maternity leave, especially when there wouldn't be any way that I could make enough to off-set the cost of childcare for two babies at once. Being a stay-at-home mom made sense, and staying home with the kids was something I wanted to do, so it was an incredibly easy choice for me to make.
As the kids got older and their needs became more demanding, I started getting overwhelmed, drowning in the expectations of motherhood, feeling like I was giving everything I possibly could and still not doing a good enough job. I didn't ask Matt to step up and take over, because that still seemed unfair, like I wouldn't be holding up my end of the bargain. As a result, our relationship suffered.
Neither of us expected what would happen next, though. Matt returned to work, and as he was now the sole income earner supporting not just his partner, but also two children, he started feeling the pressure to do more, do better, and do everything he could to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. No longer was it just two of us who needed and relied on health insurance and some semblance of an emergency fund (why does everything always break at the same time?!); now there were four of us depending on that. And I became the person who was suddenly responsible for almost all of the daily childcare, doing all of the stuff, seeing all of the things, and learning how to navigate the world as a party of three.
But I was someone else, too. I was also now the person who was entirely dependent on somebody financially, and I could see how stressed out that someone else was quickly becoming. So I silently decided to do as much as I could to make up for the difference. I figured that if I was already expecting so much from Matt as a breadwinner, I wouldn't put even more pressure on him to also be a dedicated, super-involved father, as well as a loving, connected partner. Even though those things were important to me, they were also things that I could control. I might not be able to go out and earn a ton of money to take the financial burden off of him, but I could make life a bit easier by taking over the parenting, and I could choose to be OK with getting less attention and romance and time alone together. That was the goal anyway, right? A 50/50 partnership?
We'd ended up in exactly the very place we'd always wanted to avoid: stuck in traditional roles, with mom as the knowledgeable, nurturing, primary parent, and dad as the hardworking, never home, fun-yet-sorta-clueless guy who "watches the kids" when mom's not around.
It seemed like a good idea until it absolutely wasn't. As the kids got older and their needs became more demanding, I started getting overwhelmed, drowning in the expectations of motherhood, feeling like I was giving everything I possibly could and still not doing a good enough job. I didn't ask Matt to step up and take over, because that still seemed unfair, like I wouldn't be holding up my end of the bargain. As a result, our relationship suffered, and it wasn't long before things got tense and snippy, where we'd both be slightly angry at each other at all times without really understanding why.
Then, finally, one day, I cracked. We were home together with the kids and I so badly needed to tag out, to have Matt take over so that I could spend some time not thinking about other people. But he was so rarely the primary parent anymore, and he was struggling. The day was a constant stream of questions with answers I felt he should already know: Where are the wipes? Do they need a bath? What should I feed them? And then, the kicker — after I suggested he take them out somewhere for a couple hours, he seemed honestly horrified.
"Wait, you mean take them out by myself?" he asked. "Both of them? By myself?"
I actually thought my head might explode. I screamed:
YES, BOTH OF THEM! OF COURSE BOTH OF THEM! I AM BY MYSELF EVERYDAY! EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!!!
Matt was stunned, and I was so mad, so I stormed off to re-group. And once I'd calmed down, we did a lot of talking (and maybe some more yelling, too). I'd become so frustrated and resentful of Matt; he'd gone from being a total rockstar, hands-on, fearless dad to a guy who was too intimidated to take his kids out in public on his own. I'd seen how he defaulted to me more and more, assuming I knew everything, but I didn't try to stop it. And now, we'd ended up in exactly the very place we'd always wanted to avoid: stuck in traditional roles, with mom as the knowledgeable, nurturing, primary parent, and dad as the hardworking, never home, fun-yet-sorta-clueless guy who "watches the kids" when mom's not around. Ugh.
Sometimes I'm still surprised to see how far we veered away from everything we'd hoped for at the beginning of our journey.
It would be easy for me to blame Matt, to assume he just didn't care enough to want to be involved, or to decide that I shouldn't have to ask him to pull more of his weight as a father and partner. But the more we talked, the more I realized that I'd screwed up too — I took on all of the responsibility and expected nothing from him. I hadn't let him grow as a dad the way I'd grown as a mom because I never left him alone with the kids long enough for him to learn how to take care of them on his own. And together, we'd messed things up for all of us: for Matt, who needed to feel that he was just as important a parent as I was; for me, who needed support as well as her partner; and for the kids, who needed both their parents just as much as they needed one of us.
We knew we had to start doing things differently. We decided that I'd step back to give Matt the chance to rediscover his confidence while also giving me some time to myself, and we also recommitted to making our relationship a priority as much as possible. And eventually, I started going back to work — just a little bit, and on my own terms — so that I could feel more connected to who I was and the work I did before I had kids, so that Matt could feel like he wasn't carrying the entire financial burden alone, and so we both could inch closer to our original dream of equally shared parenting.
Sometimes I'm still surprised to see how far we veered away from everything we'd hoped for at the beginning of our journey. Even though I so staunchly believed that we could avoid the trappings of the more traditional work/home divide, I'm still shocked by how easily it happened to us. Our new arrangement isn't perfect. It's something we both still struggle with, and something we work really hard at maintaining, but maybe the point is not that we ever get it right. Maybe the point is that we just continue to try.