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Can We Renegotiate the Terms of Parenthood?

I was about three months into new motherhood when I realized I may have bitten off more than I could chew. My nipples were raw. My wrists ached. My hair was dirty. My to-do list was long. The sink was filled to the top with dirty dishes.

My husband lounged on a couch in the back room watching TV.

I lost my temper. Can you blame me? Em was waiting for me in my home office, strapped into her Rock n' Play, hungry and frantic with need. I was hungry as well, but had not yet mastered the art of simultaneously eating breakfast while Em nursed. My work was waiting for me. The dirty dishes mocked me. Exhaustion lay heavy across my shoulders. Panic rose in my throat and burned in my gut and I snapped at Michael and suddenly I was crying.

That was the day he started cleaning the dirty dishes. It became the thing he did every morning, just so I had one less thing on my plate.

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Now we're nearly a year into parenthood, and things have shifted further. As I've settled into the rhythm of juggling clients and performing housework and caring for Em, old wants have crept back in. Feelings of loss at the thought that I am missing out on opportunities that would allow me to progress on a professional level. Feelings of resentment at the perception that I have made certain career sacrifices while my husband's life has barely changed at all.

And suddenly, possibility: just a few weeks ago, my husband began working from home full-time, allowing me a greater amount of flexibility. And at about the same time, I read about a writing fellowship that could possibly give me the chance to be a writer again, the writer I was having a hard time giving myself permission to be.

"It's a long shot but, if I were accepted, I would have to commute into the city full-time for four months," I told my husband, wanting to get his blessing before I applied.

I saw him grimace as he turned away from me and I became angry.

"We would basically be swapping places for just four months," I said. "You'd only be doing what I've managed to do for the past year."

"I don't want to prevent you from following opportunities," he said. "But being the primary caregiver isn't what I signed up for. This," he said, gesturing as if to our life in general, "is the deal we made."

We're revisiting old, partially-forgotten agreements and reinforcing them. We're attempting to support each other while not losing ourselves.

And at that moment, my anger evaporated. Because he was right. Though I might sometimes feel frustrated by my role as the default caregiver, this is what we had negotiated. This is what we had agreed to. This is the arrangement we had been working toward when, shortly after marrying each other, he agreed to be the breadwinner so I could pursue life as a full-time, work-at-home freelancer. From the very beginning of our relationship, I'd been harboring dreams of someday working from home full-time so I could eventually be with our eventual children.

And his support had allowed that to happen.

Proceeding with a bit more levelheadedness—and a lot less crazy—I made a case for a temporary renegotiation of terms. I spoke of why I thought this fellowship might be beneficial for me. We discussed the possibility of our parents helping out more if I were accepted into this program. We talked about the possibility of—god forbid—actually paying for childcare. Several weeks later, I pulled together my application materials and sent them in.

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The fellowship is a long shot, but that's beside the point. What's key here is the fact that we're managing expectations and making decisions as a unit. We're revisiting old, partially-forgotten agreements and reinforcing them. We're attempting to support each other while not losing ourselves. We're allowing for the possibility that life will change. That we will change. And we're (however reluctantly) compromising.

Before Emily came into our lives, this type of active cooperation was key in making our marriage work. In ensuring that things didn't fall apart even when things were at their most precarious.

Now that there are three of us instead of two, that process is even more complex, and a thousand times more difficult to manage. But making all of that effort to keep things running smoothly is even more crucial, and more worth it, than before.

Image via Steph Auteri

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