Last week after our 2-year-old projectile vomited on me,
the chihuahua and the kitchen floor, my husband and I congratulated ourselves
on our excellent teamwork. I had dashed the still-puking child into the
bathroom while my husband mopped the floor in record time.
We do as much as a team as possible. We
wake up our son together, and we walk the dogs as a family. We change diapers
and manage tantrums as a unified front. When I'm not working, I jump into
whatever tasks I can—cooking, doing dishes, bathtime, bedtime—to make sure my
husband isn't shouldering too much. It's a lovely balance of teamwork and
mutual respect for each other's time and parenting abilities.
And it's completely and utterly exhausting.
You see, I'm the breadwinner in the family, working
semi-flexible, full-time hours while my husband takes care of our son. Growing up in an ultra-traditional household, my family
dynamic involved a hardworking dad who came home exhausted every night. While
he relaxed, mom handled all the child care and household tasks late into the evenings. My own feminist leanings led me to believe that it's easy to
flip that dynamic when mom is the breadwinner. But most families don't.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, married mothers
employed full-time are more likely to do household activities and provide
child care on an average day than married fathers who are employed full-time. For that, I thank one factor I hadn't accounted for: mom
I jump into family tasks not because my husband asks for help, but because my guilt demands it.
The gnawing feeling—unreasonable as it may be—is that I have to
stay involved or I'll miss out on my son's childhood. There's the little voice that
says I have to be present or I'll be pushed into the fringes of the family. And there's the ongoing fear that my husband will harbor resentment if I take advantage of his
time because he's not earning a salary.
I jump into family tasks not because my husband asks for
help, but because my guilt demands it. As long as I'm not working and my son is
awake, I'm constantly in his face trying to create memories. While I'm at my
computer, I keep up a steady stream of conversation or take photos of his
puttering. While I cook or clean, I keep
him close by so that even chores offer bonding moments.
It's not a question
of "having it all" in any high-powered, supermom kind of way. My generation saw
women go that route in the shoulder-padded '80s, and it didn't seem to go very
well. Instead, we're on a constant quest to find that razor's edge known as
But even for those of us who willingly sacrificed career
ambitions for family, and yet accept that sometimes work has to come first, that
guilt monster has a way of masquerading as maternal instinct. It insinuates
itself into the deepest emotional crevice and whispers that we have to be
present and involved, whenever and however possible, even when there's a
perfectly capable partner at home.
The martyr route isn't very satisfying and it's likely to
cause more resentment than absenteeism. So unless there's projectile vomit
involved, I suspect it's OK to get out of everyone's faces just a little bit.
It's fine for my son to play in another room even when I'm around. It's OK to
step away from a toddler tantrum if my husband has it under control. I'm allowed
to put a little space between motherhood, work and me.