When It’s Okay for One Parent To Sit While the Other Cleans

The term “stay at home” mom connotes an air of leisure and inactivity far from the reality of my daily life. I prefer “constantly out attempting to entertain and educate a human with the attention span of a sparrow and running household errands mom,” “director of plant operations and dean of student affairs,” “domestic specialist,” “ethologist of immature primates,” or “in-house counsel.”

Before giving birth, I sided with the archetypal dad. It made complete sense that the last thing he wanted to do after working all day was to help clean the kitchen after dinner. And why should he have to? Washing dishes and providing food fall within the non-working parent’s job description after all. Sure, household chores bleed into the evening, but even cumulatively they’re hardly as difficult as a grueling day at the office, right?

Using this frame of reference, when my daughter first arrived I forced our family to stick to the traditional division of labor and ran myself ragged trying to feed and clothe the three of us, keep our home tidy and clean, pay the bills on time, entertain her, and maintain contact with friends. I jumped out of bed whenever the baby stirred and refused to allow my husband to help with nighttime feedings, reasoning that he needed the rest to perform optimally at work.

I didn’t just lose sleep, I dropped it off a NYC Subway platform straight into a pile of discarded burger wrappers and rat urine. Struggling through a fog of intense fatigue and the emotional susceptibility it breeds, I suffered, and as a direct result my husband and baby did too.

At first I felt like an unmitigated failure. Then I stepped back, discarded my assumptions, and examined the situation anew. Though I don’t draft documents or draw up PowerPoint decks, my management of first an infant’s and then a toddler’s supply needs, entertainment, energy level, and interaction with other children is as intellectually demanding as I imagine consulting, military strategizing, or advertising to be.

I have friends who falter here, assuming—thanks to subtle societal messaging—that this supposition can’t be right. And then there’s the blatant and closer to home. The husband of one acquaintance flat-out told her that his work is more intense than hers, and therefore she ought to work longer hours, waiting upon him after he returns home. Never having held a professional job, she had no leg to stand on when it came to contradicting him.

My work experience gives me firmer footing. I can confidently say that the 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. standard shift caring for my daughter tops every job I’ve held in the difficulty department—physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Walking into two classes of over 30 hormone-infused and perpetually disengaged ninth graders literally breathless thanks to my status as a “floating” English teacher? Nowhere near as challenging as being a domestic specialist. Working 12 to 14-hour stretches 5 days a week and 8-hour days most weekends as a law clerk trying not to disappoint one of the most prestigious, demanding, and inspiring federal judges in the country? Almost relaxing compared to ethology of immature primates. Hustling to make billable hours litigating for a large commercial law firm? Total cake walk next to directing plant operations and governing student affairs.

If I know for a fact that I’m working just as hard as someone in an exacting, high pressure position during the day, it makes no sense that my duties alone extend into off-hours as well.

My husband acknowledges my data, accepts my logic, and arrives at the same conclusion. When he’s home, I’m off the clock too. We split the remaining chores and neither of us rests until both of us can. When he works late, I do all the childcare and housework. If our daughter wakes at night we alternate getting up with her unless he has a particularly important meeting scheduled or I need to recover from an especially grueling afternoon or, say, another pregnancy.

Our modus operandi embraces one of the most important pieces of advice we received on our wedding day: you must both aim to give 100%. If you each set out to contribute 50%, not only will you often fall short as a couple, but you’ll constantly be thinking about whether your spouse is putting in the correct amount of effort rather than focusing on giving your all.

We both work our hardest until there’s nothing—professional or domestic—left to be done. Looking back, we can’t fathom how we could have expected any more or less of each other. I know I lucked out big time with my wonderful husband, but I truly believe that sharing after-hours duties shouldn’t be seen as some grand or enlightened act on his part. It’s only fair.

I may stay at home, but I promise you, I work at least as hard as my husband does. If he’s sitting on the couch while I’m cleaning, you can bet there’s a french maid costume involved.

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