About a month ago, Renee went back to work.
I’ve taken on 20 hours a week of being the stay at home “dad” to Tom on top of most of my housekeeping duties. I really like my mornings with Tom. Even when he’s being completely inconsolable, filling diapers so quickly I’m not sure how he doesn’t look like a squeezed toothpaste tube, or just sleeping the whole time like a limp rag, I enjoy that bit of time that’s just us. However, I also know part of the reason I love our time so much is that it ends after five hours. I get to hand him back when Renee gets home from work and trundle upstairs to do some writing, take a nap, or just save a galaxy far, far away from those Sith jerkfaces.
I’ve already written about our family’s arrangement, how I’m the househusband, and how we keep track of things because I lack some of the benefits like health insurance or a retirement plan that I would be co-building as a legally married househusband. From the moment Renee discovered she was pregnant, we knew that the kid was going to have some pretty profound effects on the delicate equilibrium we’d established. Even if Renee didn’t want to go back to work, I would be working harder and longer to keep things clean. My daily patrols now include play mats, tiny socks, more silicone than a Good Vibrations outlet and even the occasional dirty diaper forgotten in a moment of some horrible panic.
It’s almost like kids can be messy or something.
Even though we’ve long since given up on tracking hours to the minute or totaling up grocery shopping receipts, in favor of that sense that we’re all just family, when we dropped 20 hours of babysitting into the mix, everybody kind of knew we should at least have a rough sense of how many hours I was going over that balance point. And one of the things Renee wanted to keep a careful eye on was the “Forty Hour” Rubicon. She knows I write and teach and might like to play a video game or read a book once in a while, and she doesn’t want to take advantage of my willingness to help.
“A full time job is enough,” she said. “Beyond that we’re taking advantage of you.”
I’ve been the househusband for my family for nine years. I’ve felt all the clichés of under appreciation. William and Renee have wondered why it takes me so long to clean up, and I’ve been in their face that fairies don’t flit into the living room and clean up their abandoned dishes and discarded socks. There’s a reason the unappreciated housewife is a cliché of TV and movies.
I still had no fucking CLUE how fast 40 hours would come and go once kids were in the mix. Some weeks we hit it by Thursday. I often have to stop doing housekeeping chores by the weekend so I have a couple of “banked” hours in case Renee and William need an emergency babysitting session. Dishes have sat in the sink for days because I hit my limit early on Friday. I often warn them as soon as Wednesday that I’m already getting close.
The kicker is, I don’t even watch Tom all that much. Five hours a day for four days a week while Renee is at work is all that’s certain. I’m often tapped to help out in the case of a social engagement or just an “hour of solitude,” but I get to give him back. I don’t have midnight feedings or dawn changing or colicky nights. I don’t put the baby down for a nap and then rush to try to clean all the things before he wakes up or strap him into his bouncer with some toys and ignore him unless he’s really screaming because I just have to get some dishes done. If I were a full-time stay-at-home parent who also cooked and cleaned, I’d be cruising up around 100+ hours a week without even breaking a sweat—well, okay, I’d probably break quite a few sweats, but hitting that many hours would be easy.
The claims that “motherhood is a noble (even sacred) job” are oft repeated despite all evidence to the contrary. Devaluing jobs traditionally held by women isn’t anything new in our society, but there is still a sense that a family’s bread winner is doing the “real” work. It is a sobering experience to realize just how much devaluing has gone on when it comes to child rearing. While most families find a way to divide the labor without ever feeling the need to track hours, because of my family’s quirky circumstance, we inadvertently attached that inequity to actual numbers.
And those numbers are shocking.
What I discovered is so starkly imbalanced, that the absurdity of “traditional” roles is breathtaking. A traditional father putting his feet up and refusing to pitch in because he “worked all day” should probably be aware, according to US labor laws, his wife should be getting about 60 hours of overtime.
So while a modern family is more likely to flip gender roles, share responsibilities, and approach equity, it might still be worth looking at the clock…just to check.