It began with what I perceived to be a reasonable request of Kathleen. The request was this: I would like, at some point during the week, time to myself. Didn’t necessarily need to be the same time every week, didn’t even need to be scheduled ahead of time. Just, you know, a couple hours on a random Sun/Mon/Tues/Weds/Thurs/Fri/Sat afternoon to do whatever happened to strike my fancy. Kathleen’s face dropped when I brought this up. She plunged into a hole of darkness and I seemed to be raining dirt upon her. We thought we had already gone through the process of redefining marriage after the first child, and now it seemed reality was hitting home in unexpected ways.
Kathleen puts a lot of pressure on herself. Not there isn’t already a lot of real pressure for her to succeed as it is. Her business1 is trending in the right direction, and while we are both confident that her entrepreneurial efforts will eventually replace– and surpass– my earnings at my former job, she’s not there yet. The business, as such, is still on a growth trajectory.
The problem is TD is also on a growth trajectory, as is Kathleen’s role as a new mom. Like many people who strive to support their family, Kathleen wants to do things the right way, and there are myriad resources to inform her that she is, in fact, doing Wrong Things. Real or perceived, this Wrong Things Brigade has become a sort of bastardized Jiminy Cricket, imprinting upon her that nothing she does is good enough. That she needs to shed her former self and become a Supermom/wife, earning the keep and attending to TD’s every need, while still making me feel validated as a husband/dad. It’s a lot to take on by yourself, and as I told Kathleen in more diplomatic terms during our emotional discussion last week, it’s all bullshit.
Marriage is a team sport. With or without children, it takes active effort on both parties to make a lifelong partnership work. Adding a child changes the equation; this is not news to anybody. How it changes it varies, though. Some of the changes are easy to anticipate2, while others you don’t see coming until they’re right in front of you. Last week Kathleen identified her biggest obstacle in our new context: reconciling her perception of what her expectations of her new role are with my own.
First know this: I never would have agreed to leave a job with a generous salary if I didn’t have unwavering faith in Kathleen’s ability to succeed in her entrepreneurial efforts. The moment I stepped away from my job, Kathleen became the sole breadwinner in the family. She has this role despite the fact that our current household income is about a fifth of what it was when we were both employed at other companies. It is Kathleen’s belief3 that her income will surpass my former salary within 18 months. While she’s not interested in building a Silicon Valley Behemoth with a billion-dollar valuation, it’s still a lot of pressure to self-apply. Kathleen is conscientious about ending her workday at a reasonable hour to spend time with TD and me4, and she almost never works weekends. Her office is in our house, so her commute is a six-second walk up a flight of stairs, and she comes up periodically to feed TD throughout the day. In other words, Kathleen is doing a bang-up job of balancing these two ostensibly disparate roles of mom and entrepreneur.
Next know this: I never would have agreed to stay at home and take care of a child full time if I had a problem with developing a new dynamic within the marriage. We are both adjusting to the change. As modern a step as it seems5, the “traditional” roles of woman/wife/mom and man/husband/dad are strong, if misleading, guideposts to how we are “supposed” to behave. Perhaps counterintuitively, I am much more comfortable with the inversion than Kathleen is. This discomfort manifests itself mostly through Kathleen’s own perspective of what she thinks I think about her6.
Due to reasons beyond Kathleen’s conscious mind to control, saying to her, “I would like to figure out some time during the week that I can get to myself,” got interpreted as “You are failing this family as a mother, and you need to pull your weight on the child-rearing side of things lest I resent you7.” In a panic, Kathleen started running through the scenarios which she would have to wake up at 4:30am in order to start work so she could relieve me from watching over TD in the late afternoon.
She heard that I was saying she needed to do more. This is utterly ridiculous. Kathleen breaks her back to help our family. In addition to working full time on building a business that can support us, she also spends evenings totally present with us, feeds TD during the day when necessary, takes daily walks with us, and takes all of the overnight feeding shifts8. I didn’t want Kathleen to deconstruct her entire routine, I wanted to see where something could fit in to our week.
Because here’s the thing: despite the fact that we have this new responsibility rolling around on the floor and cooing and being all dependent and stuff, I still believe it’s important for the both of us to be able to do things on occasion, together and separately9. If Kathleen wants to go to a blogger happy hour or get her hair done or go swim some laps at the pool, she should be able to do so without feeling guilty. And I certainly don’t want Kathleen to feel inadequate because I’m requesting a few hours to wander library aisles aimlessly from time to time.
This is the nefarious effect that the Cult of Motherhood has on people. This perceived expectation of an arbitrary standard of “perfection” is subtly brought upon a family through external forces. It is our job, as an individual family unit, to actively work through these nonsensical standards and define our roles outside of everyone else. My job as a full-time dad is very different than Kathleen’s job as a working mom, and I imagine our definitions of these roles differ from people with similar family dynamics.
Kathleen works very hard and she enjoys what she does. I was not fond of my job, which is part of why I left it in the first place. My new job isn’t particularly difficult so far, but it is very monotonous. There is, after all, only so much time I can occupy my own mind by making googly faces and silly noises at my infant daughter. TD’s napping schedule has, what I would call, a general template rather than a rigid schedule10. So planning a routine is a bit challenging, and I do go a little crazy from time to time.
Fortunately, Kathleen was able to look past the ghosts of perfection that haunted her subconscious and look at the situation as our unique family presents it. It’s as important to me as anything that Kathleen understand that her contribution to our family is helpful and amazing. Above all, she needs to believe, deep down in her bones, that she doesn’t fall short in the categories of motherhood or marriage. She knows I that have faith in her. Now she needs to build the trust and confidence in herself to share my faith.
- Kathleen owns an online media company called Stacking Benjamins. It’s flagship property is a personal finance podcast, but the company also has a social media consulting arm and several blogs among other sub-businesses.
- Sleep deprivation.
- And, by extension, mine.
- She rarely knocks off after 5:30pm. Occasionally she will push into the 7:00pm hour, but I can count the number of times she’s done that in the last year on one hand.
- And isn’t it sad that this situation is considered modern, progressive, or anything out of the ordinary?
- Confusing, I know.
- Which, I mean, whoa. Not even close to what I meant.
- 11:30pm or 3:30am or whatever, Kathleen just springs out of bed and grabs the baby. I haven’t taken an overnight shift since Kathleen returned from her business trip a month ago. Despite the fact that these overnight feedings becoming less frequent, it is still an area that could be a source of conflict. It is not, and Kathleen handles it with aplomb.
- Separately is way easier, as it turns out.
- She’s usually down for her first nap by about 9:00am. The trick is how long will the nap be? Thursday, the nap was 35 minutes, while Friday I had to wake her after two hours.