The tug-of-war between the armies of those who are At Home With Kids, and those who Work in An Office For Money seems to be constantly revving its engine, yet never releasing the hand break. I was finally convinced to put my thoughts online after yet another in an endless river of conversations with stay-at-home moms whose husbands want to be left alone after an exhausting day earning a paid living. This wife and mother was frustrated and tired, spending her days looking after three young children, her husband also needed to decompress after a full day of pressure to perform and be successful in his workplace. Each insisted they deserved more of a break than the other.
Both are right, both are wrong, both are missing the point.
I was lucky; I was able to spend the first several weeks at home after the birth of each of my two children. I took pleasure in the time away from life within corporate walls to hold, bathe, change, read to, play with, and cuddle my newborns. In addition, my joy of cooking extended to preparing homemade baby food, and dicing little morsels large enough to be plucked by little fingers, but small enough to not block tiny tracheas. Working as a freelancer for the past thirteen years has for me meant that even when I did return to work, it was at irregular hours, often allowing me to be home during the week for breakfast, or lunch, or supper; sometimes all three. My love for cooking continues. My wife - who works part-time outside the home, and the rest of the time "inside" with our kids - and I also share laundry duties, grocery shopping, housekeeping chores, as well as all the other nuts and bolts which accompany child-rearing.
Since I spend more hours than she earning a paid living, most of the responsibilities at home fall on her. BUT! Here is my philosophy vis a vis responsibilities in the household:
When I walk in the door from work, the responsibility of caring for our children and our house includes...me.
We decided to have these children, and they are our responsibilites for the rest of our lives. That means that, if I arrive home half-an-hour before supper, I generally drop my bag in the vestibule, give everyone a hug and kiss, and head to the kitchen where my wife and I prepare dinner together. There are times when, depending on the temperature of the room, I may linger with the kids, giving her some much needed mental and physical space. Other times, depending on the type of day each of us has had, stress levels, and the children's level of emotional taxation on their mother that day, she may linger in the garden while the kids keep me company during meal preparation.
It's not about who has had the harder day, it's about what one partner needs from the other at that moment.
I have spent plenty of time at home while my wife was away at work. The kids can be exhausting: constant questions, neediness, injuries, meal preparation and clean-up, and messes on the floor lead to my inability to get in a simple telephone conversation, and the near impossibility of a moment to myself - even in the bathroom. You really can end up feeling drained of any essence of individuality and adulthood.
Contrarily, there are days at home with them which are easy and delightful: play dates, movies, lunches with fellow parents and children, trips to the park in the sunshine followed by a call to the local pizza joint for supper; as much relaxation as one can expected while still having to wipe someone else’s bottom.
As for office work, I find the pattern similar: There are days when being at work is a lovely break from child-rearing and parenting. There are adults only in the offfice, central air conditioning, a bistro on the second floor, a coffee machine near my desk, and an outdoor terrace onto which I can bring my toasted chicken and artichoke salad sandwich.
On other days, stress, deadlines, expectations, and personal conflict in the workplace send me home with mild headaches and nausea. It is then that when walking through the front door to be greeted by children who are exuberant to see their father, and supper preparation still waiting to be done can be too much to handle.
But, it is then that:
It is my responsibility to communicate to my wife my need for a moment to myself.
Conflict between partners arising from a belief that each has a more difficult role to play than the other exists not due to a reality which can be tabulated in columns of energy output, or a measurement of stress levels over a year. It's not about proving to the other person that your role is more challenging, therefore you are entitled to certain perks. If half of a parenting team feels neglected it is because...
They are not getting what they need from the other half of the relationship. Period.
Being a successful, and emotionally and physically healthy parent can seem nearly impossible. It requires time dedicated to your children, dedicated to your relationship with your partner, and time set aside for yourself. Not to mention sleep, food, & showers.
This means that it behoves each person too be clear when communicating their needs and expectations to their partner. When we're tired, and need a break from whatever our routine may be, we need to speak up. It may be as simple as a couple of hours in a movie theatre with friends, a book and a beer on the front stoop, or even a night away. Without having your voice heard, the resentment starts to build. And when the frustration boils to the surface, the argument often becomes a ping-pong match about whose days are more challenging.When in reality, as a parent inside the home or away at the office, the challenges never end. The biggest challenge is always recognizing your own stress, and arranging to do something about it.
Yes, it would be ideal for your partner to pick up those cues on their own and insist you take some time for yourself. But, hey, you can't blame them...they've also been working all day.