After his wife scored a lucrative promotion that required the family to relocate from Australia to New York, former lawyer David Saunders is slowly coming to terms with the challenges of being the parent who doesn’t go to work
I’ve recently discovered there’s a name for people like me.
I’m a lead parent. Well, it beats some of the alternatives—stay-at-home-dad, house-husband, work-at-home dad, house dude, Mr. Mom. They don’t quite cut it. They’re either woefully inadequate as a description of what I actually do (who actually ever just stays at home?), too right-on, or just silly. Domestic god sounds just a little conceited.
Nonetheless, lead parent isn’t without its limits either. In fact, it’s fundamentally flawed. For a start, it only covers one-half of the undertaking, that of parent, whilst ignoring the husband bit. And then there is the small matter of how my wife, herself a hands-on mother who just happens to work full time, feels about it. By definition, if there’s a lead parent, the other (in two-parent households at least) is not the lead parent.
She’s therefore ranked, in parenting terms, below me. What could possibly go wrong with that? What’s her title then? Deputy Lead Parent? Assistant Parent? Vice President-Parenting?
Still, we all need pigeon-holing; a label to keep everything simple at social functions. So I’ll stick with lead parent for now.
In an article in The Atlantic, Princeton academic Andrew Moravcsik described how he and his wife Anne-Marie Slaughter, reassessed the division of parenting responsibilities after Slaughter accepted a senior role in the State Department. As her job became more demanding, often requiring her to be absent from home for days, Moravcsik had to step up and be there for their two sons. He became, as he puts it, the lead parent.
The Front Lines of Everyday Life
So what exactly does that mean? It is, as Moravcsik describes, “being on the front lines of everyday life.” It’s being listed first on the school emergency contact forms; the one who drops everything when there’s an emergency. It’s picking children up from school and making sure they’re fed and doing their homework.
Like Moravcsik, I’ve been on the front line of everyday life since our family moved to New York City from Australia at the end of last year. My wife, who works for a bank, scored a promotion, giving her the opportunity to realize an ambition of living and working in New York.
Despite having reservations about moving our family across the world and giving up a job I liked, I couldn’t really think of any rational arguments for not coming. She deserved a shot at the big time; who was I to deny her?
I had also relished the prospect of spending more time with our boys, who are aged seven and 11. Although I’ve always considered myself a hands-on dad—involved in their weekend sporting activities, making dinner and at least some of the time taking them to and collecting them from school—my wife had always done the lion’s share of managing the children’s lives. She had until now been the lead parent. Now it was my turn.
The roles parents play at work and at home are changing. According to a report released earlier this month by the Pew Research Center titled Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load, the proportion of two-parent households in the US in which both parents work has risen to 46% from 31% in 1970. There’s been a commensurate decline in the number of households in which the father works full-time and the mother is not employed outside the home.
The number of households where the mother is working full-time and the father is either part-time or unemployed has also risen from 2% in 1970 to 6% in 2015. It’s a small, but significant, development, reflecting—among other things—a growing trend of fathers wanting to spend more time with their kids.
And now I’m one of them—that subset of fathers who forsake the exhilaration of being the primary breadwinner for the unfamiliar territory of running the show at home: the lead parent.
With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, we moved to an apartment in Brooklyn and the kids started school. My wife joined the daily commute to Manhattan and I busied myself with cooking; washing clothes; filling forms; supervising homework and monitoring screen time. Within weeks I had a new appreciation for my mother’s tireless efforts to keep our family dressed, fed and generally well nurtured when I was growing up.
None of this suggests that my wife is anything but a diligent, attentive and loving mother, who goes out of her way to support me and gets home as early as her job allows her every night. Nor that she leaves all the mundane tasks to me.
But the reality of our situation that during the week at least, I’m the one doing school pick-up, packing lunches, making dinner and dealing with the fraternal squabbling, arguing over suitable cold-weather attire or putting on sunscreen, cajoling them into reading at night or pleading with them to put on socks in the morning.
As anyone who’s actually been one can attest to, unless you’re Gwyneth Paltrow parenting is rarely, if ever, glamorous. Whether you’re a father or mother, working part-time, full-time or not at all, it’s hard work if you’re doing it right. And so it should be.
Those supermarket visits that seemed such an adventure a few months ago now seem like drudgery. The satisfaction reaped from laying out washing to dry or folding clothes is now just another hike down to the basement with a bag of dirty clothes. Those days of picking them up from school and going to the park are no longer a novelty. They’d prefer to be at home playing FIFA 16 on the xBox.
I can imagine the collective eye-roll and the chorus of sarcasm from mothers through the ages as they read that yet another dad has finally discovered that the day-to-day mundanity of domestic life doesn’t really feel like the pinnacle of personal fulfillment.
Yet despite the tedium, the empty hours spent contemplating the fact that as I stack the dishwasher, the rest of the family are engaged in more mentally stimulating pursuits, I know deep down that what I do is necessary. On occasions, it even feels rewarding and fulfilling. I have more free time and I’ve seen more of the city than the rest of the family combined.
Differing Perceptions of Division of Domestic Labor
And maybe it’s about time. According to Pew’s research, in households where the father works full-time and the mother either is working part-time or unemployed, childcare responsibilities, including managing schedules, taking care of sick children and household chores, usually still fall to the mother. It makes sense that where the roles are reversed so that mothers are the full-time workers and dads are at home, dads should take up the slack at home.
More telling is the differing perception mothers and fathers have of their contributions at home. The report found that while 59% of parents surveyed overall said they and their partners shared household chores about equally, 31% said the mother does more, compared with 9% of dads. However, mothers are twice as likely as fathers to say they handle more of these tasks. In contrast, almost two-thirds of fathers say they and their partner share this about equally.
In other words, according to the mothers of America at least, fathers generally aren’t doing quite as much of the domestic chores as they like to think they are. I suspect this is a pattern repeated throughout the western world at least.
So, as I wipe down the toilet bowl, empty the dryer and sort through the pile of mismatching socks, before slipping out for a supermarket shop, I will resist patting myself on the back for a job well done. It’s not for everyone and I’m not a domestic god. I’m just doing my bit to redress the statistical balance. It feels good.
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