The Write Prescription: Taking turns

Division of labor when it comes to taking care of the nest — and the chicks.

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I hear the Tinkerbell melody of the washing machine down in the basement. This is the second load of laundry my husband is doing today. Two years ago, he couldn’t have told you where the start button was. While cleaning bathrooms and bedmaking have remained my domain, John has also taken over the kitchen and vacuuming. The pandemic completed an evolution in our roles that began sometime around 2005.

John and I married in 1975, newly minted college graduates. Despite the rise of feminism and fathers who change diapers, our roles were what you would call traditional. We both worked, but he was clearly the breadwinner. When I became a mother in 1988, and two more children arrived in 1992, keeping home and child-rearing became my jobs. I had help, but not from my husband, who worked long hours and traveled frequently. He swooped in for tickles, kisses, or to play a game, but not to get a child dressed, referee a flare-up of sibling rivalry, or manage separation anxiety. His dishes made it to the sink, but not the dishwasher, his laundry to the basket, but not the machine. He tidied but didn’t clean.

Somewhere during the time when our older daughter was preparing for college and our younger one and her twin brother were beginning their trek through adolescence, I stepped back from attending to the minutiae of caring for them. No longer dealing with toilet training and picky appetites, I was now monitoring curfew, using the goodnight kiss as a Breathalyzer, shaking the kids awake in the morning to get them ready for school, and scrounging under beds and in the hamper to find the knee socks needed for the perfect uniform they forgot they had to wear until just that morning. At around the same time, my husband thought that perhaps I was slacking a bit when it came time to launch the kids into the world beyond our home. He had every reason to believe that. Raised in a laissez-faire household, I sold myself short when it came time to apply to college. There is nothing laissez-faire for a New York City kid applying to college, so I chose not to add to the pressure, nodding yes when I thought a school was a good fit, reading essays, going on tours, but keeping my mouth shut. 

My husband had other ideas. “You’ve had the kids for the past 16 years. Now it’s my turn.”

His turn? Did he think I was just the contractor who built his house, and now, when he’s ready to live in it, I’m not welcome?

I got off my high horse, though, as soon as I realized there were benefits to giving him his turn. He made sure there was a plentiful supply of No. 2 pencils for the battery of standardized tests the kids would be taking. He had no problem being a human alarm clock. When they left the house I said, “Bye, have fun.” John said, “Do you have money? Be careful.”

While the kids were in college, John knew their schedules, when they had a test, or the date a paper was due. He reminded them to get gas before driving home, and made sure they had AAA cards. He sent care packages.

In the summer before his junior year, our son had an internship. John got up with him each morning at 6:15 to make him a fried egg sandwich and see him off to work. I spent the first week of his internship in Los Angeles on a book tour. When our younger daughter returned to New York from a stressful trip to Berlin, John was there when she arrived. I remained on Martha’s Vineyard.

John still helps the kids understand apartment leases and how to fill out tax forms. He stocks their refrigerators and pantries, and makes sure their cars have up-to-date inspection stickers. He worries when they ride the subway at night and if they don’t respond to a text within an hour. He does everything he can to make their lives as pain-free as possible.

Of course, pain does arise. Small hurts as well as trauma. This is where I emerge. I talk, soothe, place a hand on a brow, and massage the tight cords of muscle along the side of a neck. I dispense medicine, ice packs, hugs, and kisses. John hovers like a bird who can’t figure out why his babies can’t fly. But he remains close by, ready to resume his daily chirping and encouragement.

The kids don’t need all this hovering, but I’m less certain than I used to be that it is a bad thing. How nice to have a parent who calls the day of a test to say good luck, or one who goes to Whole Foods to get the foods you love because you are too tired after a difficult rehearsal, or one who pays for an Uber, since he doesn’t want you riding the subway home after a family dinner.

During the pandemic, all three children (and their pets) moved in with us on Martha’s Vineyard. They did their share of cooking and cleaning, and somewhere along the line, so did John. For the first time in his years of working long hours, John was home all day, and he’s not the type to sit and watch everyone else schlep.

I’m not advocating for the way John and I managed our early years. Women’s rights and freedoms are being eroded, and the pandemic made it clear that women pay a far greater price than men when support systems like childcare are withdrawn. But maybe parity in home and parental roles should not be measured by the day-to-day division of labor, but in the overall arc of the years we spend inhabiting rooms together and raising and fledging our children. Maybe it’s not about “be here now,” but “be here for the whole journey.”

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