The myth of co-parenting

By Hope Edelman

Throughout much of 1999 and 2000, my husband, John, spent quite a lot of time at work. By “quite a lot” I mean the kind of time Fermilab scientists spent trying to split the atom, which is to say, every waking moment. The unofficial count one week came in at ninety-two hours, which didn’t include cell phone calls answered on grocery checkout lines or middle-of-the-night brainstorms that had to be emailed before dawn. Often I would wake at 3am and find him editing a business plan down in the living room, drinking herbal tea in front of his laptop’s ethereal glow. If he had been a lawyer tallying billable hours, he would have made some firm stinking rich.

He was launching an Internet company back then, and these were the kind of hours most people in his industry were putting in. Phrases like “window of opportunity” and “ensuring our long-term security” were bandied about our house a lot, usually during the kind of exasperating late-night conversations that began with “The red-eye to New York? Again?” and included “I mean, it’s not like you’re trying to find a cure for cancer,” somewhere within. I was working nearly full-time myself, though it soon became clear this would have to end. Our daughter, Maya, was a year and a half old, and the phrase “functionally orphaned” was also getting thrown around our house a lot, usually by me.

So as my husband’s work hours exponentially increased, I started cutting back on mine. First a drop from thirty-five per week to twenty-five, and then a dwindle down to about eighteen. At first I didn’t really mind. With the exception of six weeks postpartum, this was the first time since high school that I had a good excuse not to work like a maniac, and I was grateful for the break. Still, there was something more unsettling about feeling that my choice hadn’t been much of an actual choice. When one parent works ninety-two hours a week, the other one, by necessity, has to start picking up the slack. Otherwise, some important things—like keeping the refrigerator stocked, or filing income taxes, or finding a reliable baby-sitter, not to mention giving a child some semblance of security and consistency around this place, for God’s sake—won’t get done. A lot of slack was starting to pile up around our house. And because I was the only parent spending any real time there, the primary de-slacker was me. How did I feel about this? I don’t mind saying. I was extremely pissed off.

*

Like virtually every woman friend I have, I entered marriage with the belief that co-parenting was an attainable goal. In truth, it was more of a vague assumption, a kind of imagined parity I had superimposed on the idea of marriage without ever really thinking it through. If I’m going to contribute half of the income, then he’ll contribute half of the housework and child care. Like that. If you’d asked me to elaborate, I would have said something impassioned and emphatic, using terms like “shared responsibility” and “equal division of labor.” The watered-down version of feminism I identified with espoused those catchphrases, and in lieu of a more sophisticated blueprint for domestic life, I co-opted the talk as my own. But really, I didn’t know what I was talking about beyond the fact that I didn’t want to be the dominant parent in the house.

When I was growing up in suburban New York, my mother seemed to do everything. Everything. Carpooling, haircuts, vet appointments, ice cream cakes, dinners in the Crock-Pot, book-report dioramas—the whole roll call for a housewife of the 1960s and 1970s. My father, from my child’s point of view, did three things. He came home from work in time for dinner. He sat at the kitchen table once a month and paid the bills. And, on weekend trips, he drove the car. Certainly he did much more than that, including earn all of our family’s income, but my mother’s omnipresence in our household meant that anyone else felt, well, incidental in comparison. The morning after she died, of breast cancer at forty-two, my younger siblings and I sat at the kitchen table with our father as dawn filtered through the yellow window shades. I looked at him sitting there, in a polo shirt and baseball cap, suddenly so small beneath his collapsed shoulders. I was barely seventeen. He was fifty-one. Huh, I thought. Who are you?

There were no chore charts taped to the refrigerator, no family powwows, no enthusiastic TV nannies suddenly materializing outside our front door. My father taught himself to use a microwave and I started driving my siblings for their haircuts and that, as they say, was that.

*

When John became so scarce around our house, I had to compensate by being utterly present in every way: as a kisser of boo-boos; a dispenser of discipline; an employer of baby-sitters; an assembler of child furniture; a scary-monster slayer, mortgage refinancer, re-seeder of dying backyards. And that’s before I even opened my office door for the day. Balancing act? I was the whole damn circus, all three rings.

It began to make me spitting mad, the way the daily duties of parenting and home ownership started to rest entirely on me. It wasn’t even the additional work I minded as much as the total responsibility for every decision made. The frustration I felt after researching and visiting six preschools during my so-called work hours, trying to do a thorough job for both of us, and then having John offhandedly say, “Just pick the one you like best.” Or the irritation I felt when, after three weeks of weighing the options, I finally made the choice, and then he raised his eyebrows at the cost. I didn’t sign up for this! I began shouting at my sister over the phone.

How does it happen, I wondered both then and now, that even today, in this post-second wave, post-superwoman, dual-income society we’re supposed to live in, the mother nearly always becomes the primary parent, even when she, too, works full-time—the one who meets most or all of the children’s and the household’s minute-by-minute needs? We start out with such grand intentions for sharing the job, yet ultimately how many fathers handle the dental appointments, shop for school clothes, or shuttle pets to and from the vet? Nine times out of ten, it’s still the mother who plans and emcees the birthday parties, the mother who cuts the meeting short when the school nurse calls.

Women have known about this Second Shift for years, the way the workday so often starts up again for women when they walk through the door at the end of the other workday—a time mandated perhaps by the baby-sitter’s deadline, but also by their own guilt, sense of responsibility, tendency to prioritize their husband’s job first, or a combination of all three. Still, I—like many other enlightened, equality-oriented women having babies in this era—had naively thought that a pro-feminist partner, plus my own sheer willpower, would prevent this from happening to me. I hadn’t bargained for how deeply the gender roles of “nurturer” and “provider” are ingrained in us all, or—no matter how much I love being a mother to my daughter—how much I would grow to resent them.

When it became clear that my husband and I were not achieving the kind of co-parenting I’d so badly wanted us to achieve, I felt duped and infuriated and frustrated and, beneath it all, terribly, impossibly sad. Sad for myself, and sad for my daughter, who—just like me as a child—had so little one-on-one time with her father. No matter how sincerely John and I tried to buck convention, no matter how often I was the one who sat down at the kitchen table to pay the bills, there we were: he absorbed in his own world of work, me consumed by mine at home. My parents all over again.

*

I was angry with the kind of anger that had nothing to do with rationality. A lot of the time, I was mad at Gloria Steinem for having raised women’s expectations when I was just a toddler—but at least she had lived by her principles, marrying late and never trying to raise kids. So then I got mad at Betty Friedan for having started it all with The Feminine Mystique, and when that wasn’t satisfying enough, I got mad at all the women in my feminist criticism class in graduate school, the ones who’d sat there and so smugly claimed it was impossible for a strong-willed woman to ever have an equal partnership with a man. Because it was starting to look as if they’d been right.

But mostly I was mad at John, because he’d never actually sat down with me to say, “This is what starting a dot-com company will involve,” or even, “I’d like to do this—what do you think?”—the way I imagine I would have with him before taking on such a demanding project (which, of course, we’d then have realized together was not feasible unless he quit his job or cut back dramatically, which—of course—was out of the question). Legitimate or not, I felt that at least partly because he was “the husband” and his earning power currently eclipsed mine, his career took precedence, and I had to pick up the household slack, to the detriment of my own waning career—or in addition to it.

Before our marriage, I had never expected that. I don’t remember the conversation where I asked him to support me financially in exchange for me doing everything else. In fact, I’d never wanted that and still decidedly didn’t. I was not only happy to put in my portion of the income (though it would inevitably be less than usual during any year I birthed and breastfed an infant), I expected to and wanted to contribute as much as I could: part of who I was—what defined me and constituted a main source of my happiness and vitality—was my longtime writing and teaching career. I didn’t want to give it up, but I also didn’t want hired professionals running my household and raising my child. It felt like an impossible catch-22.

*

In writing class I tell my students there are just two basic human motivators: desire and fear. Every decision we make, every action we take, springs from this divided well. Some characters are ruled by desire. Others are ruled by fear. So what was my story during the year and a half John spent so much time at work? He claimed that I was fear-driven, that I was threatened by the loss of control, which may in fact have been true. When I try to dissect my behavior then, reaching beneath all the months of anger and complaints, I do find fear: the fear that I’d never find a way to balance work and family life without constantly compromising one, the other, or both.

But mostly what I find is desire. For my daughter to have a close relationship with her father, for my husband to have more time to spend with me, for me to find a way to have some control over my time, even with a husband and a child factored into the mix. And then there was the big one: for my husband to fulfill the promise I felt he made to me on our wedding day, which was to be my partner at home and in life. Somewhere along the way, we’d stopped feeling like a team, and I wanted that fellowship back.

I wish, if only to inject a flashy turning point into this story right about now, that I could say some climactic event occurred from which we emerged dazed yet transformed, or that one of us delivered an ultimatum the other couldn’t ignore and our commitment to each other was then renewed. But in reality, the way we resolved all this was gradual, and—in retrospect—surprisingly simple. John got the company stabilized and, as he’d promised, finally started working fewer hours. And I, knowing he would be home that much more, slowly started adding hours to my workday.

With the additional income, we hired a live-in nanny, who took over much of the housework as well. And then, a few months after she arrived, Maya started preschool two mornings a week. Those became blessed writing hours for me, time when I was fully released of the guilt of paying others to watch my child. Between 9am and 12:30pm Maya was exactly where she was supposed to be and, within that time frame, so was I.

*

It has taken real effort for me to release the dream of completely equal co-parenting, or at least to accept that we may not be the family to make it real. We’re still quite a distance from that goal, and even further when you factor in the amount of household support we now have. Does John do 50 percent of the remaining child care? No. But neither do I contribute 50 percent of the income, as I once did. Ours is still an imbalanced relationship in some ways, but an imbalance I’ve learned to live with—especially after the extreme inequity we once had.

What really matters—more than everything being absolutely equal—is that John is home before Maya’s bedtime almost every night now to join the pileup on her bed, and that we took our first real family vacation last December. This is the essence of what I longed for during those bleak, angry months of my daughter’s first two years. It was a desire almost embarrassing in its simplicity, yet one so strong that, in one of the greatest paradoxes of my marriage, it might have torn my husband and me apart: the desire to love and be loved, with reciprocity and conviction, with fairness and respect; the desire to capture that elusive animal we all grow up believing marriage is, and never stop wanting it to be.

This essay is adapted from The Bitch in the House, edited by Cathi Hanauer, published by William Morrow/HarperCollins.

Hope Edelman is the bestselling author or editor of seven books, including Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers. She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, and many other publications. As a writing instructor and a life coach specializing in creativity and early loss, she leads workshops and retreats and works with clients all over the world. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. 

Artwork by Katie m. Berggren

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