Thursday, July 9, 2009

Some thoughts about being the at-home spouse

Someone I know is out of work, and has been for some time. His wife has a business she started before the economic downturn.

Their roles are reversed now with him home with children /house, and her full-time-plus at the business.

He's discovered that taking care of young children involves much more than what meets the eye, or can be explained in a few words. Trying to describe a day with young children is like trying to identify the hydrogen and oxygen atoms making up the wave that's swamping you. He's also experiencing the kind of helpless outrage where his accomplishments are largely invisible to his spouse. This involves digesting the irony of his wife coming home expecting dinner, and then needing a walk to de-stress from her day at work, leaving him with clean-up. When he worked full time he'd come home to a house where dinner had not been started and there were still breakfast dishes in the sink. Her reply if asked was that taking care of children involved more than meets the eye. And because he brought home an income doesn't exempt him from helping out around the house. So he'd clean up the kitchen and fix dinner.

This introduces a kaleidoscope of perspectives to me. As an at-home spouse I've often been painfully aware of how inadequate words are to describe a day with children in a way that conveys the experience. I'm aware that what a wage-earner sees as a neutral starting place represents hours of effort to an at-home spouse. It's as if the income-producer is starting a race at a starting line without realizing that the at-home partner has been running long before even getting to 'start'. In my case my spouse is a man, the income-producing part of our partnership for 10 of our 17 married years. And I have often felt that the line of division of labor has been de facto drawn through 'inside the house' and 'outside the house'. Thus, whether he's home or not, what's 'inside the house' is my responsibility.

So when my friend's wife had the at-home role, I was sympathetic to the expectation that once home the income-producer should also help out.

Now that he's home, though, her perspective seems to have shifted. As someone who's at a business for 10, 12 hours a day she feels entitled to come home to a meal, take a walk afterwards while leaving the dishes, and is critical of stuff left undone in the house. And I realize she felt as fully identified with the perspective of the parent at-home as she does now the parent-at-work.

I've often found myself in an awkward position when talking with my female friends who are the wage earners and their husbands are at home with children. I suppose it's a version of the so-called "Mommy wars" between women who work outside the home and women who parent full time. I feel my own experience become paler when they describe coming home from a full day of work to have children thrust upon them by an exasperated spouse who then disappears. They longingly muse that they would love to be the ones home with their children.

The working spouse works all day, and we'll assume the job is demanding. When they come home and are expected to pitch in they may feel that they've left one job only to have another thrust on them when they get home. "When do I get my break?" they may ask, and I can certainly understand the sentiment.

I think that's when the next logical step seems to be to compare jobs, whose is 'harder'. The working spouse is not exactly on a luxury vacation when out of the house. Isn't it unfair to expect them to do things at home too? Isn't it a luxury to be able to stay home with the children?

As the parent at home who had years of a late-working husband, I can testify to longing for another adult in the house, especially at the famously poisonous 'dinner-time'. I can testify to the anticipation of some relief when he'd arrive, and increasing resentment when he didn't. And when he'd say, "When do I get my break?" I'd not really know what to say. Just as I'd feel uneasy when my female wage-earner friends would say that it's not a picnic to come home to child care responsibilities after putting in their day.

So, thinking of my friend who now has perspectives from both sides, I see how reasonable each is--the at-home parent who needs relief, the earning spouse who needs a break. Yet they seem mutually contradictory.

It occurs to me that there's another way of dividing the pie. For parents the primary job is nurturing and raising children to be good people. That's a 24 hour job. And since we don't live on air an income is needed, which is a means to an end--providing infrastructure for the nurturing and raising of children. If the parents cut an agreement that there will be one wage earner, then the person who goes outside is putting his/her childcare into the currency of income-earning. The spouse at home pulls a double shift in caring for the children and making the home a stable base of operations to launch from. When income earner returns, there is still child-care to be done, whatever remains of the 24 hours. At that time the earner resumes his/her direct childcare role, and the at-homer continues that role, but there are now two adults instead of one.

One would like to hope that further division of labor would be determined by love and good will. At-home spouse doesn't find her/himself struggling in the kitchen to get dinner on while a wailing toddler clings to his/her leg as another one yells from a different part of the house and wage-earner sits obliviously reading the paper. No, Wage-earner sees that there is a struggle going on and because s/he loves his/her spouse, doesn't like to see him/her suffer and offers assistance out of a sense of fairness and love. It is also expedient, because it simplifies the job of getting dinner finished and on the table, to remove at least one ball from the myriad the spouse is juggling.

So to consider raising children as a 24 hour work-day, where one partner puts in part of their time outside of the home, and then resumes it upon return, while the other pulls up the slack when the money-maker is away and continues when he/she returns seems to iron out some of the misconceptions. Wage-earner's responsibilities don't end with the paycheck, and At-home's responsibilities don't end when Wage-earner returns. Thinking of it only in terms of the 8 hour day lends itself to unhelpful constructions like, "she gets to be home with the kids on his dime, and then she expects him to help," and " least you're dealing with adults all day while I'm dealing with kids," "my job is harder than yours, therefore I'm entitled to xyz..." It lends itself to a more realistic division of labor than, "What's outside the house is mine, and what's inside the house is yours--oops! Kid spilled an entire bottle of milk? That's yours, and I'm going to read the paper after my hard day at work."

It's surprising how vulnerable I've felt to the charge that I've been some kind of freeloader these 10 years. I suppose it's a testament to a culture that only sees value in terms of money earned.


Wordgirl said...

I LOVED this post -- so much so that I linked to it -- I've been thinking about these same questions these days...

Thank you for all your sincere support and words -- I always feel so blessed to hear from you and I wanted you to know -- since I'm notoriously bad at writing back/keeping in touch.



excavator said...

Pam, it's always nice to hear from you. Frequency doesn't matter; your comments are a gift.

In fact, your writing/not-writing post is calling to me, and as soon as I can quit being distracted I want to give that more thoughtful consideration.

Thank you, too, for linking to this on your blog.

I honestly felt like I'd 'discovered' something new, or at least very overlooked here.