I’ve taken three stabs at this one, and I just can’t seem to get it right. It’s hard because it’s not just about me. It’s also about my husband and our decision nearly 15 years ago to bend normal gender roles. For me to double down on my career and for him to walk away from his so that we could build a solid foundation for our children.
When I was pregnant with our first child we really had no idea how we would handle child care after she arrived. Both of us had been raised by stay-at-home mothers and truly appreciated the experience, but it wasn’t quite as clear to us. I had just finished my MBA and was a year into a great start in corporate America. He had worked his entire life, since before it was legal. We considered (and rejected) asking our mothers to provide daycare. We settled into being unsure.
And then my daughter was born. Everything changed.
We spent the first few weeks like all new parents do, in over our heads and trying to figure it out. The first night we were home she wouldn’t stop crying and we drove to the emergency room. She stopped crying when we got to the parking lot, so we turned home. She started crying again on that drive and so after several tense words back and forth we turned back around and went to the emergency room. The medical staff was helpful as they checked everything out and announced that it was gas. They were kind and caring, even though I could see the shared glances and the knowing looks.
“Ahhh, first time parents. How cute.”
We continued on that way for a couple of weeks while I was on maternity leave and he was on first paid and then unpaid leave. We didn’t talk about the ticking time bomb that was our lack of any child care plan. I’m a planner and a solver but we just focused on the everyday tasks of living with a baby. Feeding. Diapering. Trying to grab sleep in 45 minute increments. He went back to work and my own six week leave got closer and closer to being over. Still, no plan.
Everything came to a head when we were in our last week. I remember the moment clearly: my daughter was sitting in her car carrier on the kitchen counter and we were looking down at her, loving and silent. Out of the quiet my husband, a protector by nature, looked down at her small face and said, “No one will ever care for her like I will. She’s so little. I just can’t hand her off to someone who makes six dollars an hour.”
It was as simple as that.
In that moment that we began our adventure as a one income family with a stay-at-home father. No lengthy discussions about what people would think or say or whether we were ready for the massive change it would bring. There were no fists raised about how we would be blazing trails in gender equality. We had no plan and no process for success — all we had was the certainty that she needed him.
And that is how we have moved forward for 15 years.
People who know me and have watched my career understand this fact. They know that it has helped me work longer hours and make trade-offs that women in two income families may not be able to do. It has removed the worry because I know that my children are well. I know that he will take the calls from the school, make the appointments, and deal with all the other unexpected surprises that are just part of parenting. I leave in the morning and come back at night knowing that everything is ok.
Of course it hasn’t always been easy. In the beginning, while we were not the only family with a stay-at-home parent we were the only family with a stay-at-home dad. It was unusual and because it was unusual there was judgement. Speculation about what it meant. Could it really be a choice? Wasn’t there something that must be wrong? With me? With him? We took questions at family events, hanging out with friends, waiting for the school bus, and taking the kids to the park. You can probably imagine the questions; you may have thought them to yourself. At their core, they are wrapped around two big themes: Why would a woman choose to leave her children? Why would a man choose not provide?
And if I’m honest, we have asked ourselves those same questions. Sometimes quietly in our own heads. Sometimes loudly in an argument. Always after a hard day when we both were broken down a bit by the challenges inherent in parenting, unable to see the bigger picture because we were wrapped around the moment. We have asked those questions many, many times.
I remember one day when we were forced to confront it. Our firstborn was two and a half and he called me at work around lunch time. He said there had been an accident. She had fallen and her arm looked weird. I was paralyzed for a minute, feeling hopeless and deficient in every possible way — I was a mother who couldn’t mother my child. He was paralyzed for a minute — worried what people would think when a 6’2″ man brought in a 30 pound pixie with a broken arm.
But none of that really mattered. What mattered was our baby was hurt and needed help. We mobilized beyond our paralysis. I closed down my work and drove a worried hour to meet him. He called our mothers and they joined him at the emergency room. We were all there for our little girl when the medical team confirmed that her fall from the kitchen table had fractured her arm. She would be ok, after getting a toddler-sized cast.
Throughout the years we have had other points of confirmation or questioning. Did we do the right thing, have we made the right choice? Even with a stay-at-home spouse, I’ve had to make job sacrifices to keep from being an absentee parent. I’ve had to make job sacrifices to support my family instead of expecting them to always put my career first. But, we remain convinced that taking an unlikely path 15 years ago has been right for us.
Whether or not we understood it at the time.