When I faced going back to work after my maternity leave, my husband and I faced a very real and common challenge – how to balance household management and the mental load between the two of us.
I’m a “doer” at heart while my husband, Chris, is much more laid-back. So taking everything over was a legitimate risk for me. The mental burden of being a mom is very real, whether you embrace the role of being a “keeper” of everything or find it smothering.
Our situation had an additional twist on it. That’s because Chris was going to be taking on a role that 29% of moms hold, but only 7% of dads do – stay-at-home parent. Because I would be working outside the home and he wouldn’t, I could not be the de facto household manager. It wouldn’t be fair or practical.
So we had to find a balance of duties, both in terms of physical chores and management. Since then, we’ve learned to reduce my emotional labor and mental load as a mom. (Unfortunately, most of these don’t apply if you’re a single parent.)
“I’m done,” Sprout said, letting go of the cactus painted onto the rock-climbing wall. Looking at the wall, I half-frowned.
“Really? You were doing so well,” I said.
“Yep. That part was easy. I’m going to do it again,” he said, now on the ground. Then he started climbing again.
“Oookay,” I said, trying to be supportive while hiding my disappointment.
“Siblings are who you share your childhood with,” my husband commented, as we talked about possibly having another kid.
“I never thought about it that way,” I responded. Tilting my head, you could practically see the classic cartoon lightbulb above it. As an only child, that aspect of having a sibling honestly never occurred to me. But now, years later, I see its truth reflected in the relationship between my two young children. Even at one and four-years-old, they have a bond different than I’ve ever experienced.
Sinking into our couch, I look at the clock. 11:15. 11:15 PM. I had literally spent our entire night getting our kids to bed. Metaphorically, we had tripped and fallen hard on our faces. While this was an exceptionally bad night, our whole bedtime routine with Sprout is always a delicate dance.
The band-aid was the first sign of trouble.
My parents, my in-laws, Chris, and I were all rushing around, trying to set up Sprout’s fourth birthday party. A few days earlier, Sprout had badly cut his ring finger and now the band-aid was peeling off. Like all children, Sprout takes his band-aids Very Seriously. While we have a plentiful supply of Thomas the Train band-aids at home, my current stash was limited to Star Wars. “Look, I have Star Wars band-aids!” I exclaimed, trying to work up an adequate level of enthusiasm. “I don’t want Star Wars band-aids! I want Thomas!” he cried. After much whining, including an exclamation of “I don’t want to watch Star Wars!,” my mom resolved the situation. She offered to “make” a dinosaur band-aid from a plain bandage and dinosaur stamp.
This dramatic arc was solid foreshadowing for the rest of his birthday party.
“You look just like your mom.” Those are always the first words out of anyone’s mouth who knows my mom and is meeting me for the first time. Admittedly, my mom and I have many things in common. Namely, a talkative nature and knack for strong opinions. But lately, I’ve been noticing more and more the ways that I’m like my dad.
On first glance, my dad and I don’t seem to have much in common. My good high school friend once half-joked that he had never heard my dad talk. That was obviously false, but had enough truth to it to be funny.
But for all that our personalities are different, his influence has definitely rubbed off on me.
“So what time do you get home?” I asked. I desperately wanted to know how my friends had managed to solve the conundrum of living in the suburbs with young kids – how to spend time with them while also getting them to bed at a reasonable hour. They had just told me that they got their one-year-old to bed by 7:30 pm, a feat that has never happened at our house.
“6:30,” my friend replied, shrugging. “We grab her something out of the fridge and do the bedtime routine.”
I blinked. They didn’t have dinner together. Or much time together at all on weekdays. I literally had not considered that possibility.
A pair of pajamas can make me choke up these days. Not just any pajamas, of course. Just the panda onesie. Or the fleece pajamas with the rocket ships. Or the ones that say “Out of this world!” Looking at them, I breathe deep and stare off into the distance, as if my younger son’s infancy was years ago instead of weeks.
I was never cool. All of those things women lament about giving up when they have kids? I never did them. Instead, my transformation as a mom has been more subtle but no less radical.
I never went out clubbing. Okay, I did, but I usually complained that it was too loud or too crowded or played music I didn’t like. My husband worked nights and weekends for years and I wasn’t going to go alone, so it was a rare occasion at best.
I never dressed up in perfect makeup and stiletto heels. Mascara makes my eyelashes stick to my face. Lipstick makes my lips feel weird. I’ve never even tried to wear stilettos. The only time I’ve ever been in full makeup was my wedding; it felt like a mask.
I know this is kissing, but we seriously have zero photos of us hugging.
My arms wrapped around him, grasping him, clutching him. I squeezed his sides as hard as I could. His back straightened under my arms. I closed my eyes and pressed my cheek against his chest.
This scene has played out over and over again between my husband and I throughout the 16 years of our relationship.
In a park before a high school make-out session on a picnic table. In my college’s parking lot, just before he drove away for another six weeks. In our kitchen next to a sink piled high with dishes.