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Finding Balance is Important for Dads, too

I grew up in a very stereotypical American nuclear family. My dad worked in the corporate world, and my mom stayed home with the kids. My dad often travelled, and like all of the fathers our circle of friends, he took every opportunity he had to climb the corporate ladder. This is just the way things were. Anything different would be, well… strange? It was expected that our dads work roughly 12-hour days and that they travel when necessary. Our moms stayed home with us and kept everything running smoothly while our dads were away. In fact, I thought it was completely abnormal that some dads didn’t travel for work. I thought that all dads were away from home a lot.

I’m not saying that my dad wasn’t involved. He was. He coached my soccer team (co-coached, actually, with another dad who had a demanding job). He took us fishing on the weekends and helped with our homework in the evenings. He always took the time to seize on teachable moments. And when something scary happened like an earthquake or a fire in the neighborhood, he and my mom would split up and each would sleep with my sister and I so we felt safe.  

However, our lives seemed to revolve around his job to a large extent, and my mom took care of the vast majority of the day-to-day activities in the home. Now, years later, I’m in my own marriage, and my childhood is pretty much the only experience I have to draw on for inspiration on how to be a wife and mother. I’ve always felt conflicted between work and motherhood, even before I was a mother. I was raised to believe I was fully capable of being whoever and whatever I wanted to be. My parents (in fact, the whole world) expected me to go to college and have a career. Yet, the female role model in my life was my mom. She was mainly a stay-at-home mom, but also ran a home daycare during most of my childhood. This is what motherhood looked like to me, yet this was not ever expected of me. No one ever told me to stay home and take care of my babies.

I continue to struggle with this conflict every day. I would love to spend more time with my kids. Yet, I feel fulfilled by going to work. My job gives me a connection to larger world, and my job allows me to make a positive difference in the community. The way I’ve been able to rectify this conflict between home and work is by reducing my hours at work. This has brought me a much better work-life balance, and I try to make the best of the time I do have at home with my son (it also makes me feel better to know that when I’m not there, Gavin has a babysitter who is totally amazing).

I came to terms with my work-life balance, but what about my husband? Again, I only had my own childhood to draw on for an understanding of how a husband and father should act. Yet, the family I have with my husband really looks nothing like my own family that I grew up with. I work outside of the home. I simply can’t do everything that my mom did. She was exhausted, but it is simply impossible to cram 15 hours of housework and childcare into the four hours I have at home between work and bedtime. Pragmatically, my husband’s role couldn’t look anything like the role my own dad played.  

Gavin and Daddy

As a result of my own limited experience, I was surprised recently when my husband passed up an opportunity to apply for a promotion at work. My dad seized on every opportunity he had at work for a promotion. I was actually kind of confused when my husband told me that he didn’t want that type of promotion. “I would probably have to work 10-12 hour days,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be able to pick up Gavin after work. I really like that hour we have alone together after work.”

Huh.

That was humbling for me. My husband actually put our family first. He put work-life balance first. It wasn’t the first time that he chose family over work, but it was the first time that I really noticed the stark difference between the choices made for my family growing up and the choices my husband and I were making for our own family. It was one of those moments when I was reminded why I married my husband. Sure, it is hard to see co-workers or friends buying bigger houses or nicer cars and not want the same for ourselves. My husband and I often talk about how we really don’t care that much about possessions (though you wouldn’t always know it when I go shopping), but we care more about people and experiences. We often talk about how we want to simplify our lives. Yes, sometimes we lose track, and we sometimes have to go through our house and get rid of all the clutter we somehow collect, but we don’t want our lives to be dictated by money and possessions.

Every generation shifts the culture, and now that I have my own kids, I can see this happening with our generation in many ways. My husband and I recently talked about the differences in motivation our generation has compared to our parents’ generation. I see our generation as more world-centered, more open to other cultures and viewpoints, and focused more on living a simple life. Most of my friends would rather spend an extra few dollars on quality food rather than buy new clothes. We would rather go back to college and live in a small house than work in an unfulfilling job. I feel like as a generation, we are choosing quality over quantity.

And maybe that premise – quality over quantity – is what also allows my husband and I to find our work-life balance. No, I’m not spending every waking moment with my son because I go work, but the time I do spend away from him is doing something that is personally fulfilling. And the time that I do spend with him is fulfilling as well. I think my husband would say the same. I have so much respect  for my husband for choosing home over work (and I respect his bosses and company for encouraging him to get home and help take care of his family). He cooks, cleans, and changes diapers. I’m not saying that we don’t still have conflicts, but I know at the core, we are working towards the same goals and we have the same core beliefs.

I recently read an article at The Feminist Breeder called, Raising an Equality-Minded Male, that really resonated with me, especially the following quote:  

However, it is simply not enough for girls to be told they can be whatever they want unless we also raise boys to feel comfortable filling the roles the girls may vacate.   The 3rd wave of feminism finds women with greater access to same education and job opportunities that traditionally were only offered to men, yet women are still largely expected to handle the bulk of the domestic chores.   The 2nd wave of feminism envisioned a world where women were allowed to do it all.  Today, I see a society where women are often forced to do it all because our men haven’t picked up the slack.

She also recently tweeted about an article from the New York Times called, Calling Mr. Mom?, which discusses the gap between expectations for women and men. The last paragraph in the article was particularly poignant:

Empowering American women can no longer focus only on women — on leveling playing fields or offering mothers “on-ramps” and “offramps” or shattering ceilings one at a time. All those efforts must continue, yes. But none will succeed if we don’t change our expectations for men. Or, more accurately, men’s expectations for themselves.

In our household, my husband often takes over more of the housework than I do. This was especially true when Gavin was younger and only wanted me 24/7. Gavin is much more likely to play with his dad now, giving me an opportunity to do the housework myself. Despite the fact that my husband does at least 50% of the cooking in our house, people still consider toy kitchens “girl” toys. Or dollhouse and dolls for girls only. My husband often gave Gavin a bottle when I was out of the house, yet people still scoff at little boys who pretend to feed baby dolls (these same people would probably die if they saw my son pretending to breastfeed his plastic cow. Ha!).

It has been essential for my husband to play a very active role in the domestic duties in our household, and I find this to be true in the households of my friends, as well. The families of our generation do not look like the families of generation before us, yet some of their stigmas linger. How can women expect to be “equal” to men if we perpetuate the stereotypes that only girls cook and clean and take care of babies. Sure, since Gavin started playing with toys, he would choose a truck to play with 90% of the time, but sometimes he chooses the doll (and I’ll be damned if someone tells him that the dolls are only for girls!).

I know my son has a good role model in his dad, and I hope that he will someday be an equal partner with his wife/husband/life-partner (whoever!). And I hope that it will be easier for our children’s generation to find work-life balance and navigate the conflicts of making money, finding personal fulfillment, and spending quality time with family and friends.

I think we need to do our part to let boys and men know that it is okay for a man to be a stay-at-home-dad if that is what works for his family. It’s okay to cook and clean and take care of babies. These activities do not make a man any less masculine, but in fact, it makes us respect them even more. Possibly, one of the greatest things we can do for our future generation of women and moms is to raise our boys to be comfortable with themselves and the roles they will surely play in their own future families. Hopefully, our future generation of both women and men will have an easier time finding a balance between home and work.

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Published in Balance Parenting