When my husband and I started parenting, our only explicit goal was to keep our son alive and healthy and growing. We read many of the usual books about pregnancy and the early childhood years. We did not read any literature on equal parenting. At that time there wasn’t any. In fact, if you had been in our apartment one July morning in 2007, you might have wondered if anyone was planning to parent our child.
I was about eight months pregnant. It was 4:45 in the morning and I was in green scrubs headed to my surgery clerkship, where I would stand for hours on end at the ready to snip sutures and name obscure parts of the human anatomy. My husband walked in the door. He was just arriving home from his job as a corporate attorney.
“Don’t forget, we have dinner with the Jones tonight,” I said squeezing my swollen feet into Dansko clogs.
“Tomorrow night,” my husband corrected.
“Tonight,” I insisted.
This went on for some time, until we realized my tonight — I was on my way out the door — was his tomorrow. He had yet to sleep.
Three weeks later our oldest son was born at the start of the Great Recession, and while I was a third-year medical student. My husband had a generous four-week paternity leave. I had ten weeks cobbled together using elective time most students took in their fourth year of medical school to attend residency interviews. When my husband returned to work in late September 2007, the markets had slowed to a crawl, and no one was raising capital for anything.
For the next three years, I completed medical school and started an internal medicine residency. I worked 80-hour weeks. I took calls that stretched past the regulation 27 hours. I worked stretches of night float, and I worked more weekends than I had off.
My husband watched the market flounder, was laid off and took the only job available to a capital markets lawyer at the time. It was very 9-to-5. As a result, my husband was home in the mornings before our nanny came and in the evenings when she went home. He made our son’s breakfast and sometimes dinner too. My husband took our son to the pediatrician and to get his hair cut and to meet his teacher. My husband attends my son’s first Christmas pageant at nursery school and volunteered at the school fundraiser. And on the weekends, my husband spent countless hours playing hide-and-seek in our yard searching good-naturedly for our son who stood in plain sight with his hands over his eyes calling, “I’m hiding.” In short, he was the “primary parent.”
In the intervening 11 years, the market has recovered, and my husband returned to a job as a partner in a big law firm. I have completed my residency and fellowship, and built a clinical practice. We also grew our family. Today, we have four children ages 11 to three. I no longer work 80-hour weeks, and I have increased my parenting duties. However, I have not become the primary parent.
I would argue there is no primary parent in our home. I would argue that my husband and I parent equally and I am confident he would agree. We have claimed certain domains in the household and trust that the other has their domain under control.
My husband and I weren’t aware that there was a growing body of literature that supported our path to equal parenting. We were just making parenting with two demanding jobs work for us however we could. However, there is data to support that my husband’s early and frequent experiences with solo parenting set the foundation for our more equal division of the parenting load.
Our early parenting experience has also freed us to obtain the support we need without guilt. In years that my husband was managing childcare, he delegated a number of household tasks, such as laundry, to others. Even though I work less than I did ten years ago, I still don’t do laundry; I also rarely think about laundry. It is not a good use of my time. My children do not care who does their laundry. (Except now that our caregiver is teaching them to do it themselves!) They don’t think that because my husband and I have delegated the responsibility of laundry to another that we do not love them.
The biggest and best dividend from equal parenting is that it has never occurred to my husband or I that challenges at home require one of us to dial back on our professional commitments. We know that together we can work through our challenges. Where one of us is busy, the other may have slack. Maybe more household support is needed. We meet frequently to assess our household needs. Recently, we also instituted one-on-one quarterly meetings with each of our children to be sure we were meeting their needs and keeping the lines of communication open with each of them.
To me, the most important outcome of our equal parenting is the example we are setting our daughter and our three sons. Both parents have careers that utilize their talents, challenge them and bring them joy. Both parents have interests and friends. Both parents are invested in the community in which we live. Both parents take responsibility for keeping the home running smoothly (mostly). And both parents love them and are fully invested in their well-being.
Gillian Goddard is an endocrinologist.
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