Divisions of labor: How Mommy and Daddy learned to manage child-care, jobs, and each other (so far)

Illustration: Matt Pamer Illustration: Matt Pamer

One of the things that made me wary about having children earlier was intimidation over the sheer work involved in raising kids. I thought I’d do fine with the nurturing, tender, Hallmark moments of fatherhood, but I was much less confident in my ability to manage the mundane day-to-day labor and constant vigilance that parenting has come to require in the last 25 years or so. Parenting norms have changed so radically since I was a child in the 1960s and 1970s that I couldn’t fall back on my own experience as a consumer of parental services. What I knew firsthand was not only obsolete, much of it (e.g. being left alone in a car or at home at a tender young age) would be punishable and subject to harsh penalties under the law.

My wife, who describes herself as “much” younger than me, nonetheless grew up just before the 24/7 full-court press style of parenting had become the norm. Having not a single niece or nephew between us, we hadn’t had the opportunity even for second-hand information on how parents have been handling the workload of raising children in recent years. So we were both obliged, in the months before our daughter was born, to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we would manage the chores involved in raising her.

The clear and obvious ways of managing the labor didn’t work for us: We didn’t have family living conveniently nearby, and neither of us was prepared to quit working and become the primary caregiver, even though that option had some appeal in purely rational economic terms. Just to make things more difficult, I was opposed to sending our daughter to daycare. Daycare didn’t even exist when I was a child and I could only imagine it as an over-lit soulless warehouse where our daughter’s first words would be “If my parents loved me they wouldn’t leave me here all day.”

We were undoubtedly not the only new parents to bring home their first baby without having a clear idea of how we were going to manage it, but we were certainly old enough to have known better. At some point in the heady, euphoric, and sleep-deprived early days of parenting we decided we would manage the work by taking equal shifts throughout the day and night. My wife and I have enough flexibility in our work schedules that we could divide the day into smaller, more manageable childcare shifts. I imagined us working together tirelessly in perfect peace and harmony like actors in an early Soviet propaganda film. Early on, my wife took five hours in the morning, I took five hours in the afternoon, and we broke the shorter evening period into one- or two-hour shifts. My wife covered late night until 11pm or midnight and I covered whenever she went to sleep until 4 or 5am (which, to my dismay, was an active shift early on).

The Utopian plan worked tolerably well during the first month or two, but the obvious flaw in the plan—that equal division of time does not mean equal work—became increasingly apparent. My daughter developed the appalling habit of sleeping peacefully during her mother’s morning shift while crying inconsolably during my afternoon shift. I’m not particularly proud to admit I complained bitterly whenever I actually had to attend to my child during my shift while my wife was able to work quietly on her laptop during the bulk of hers. We both wound up keeping score about how much actual work we did during the periods we had agreed to work, and this led to the sort of useless bickering that sleep-deprived parents and disabused idealists do so well.

Even when equal time shifts worked out to at least roughly equal amounts of work, the plan started to feel more like a rigid custody arrangement than a cooperative division of labor. We handed our daughter back and forth to each other throughout the day like sheriff’s deputies handling a prisoner. Our daughter was, in effect, being raised by a single parent with interchangeable parts and wardrobe.

As my daughter approached her third month, the flexibility in our work schedules was starting to stiffen, and her mother and I were stressed out, exhausted, and frustrated because we weren’t able to put in the time that our respective jobs require. So we made a couple of important changes to try to get a grip on things. I stopped keeping score about how much time my wife and I were putting in, a decision made easier when I learned that studies show that men generally still do much less of the childcare chores, but complain much more loudly. We also divided up the childcare duties by task rather than by time. I started bathing our daughter and putting her to sleep most nights, and my wife would get her up most mornings and prepare her meals.

These changes would not, however, have made much difference on their own. The most important change was that I bowed to reality and began to shed my admittedly neurotic aversion to daycare. We started slowly, sharing a nanny with another couple for a few days a week for about nine months. A little after her first birthday, our daughter began full-time daycare.

On more than one occasion during those first few months, I felt cruel and heartless for dropping her off in the morning. But it wasn’t long before the pickups became harder than the drop-offs; just as she’d initially clung to me and protested being left at daycare, now she frequently clung to daycare and protested my attempts to take her back home. There’s still an enormous amount of work involved in raising a child, but the lucky-to-be-able-to afford-daycare plan works pretty well. Raising our daughter still requires a lot of sacrifice and flexibility, but it’s manageable—at least until she stops taking afternoon naps on weekends.

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