It’s 11:30 in the morning on a Tuesday and I can’t find a parking spot at the local mall.
Who are all of these people who are running to Target in the middle of a workday? In my imagination, it breaks down something like this: retirees, moms with babies, people running errands at an early lunch, a parent taking her kid out to lunch after a doctor appointment, people who work at night, unemployed people, freelancers.
If everyone works the 9 to 5 life we all assume most people live, this thing would collapse. Someone has to take the kid to the doctor. Someone has to pick up the dry cleaning. Someone has to buy a gift for the birthday party this weekend. Someone has to write a blog post… Okay, maybe not that one… But seriously, what are all of these people doing here? Shouldn’t they be at work?
In the last month, being newly home again, with kids in school for most of the day, I have crossed so many things off my to-do list, things that have been piling up since the first kid was born. I mean, I’m still not unpacked from moving two years ago, but I did manage to clean out the fridge, organize the hall closet, get some shoes repaired, re-organize the kitchen so things aren’t spilling out from every cabinet.
It’s a really boring list, actually, but it feels great to cross things off of it. I’ve even done the dishes on a semi-regular basis. Still need to work on getting to the grocery store for more than the things we needed yesterday. But I have been working out and writing and doing volunteer work. I might even find time to read a book one of these days.
“The list” got especially long while my husband and I were both working—at least when I was home with kids I could get one or two things done on any given day. But with both of us employed? So. Much. Stress. We contracted out what we could—sent the laundry to be washed, got groceries delivered, had someone clean our house occasionally. We’re lucky to be able to do that. But there’s only so much you can pay other people to do for you if you’re not Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
Have I mentioned recently how much I love stay-at-home dads? Love. Them.
If there were no stay at home dads, I would have a much, much harder time with “not working.” If all of the everything-that-needs-to-be-done-to-keep-a-family-running-along-somewhat-smoothly was only done by women, I would totally quit. But these days, there are these magical creatures called “dads” and some of them even do the things that “moms” are supposed to do.
There is no good reason why it should be the female partner who “stays home” and does all of these things, but it’s not like it can just be ignored. If today’s work culture feels dated in the way it assumes that everyone has a spouse at home to manage the family’s business, today’s marriages, with our Gen X opinion that men should pitch in, are working to upend the assumption that it should always be a female spouse who does that work. Dads can do it too and these days, some of them are.
To me, they feel like feminist heroes, fighting for equal access to do what has long been women’s work and supporting their working wives. (I don’t know how to navigate this discussion with equal emphasis on all of every possible pronoun, which is another way in which traditional marriage is being modernized—newly-married gay and lesbian couples need to manage the same crap as the rest of us. When they ask the “who should do what?” question, it opens up the possible answers for all of us just a little bit more.)
A stay-at-home dad friend told me he called this job the “cruise director.” Who knows what you do, but there’s a lot of it and it never ends.
I’m not saying that it’s not possible for both spouses to work, especially once the kids are in school for large parts of the week. There’s before care and after care and summer camps and day-off activities and a million other ways that American parents have pasted together a “We can make this work!” collage. But someone has to find the aftercare, sign up for the camps before they fill up, stay home with sick kids.
Most jobs just aren’t flexible enough to account for the fact that the person doing them is a human being with, if not children, parents, friends, hobbies, need for air and food and exercise. Maybe you can squeeze in a run at the gym during lunch and grocery shopping every Sunday, followed by making the meals for the week that you won’t have enough time to make after a long workday. I’m tired just writing about it.
With my first post-motherhood stint at “working” now behind me, I can now announce first-hand what everyone already knows—this way of life is no way to live. Not happily. Not for long. Because eventually, you will have a kid who gets the flu for two weeks or a spouse who’s in the hospital or a parent who dies, and you won’t be able to help it. Your human side will show.
When I say “Someone Needs to Be the Wife,” I don’t mean that these are womanly things for women to do and that not doing them is shirking some biological responsibility. I have plenty of male friends who are better at cruise directing—and happier to do it—than their other half. I sincerely hope that, as more and more men want to be involved in their children’s lives and want to share the to do list with their spouse, this will feel less gendered.
Maybe as we notice more male cruise directors, the value of the work that cruise directors do will be heightened. If it’s not just the work of wives, maybe we will be able to admit that it does still need to be done by someone—whether it’s one spouse or the other, shared evenly or divided in an individualized “works-for-us” kind of way or even delegated out to paid professionals. It won’t, however, go the way of the dodo just because the forever-at-home wife and mother is fast becoming a thing of the past.
So, a hearty salute to all the men who are running errands and buying birthday presents and cooking dinner side-by-side with me today. Thank you for being “the wife” so I don’t have to be only and forever “the wife.” Thank you for making the phrase “women’s work” sound pre-historic. Your feminism is so necessary.