Assigning parenting roles based on gender stereotypes has been chipped away at for years now. So I really don’t think it was some sort of archaic misogynistic attitude coming into play as my ex-husband texted me for the third time in two weeks, asking to switch the night when he was supposed to pick up our sons because “he was too busy with work.” I texted back that I was busy with work too.
This reply was followed by a long silence. So, I called him. Which is what adults do, even those of us who revel in a world where we never have to talk to people on the phone but can instead fire off a few, well-chosen words. But, no, I was going to be an adult. What followed was an interesting discussion, if only because I felt vaguely like I was in some sitcom from the 80s where I was supposed to just toss up my hands and write off my ex’s behavior as typical male stubbornness.
But it is not the 80s anymore. And even in the 80s we had Cliff Huxtable, who was the epitome of a modern, involved dad. Plus, he was always wearing great sweaters. And giving Clair Huxtable foot rubs.
What happened on the phone was that my ex-husband explained to me, patiently, I suppose, that since he made much more money than I did, it only made more sense for me to accommodate his schedule. I was quite proud of myself for not yelling at the top of my lungs directly into the receiver after hearing that. Quite proud! Instead, I explained to him that monetary compensation has nothing to do with job importance, and that the 10 years I spent as a SAHM raising our children contributed to the fact that his earning power—at this point in time—was higher than mine. He understood. Or he claimed to understand. It doesn’t even matter, I guess, if he understood or not, because he kept to our original schedule and I haven’t heard another word from him since about whose job is more important.
But it has gotten me thinking about how couples transition from having a primary breadwinner into having two working parents. And also, about how some primary breadwinners might have to take a backseat to their partners following the all-too-common occurrence of being let go from their job. There was an article in The New York Times recently that revealed how a town in Alabama had undergone a sudden and dramatic transformation when a local company that had employed a substantial number of the town’s residents laid off thousands of people. What happened in this town was that the women found it easier to land employment, whereas the men were floundering.
This particular town’s experience seemed so far from my own as to be incomparable. After all, I live in an urban environment where I am just as likely to run across stay-at-home dads on the playground as SAHMs. What could I have in common with the women of a rural, Southern town who were comfortable referring to their husbands as the heads of the house and the ultimate decision makers? I was an independent feminist! And yet, I’ve found that just by virtue of having stayed home for such a long time, my ex-husband took for granted that his job would get primacy over anything that I would do. He’s still adapting to the fact that I don’t have the fluidity that I used to. Gone are the days of my flexible schedule. Now I have the rigidity of deadlines and meetings.
And it’s taking some getting used to—for both of us, really. I was always so quick to accommodate him. Not because I didn’t value what I was doing, but because it seemed easier. Now I have to be firm about what I need as both a parent and a professional. And my ex-husband has to adjust to the fact that he isn’t the only one who has outside obligations, a fact that he’s adjusting to slowly but surely.