As sure as I am in what I’ve done these past five years, I’ve also been surprised by many things. The biggest surprise was how much gender roles dictate who we are and what we do — and how upsetting it is to others when we don’t play by the socially prescribed rules.
While I didn’t make my decision in a vacuum, neither did I fully consider how often I would be in charge of the vacuum — and all things domestic. My wife was striking out into unknown territory on her own hero’s journey at a venture capital incubator. I can admit now (I was in a lot of denial at first) how unprepared I was for the sheer amount of dedication and perseverance required to be not a fully-occupied writer , but a primary caretaker.
We have three young kids (now 12, 9 and 6), and even with my wife’s considerable involvement and flexible schedule, the domestic responsibilities piled up: cooking, drop offs, pick ups, homework schedules, cleaning, groceries, bills, laundry, mowing, weeding, the dishwasher, vehicle registration and emissions renewal, wood rot from leaking windows. Who else manages all this but the person not bringing home the bacon?
It is true that I wasn’t prepared to be a full-time writer, either. Although I was pursuing my passion, I soon found myself lost in draft upon draft of flailing, failing novels.
Meanwhile, my wife was buying Boden’s spring collection. She regularly bustled out the door by 7:45 a.m., having Frappacinos with the movers and shakers all over town. I was squinting at a computer screen all morning, trying to stay off e-mail and social media, and heating up frozen burritos for solitary lunches in front of ESPN highlights until it was time to get the kids. And that was a good day.
Of course, there are summers — once a Utopian vision of uninterrupted time to channel all that creative and intellectual intensity saved up over the course of the academic season. So much for that. I found myself scheduling my kids’ days like a camp counselor.
Was I doing something wrong? Didn’t I earn nothing because I was always managing everyone’s schedule? Was I a novelist without a published novel? Would she be happier if I was just a stay-at-home dad? Would I? Was this just a protracted, early-adulthood dream I was trying to live?
Socially speaking, most people didn’t know how to take us. Family and friends generally recognized that I was a good dad. I was present and involved. I cooked, regulated screen time, took them on hikes, assistant-coached baseball teams. But was I really taking care of the family by not providing an income? Isn’t that what men do? Was my wife my my sugar mama?
Meanwhile, whatever the reasons real or perceived, my relationship with most of my guy friends shifted. It felt like varying degrees of judgment. Either jealousy that they were stuck to their 9-to-5s while I was “living my dream,” or more likely that I was some kind of glorified pajama boy. The highly professional friends — attorneys and surgeons and executives — asked me almost every time they saw me if my novel had been published yet. “Let me know,” they would say in a friendly enough way. “I want to buy a copy.” Most men simply don’t know how to talk with other men if they can’t communicate on the professional level, I found. They were trying to be encouraging, but I think I made them uncomfortable.
“What does he do all day?” people would ask my wife. It seems an odd question to me, and not even fair to the millions of dads who are now primary caretakers.
As a breadwinner, and now the CEO of a startup, my wife has a flexible work culture that encourages and promotes family time. Most working men today are generally more involved in their family’s lives than previous generations. But clearly there are still a great deal of social expectations based solely on gender. Just how much has come as a surprise. This isn’t exactly new, after all: Women’s liberation was in high gear by the time many of today’s dads were born. My own mother grew restless at home and taught middle school English and drama from the time I was 10. My father worked in various roles as a minister and their theology stressed gender equality. They consulted each other before making decisions. As Josh Levs writes in his recently released book, All In, “Our generation listened to Free to Be you and Me before we could speak.”
While I do wish my writing career had really taken off by now, I have come to realize several critical things. Raising a family is hard, and I would never have realized just how hard had I maintained a full-time job. It is hard less because of the physical toil of keeping up with it all (or with the Joneses), and more from keeping up with the emotional and psychological development of our kids.
What my wife and I have finally come to understand about each other as well: We both work hard. We might take our modicums of leisure time in different ways, but we seem to have found an equitable balance that works. We both cheer for each other. We are partners.
Raising a family today is as complicated as ever. We don’t feel as free to let our kids walk to school (not at least without a drone monitoring them), or play unsupervised for hours in our neighborhoods. We’re only now discovering the deep complications of the benefits and consequences of what and how much they do online. We race around with a litany of anxieties like locating a decent place for them to go to school, and how much it will cost to live there. Even when we’ve checked all the boxes, we face a multitude of schedules and conferences and appointments and extra-curricular activities — and the search for meaningful vocations with flexible schedules.
Resistance to change doesn’t just come in the form of tacit social structures either. Many organizations don’t believe the genders should have equal access inside the family — and therefore in the workplace. But there is a sea change, even if we should remain realistic about just how fast the tide will shift. Growing numbers of men are becoming stay-at-home dads, working part-time, or taking on flexible schedules to spend more time with their children.
As a culture we are ready.
I prefer to think of the current evolution in terms that Anne-Marie Slaughter has presented, as a “humanist revolution and not just a feminist revolution.” We’re all in this together. We’ll have happier men and women, stronger and healthier families, and oddly enough, our businesses will profit as a result.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a novel to edit and a few humans to raise.
Chad Prevost has a Ph.D. in creative writing from Georgia State and serves as faculty of the Yale Writers’ Conference. He writes on parenting and technology in the 21st century. His debut novel, The Arrival, is represented by Orchard Literary. Follow @chadprevost on Twitter.
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