My job as an editor, plus unemployment, could keep us, our two daughters, two dogs, one cat, one hamster and five chickens afloat for a little while, but not for long. It was eight weeks before Christmas. Who would hire him? The night of the pink slip, we lay in bed silently and clenched hands, wondering how we would we shield our kids, 8 and 10, from the brunt of this harsh setback.
As we settled in to the new reality, we began to adjust our family schedule. I work full-time but mostly from home, so by default I had usually been the one to wake up children, cook breakfast, assemble lunches, and walk them to school. I also did afternoon pickup and often ferried everyone to extracurricular activities. Our former life had been a constant state of hand-off: “I’ll grab the kids, you race to the store. You stay with the kids, I’ll run to the gym.” Though our time together on evenings and weekends has always been marked by a domestic equality (my husband is, hands-down, the laundry talent of the family), on most weekdays he left early and returned home at dinnertime.
Now his “office” was our dining-room table, where he set himself up to find a new job. Suddenly Dad was there. All the time there.
It’s been nine months since my husband was laid off, and he’s still here. And although financially it’s been painful, my husband’s job crisis has given us something we never expected: The opportunity to co-parent together daily. Family vacations notwithstanding, not since a brief two-week overlap in maternity/paternity leave a decade ago have we spent so many daytime hours tandem parenting our kids.
The impact on our family, and on everyone’s relationships, has been powerful. Instead of me trying to explain to my husband how our daughter’s rendition of “Benachie Sunrise” during her fiddle lesson had sent chills up the spine, we could listen to it together, seated hip to hip on Teacher Betsy’s patterned settee.
For the first time since we nervously cradled a colicky newborn, my husband and I visited the pediatrician together. While I comforted our eldest, who was demonstrating an alarming asthmatic winter cough, he calmly took notes of the doctor’s recommendations.
On the occasional afternoon or school holiday when we could scrounge an extra $15 from the now-stretched family budget, we could surprise our kids with a trip to the ice cream shop or museum. Though I know they haven’t been shielded from the money worries that have come from being laid off, I know they felt special sitting at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday with both mom and dad asking about their school day over a chocolate cone.
As I hang with my husband during the day, loading the dishwasher and debating dinner recipes, my mind flips back to the family I was obsessed with in my childhood ― the Ingalls. Whenever I read or watched “Little House on the Prairie” there was something almost mythical that I envied about Laura and her family. Was it this, that they were together so much, working their land, cozy every day, all day in that little log cabin?
One recent afternoon during a work break, I looked across the four feet of dining-room table at my husband, pecking away at his resume, and said, “We’re out of eggs and bread.”
“Should we go to the store?” he asked.
“Right now?” I said.
“Why not?” he replied.
Almost giddily, we drove to the market with our scribbled shopping list. We took turns pushing the cart and selecting bananas, deli turkey and the seemingly infinite crackers required to keep two children alive. In our pre-layoff life, we never would have bought groceries together; we would have divided and conquered, pragmatic ships of domesticity passing in the night. But now, we were not in any particular hurry, no — we cruised those aisles almost glacially, as if to say, Look at us! Together in the supermarket! In the middle of the day! Haha!
New habits formed quickly, not all of them without conflict. As months passed, I heard both daughters call out for Daddy first when they needed help. After being the primary parent for years, I admit that even as I knew, intellectually, what a healthy thing this was, it also wounded me a little.
Sometimes, too, being home every day with my husband feels like too much. Unlike an occasionally grating co-worker, you cannot leave your husband behind in his cubicle at the end of the day.
But the good has far outweighed the bad. After losing his job, my husband began to walk the kids to school in the morning, and after school either he or both of us would pick them up. One winter afternoon when we strolled together to the school and sat outside with our puppy waiting for the kids, our youngest daughter burst out the school door and announced loudly, “You’re both here!” I know I heard a certain pride in her voice ― a sign perhaps, of feeling loved enough to be gathered, to be received, by not one but both of the most important adults in her life.
Our experience this past year reminds me of a story a friend told me not long after I gave birth to my first baby and was getting ready to go back to work. She described a young couple she knew who had three small children. The couple had a trust fund, so they had decided to both just stay home full-time and parent their children. No nannies, no day care, no hand-offs or shifts, just full-time co-parenting. At the time I was mildly jealous and mostly annoyed: Who on Earth can really do that? I thought. And then (though certainly without any hint of a trust fund) we did get to do it.
But how strange it is that for many of us scrambling, juggling parents lucky enough to be in a two-parent household, the act of going together to pick up our children from school seems like an extraordinary act, one borne out of either luxury or financial straits? What if more of us, without being pushed by job loss or other crises, could be more present together for not only our kids’ special moments, but their everyday ones?
I don’t know how long my husband and I will get to parent side-by-side on this new, nearly 24-7 basis. But I do know we are both thinking more about family time as we make our career choices. And I know that, for now, two is better than one.
Natalie Singer-Velush is a writer and the editor of the Seattle-based parenting magazine ParentMap. Her writing has been published in newspapers, magazines and literary journals. During her moments of work slackage, she can be found on Twitter or working on a memoir.
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