My wife and I are very different people. When she hits the gas, I backpedal. When she orders the crudo, I yearn for Five Guys. When she buys tickets to a Broadway show, I … don’t. Our relationship has been pressure-tested by multiple Taylor Swift albums and 17 months of sleeplessness after the birth of our son. But if you really want to know whether you like someone, try co-parenting with them through a pandemic.
Given our differences, it’s no surprise that our domestic life isn’t exactly balanced or that after more than a decade together, we take each other’s roles for granted. I know Jenna’s job will pay the bills, and, in turn, she knows there will always be someone to take care of our 4-and-a-half-year-old, Abe, along with the many other small disasters that come with adulthood. Before the pandemic, we had reached a kind of comfortable balance, each of us ceding territory to the other’s more capable hands. Jenna works full-time, while I have two jobs, as a parent and a freelance writer.
Of course, what makes any household work is about a lot more than who makes money and how. Labor, time, sleep, who decides where you live, and how — there are so many currencies to take into account. Unfortunately, our bank account doesn’t reflect all of them. There’s no question that my wife spends her days doing something useful; she has the paycheck to prove it. But what about me? What’s my work worth? And is it a luxury, or is it essential? Sometimes it feels hard to say.
This past year was a perfect, and predictable, storm for relationship conflict. The division of labor that had worked so well for us during regular times just didn’t hold up to a pandemic’s scrutiny, and — like many couples, I suspect — we spent the spring raking the muck of our presumptions about each other’s work.
I realized I had assumed that each of Jenna’s workdays was full of jovial co-worker banter, takeout lunches, easy money, and heaps of praise. I expected her to stride, whistling, away from her desk promptly at six, ready to read Frog and Toad with a smile. It turns out, she often could not.
At the same time, Jenna seemed to think I could simultaneously refinish our staircase, teach our child to read, and make a delicious vegan dinner using only canned goods. Sadly, I cannot. Where did these expectations come from? Why hadn’t they gone into the garbage years ago? The world was falling apart around us, and we each had an audience to stay brave for — me for the kid, her for the job. In retrospect, we carried our heroism a little too far. We should have graciously let each other fall apart.
Adorably, some people think two women married to each other can’t fall prey to damaging power dynamics, that we can rise above any argument through deep eye contact and herbal tea. I am here to tell you it’s not quite that simple. In fact, studies have shown that many same-sex couples divide domestic labor pretty evenly — until they have kids. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean these couples are dissatisfied; happiness depends on how closely their arrangements match their ideal scenarios. But when absolutely nothing is ideal in the world around us, it’s easy to blame the people closest at hand. Jenna and I had to frequently remind each other that it was not, in fact, the fault of anyone in our household that we were stuck inside with a desperately needy preschooler, steeping in anxiety while the virus raged through the city around us.
Under ordinary circumstances, I like my jobs — both of them. I’m happy to absorb a lot of the inconvenience and disruption of parenthood so my wife can focus on her job. At 6 p.m., when I have a good dinner going and my kid’s happily playing in the living room, somberly informing his Calico Critters that there has been a terrible Brio train crash, I feel content.
Contentment doesn’t pay for the cat litter, though. In 2020, I raked in the princely sum of $21,500, a bit more than half of what I normally make. In part, this was a result of the shriveling enthusiasm for the things I had shilled, like high-tech underwear and premium pet food. But with a toddler burrowing into my sweatshirt 12 hours a day, I was cut off from the world of adulthood — and that included the ability to do paid work.
There was plenty to do at home, though. My days began at six, with Abe kicking me in the tits. And sometimes for 12 hours, that was it: He and I together, trying not to get too bruised. Abe knew there was another grown-up nearby, though, a perhaps less irritable grown-up. So when I feigned enthusiasm — “Let’s build a train track! Let’s practice writing letters! How about painting?!” — Abe called bullshit. This would not, in fact, be a super-fun day. If I lost track of my phone, he would come dangerously close to ordering thousands of dollars worth of yogurt pouches and ground buffalo meat. If I disappeared to the bathroom, he would trot confidently onscreen during Jenna’s Zoom meetings, pull down his pants, and suggest that EVERYONE SHOW THEIR PENIS! Extracting him was a careful balancing act.
Fights erupted. Where was I? Usually, the bathroom. What was for dinner? Something from a box. Why was I so pissed? Because I was never, ever alone, and I was never, ever, not needed. My labor and attention were more valuable than ever, and I felt less and less able to offer them. I was frequently stuck between two people who needed me to do two very different things immediately, right this minute. The worst part was, I couldn’t really blame either of them — they were just staying true to character as the harried, overextended spouse and the extremely bored toddler — but in those moments, I would have given anything to trade places with my wife. Of course, we couldn’t, and, unsurprisingly, I became a brittle bitch by five o’clock, unfit for anything but TV and bed.
Then things changed. Over the summer, I got a six-week writing job for an education nonprofit. Gradually, Jenna and I found a new rhythm outside our silos. She took on more cooking and child care, while I welcomed the complete body autonomy of client Zoom meetings. Abe was thrilled at the thought of spending time with anyone but us, and Jenna and I started laughing together again. It had taken me months to realize something incredibly obvious: The only way out of our pandemic-bred resentment was to blur the boundaries of labor we had always lived with.