This week I’ll celebrate my son’s first birthday. Looking back on this first year makes me want to sob with that weird, nostalgia-tinged joy that is motherhood. The kind that makes you say “Slow down time!” and "How the heck is it not bedtime yet?” in the same breath. Already the hard moments from the year have faded from memory or become things to laugh about: the panic of coming home from the hospital and wondering “What the $%*& do we do with him now?” Or how long it took us to to put in the “easy install” car seat. I’m left with the highlight reel of his first smile. First steps. The feel of his little arms around my neck while I rock him to sleep.
All of these things fill me with joy and wonder. Yet the best thing about my first year of motherhood has nothing to do with those moments. For me, the best thing about my first year of motherhood has been my husband.
I had not yet met my husband when Sheryl Sandberg dispensed her now famous career advice in her book Lean In. She advised women that"Themost important career choice you'll make is who you marry." At that point the qualities I sought in a partner were things like “funny”, “romantic”, and “likes spicy food and hates group travel”. Not on the list? “Does laundry at three a.m. after diaper blowout” or “leaves work in the middle of the day to pick up sick kid from daycare when I have an important meeting.” I’d like to say that Sandberg radically changed my perspective of what love and partnership should be and that I chose my mate accordingly. In truth, I lucked out.
My husband and I both have successful careers. We both have ambitions for our work lives that we must now juggle with the demands of parenting and domestic life. Sandberg goes on to say in her book that her husband was a 50/50 partner at home. Personally I have found this kind of balance unattainable. More often things are 60/40, 70/30, or even 80/20—in either direction, depending.
My husband travels for work. The night before a trip he is the one up late, ensuring that every piece of laundry in the house is clean, washing bottles, and running to Target to stock up on diapers. The responsibility seesaw shifts back to my end of the while he’s gone. But the minute he walks back in the door he jumps back into the family flow, no matter what time zone he’s operating on. On the nights when we both have commitments outside the home, the decision about who takes care of our son is easy: the babysitter.
It’s not perfect. Often I feel like managing our calendars is another full time job, and sometimes things fall through the cracks. Take the night we realized that I had a dinner and my husband was supposed to be at his boss’s holiday party. It was too late to get a babysitter, so he loaded up the diaper bag and headed out to baby’s first office Christmas party. Or the day the baby was home from daycare sick when we both had non-negotiable meetings and I briefly considered offering the Amazon delivery guy some cash to babysit for a couple of hours.
One key to success is that we are both equally capable parents. It’s 2018 and the “hapless dad” meme is long outdated. I might have some opinions about whether a PBJ is appropriate for three meals a day. But if I’m at work and my husband in charge of that decision then it’s his to make. If I’m out without the baby and you ask if my husband is “babysitting”, I will sweetly reply, “You mean very capably fulfilling his biological responsibility?” I realized early on that the mantel of “mother martyr” would not serve me. I’m the first to admit that I need help—a lot of it. Plus being a martyr is exhausting, and has a very low ROI.
Being a martyr is also bad for your career. A survey of Harvard Business School grads shows that 77% (men and women) believe that “prioritizing family over work” is the number one barrier to women’s career advancement. Yet more than 50% of men expected their careers would take priority over their spouses’, and well over two-thirds anticipated their partners taking primary responsibility for family life.
This tells me that men (particularly highly educated, career-focused men) “get it.” They understand, conceptually, that women are held back by being overly burdened at home. However many men are still not willing to get in the trenches to help solve the problem. In fairness, we also don’t usually talk about the nitty gritty of family life when we’re searching for a partner—but we should! I’d argue that on dating sites, if you check the “Wants children” box, you should be required to also weigh in on “Willing to change diapers, pack lunches, and leave work in the middle of the day when school calls to tell me my kid is sick.”
At the end of the day, whether you’re a man or a woman having a family and a career will always be a juggling act. You’re going to drop balls. More important is whether you have someone there to catch them.