Friday, June 20, 2008

Ataxia versus Balance

Balance is a daily quest for me. Juggling the responsibilities of parenthood, being a spouse, pediatrician, practice owner, and other smaller hats requires the agility of an Olympic gymnast. So I read with interest Lisa Belkin’s article in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday, “When Mom and Dad Share It All”. She details parenting duos who strive for a 50:50 split of all childcare and household duties. One family divides parenting into 3 or 4 molds based on their past and present experiences: “mother-knows-best mold”, “involved dad married to the stressed out working mom”, “stay at home dad”, or a newer mold, “equally shared parenting.”

Me: Which mold do you think we fit into? I ask husband who is enjoying his Father’s Day repose in front of the US Open.

Husband: (grins) I don’t know.

Me: Are we the equally shared parent group or the involved dad married to stressed-out working mom?

Husband: I think the latter would be more accurate.

Me: Hmm

We’ve actually tried on most of these molds in our marriage. There probably was a time as a pediatrician and mother that I thought I knew best. My husband and I have certainly butted heads about this – my husband being more of an authority on the male half of our species than I. Time has taught me that I may be an expert on some matters relating to children, but I always have a lot to learn about my own children and their version of human nature. I’ve also learned how capable my husband is at dealing with our family – that at the end of the day if all are fed, healthy, and content that matching socks, extracurricular activities, and thank you notes can go by the wayside.

The stay at home dad experience was our failed experiment. After a challenging experience with a nanny, my husband decided to be the stay at home parent with our then seven month old son. Belkin and Marc Vachon (one of the interviewed fathers) say that this parent is “cooed at for his sensitivity but who is isolated and financially vulnerable as the stay-at-home mom.” That pretty much hit the nail on the head. Living in a small, conservative town worsened the loneliness for my outgoing husband who was used to the daily traffic of his office. Ultimately we moved to a larger community so that we could find support and reinvent our parenting roles.

Our current mold is a hybrid of stressed out mom and 50:50 parenting. Some days are 10:90 when I am on call and my husband picks up, feeds, and completes homework with the boys. Other days are 50:50 when we divide and conquer the birthday party gift-buying, drop off and pick up. The stressed out part comes from my own personal parenting standard getting in the way of just doing it. I don’t always know where these standards come from, but they are very persistent and immediate. This week is a good example. The boys are enrolled in soccer camp, and I have found myself micromanaging the clothes, water bottles, and drawstring bags for each day. I don’t have any idea where this standard comes from that both boys need to have these things and look like they’re playing in the World Cup.

With the exception of reading articles about co-parenting in the NY Times magazine, I think less about the division of labor in our household than I used to. Keeping track of how much work at home each parent does isn’t very fruitful. It either makes me anxious that I haven’t done enough and I overcompensate (read stress out) or I’m resentful that I have so much to do in a short period of time (more stress). Looking at the big picture helps – the important things are getting done and accomplished. What didn’t get done probably didn’t really matter that much.


  1. Sometimes I have to laugh at married couples who can't get it all done. I adopted my child when I was 47 years old. I am a single mom with no family around and few friends who have time to spend with a 6 year old (their kids are all in college / married).

    I am not bragging. I am exhausted and wonder sometimes what I was thinking...but still, when I read about 2 parent families stressing about thier hectic makes me a tad 'tense'. How I'd love for all of you to live my life for just one month. Just one.

    I take out the trash, fill the car up with gas, make dinner, clean the house, do the laundry, drive to and from school (and all after school activites), trim the bushes, unplug the toilet, move the furniture, volunteer weekly at school, and work a full time job.

    So much to do in such a short period of time you say? I am laughing...hard. What a luxury it would be to have someone pick up my daughter from school! How incredible would it be to have someone other than myself pick up that birthday present for this Saturday's party?

    Little things mean a lot. Sounds like you have a lot.

  2. I think we are the same hybrid. I'm the "breadwinner" of the both of us - which puts a lot of the stress on me for both roles as worker and mother.

    The adopting of the "good enough" mentality has been often reported in women in academia who struggle to balance work-family life.

    Great post.

  3. Piping in again, even though I'm not an MD OR a mom (yet!)

    This exact thing has been on my mind lately, as we mostly live on my salary in an expensive, urban area. My husband was laid off almost a year ago, and since then has been struggling to refigure what he wants to do (start a business, go back to school, etc) for a while now. He knows he doesn't want to go back to the 9-5 grind.

    When we have a child, it's most likely going to be him home with the baby most of the time (he's already experienced that--he stayed home with his now-13-year-old daughter when she was tiny), interspersed with me (since I work 13 12-hour shifts a month), and babysitters so he can do the freelance work he's starting to get.

    As for the other stuff, I guess we'll do what we do now: a relatively even split divided by ability and inclination. I love to cook. He hates it. I'm terrible at washing dishes. He likes it. He has allergies to dust, so I do most of the cleaning. He does the laundry, I fold it and put it away. Like that.

    But I know a new baby shoots all prior plans to heck!

  4. I cringe at the 50/50 mentality. It's not. It's 100/100 ...when both give 100% of who they are to the marraige ..and the includes ..the parenting, the managing the finances (which means the work) the extra cirricular experiences ..whether that be soccer or camping as a family,etc ... then things start to fall into place.

    As long as it is seen as 50/50 then it is seen as your job and my job. Who is giving more. When it's 100/100 becomes about team work. Family. Fulfillment.

  5. It's worth reading Belkin's article because she and her experts make some interesting points about male:female partners and female:female partners that have been part of the research on these family dynamics. Genders that are opposite tend to split the work into "my job" and "your job". It's kind of amazing we get anything done. Same gender couples (female couples are cited because until recently male couples with children were much less common) tend to see these issues more 100/100 and actually argue over who will do what because they both want to participate. Is it something in our DNA?

  6. Actually, the article link doesn't work...
    In our household, we definitely divide work into "my job" and "his job" and my jobs involve baby stuff whereas his are more general chores. Like I put the baby to sleep every night and he always empties the diaper genie.
    I am completely in awe of single parent households.

  7. Link should be working now.

  8. Ahhh! The romance of having it all. The fantasy is what I say. Certainly something does not get done, and you better hope that it wasn't important.

    Research, smesearch. What's important is your marital relationship and your children and your life satisfaction within those. By the numbers, can you make enough money doing any job that allows you to give real time to the what's important?

    I know whereof I speak. You don't sound happy. You sound resigned.

  9. Happily married.
    Happily mothering.
    Happily owning, managing growing pediatric practice.

  10. I think we're evenly split - some chores definitely his, some mine, some both. He's the stressed stay at home dad (it's not easy for him to be with the kids), I definitely am the stressed working mom. Honestly I think it's pretty even, except we always get into the fights:
    BUT I DID THIS (more) TODAY he says
    and no one wins except the kids...


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