Caitlin Carew’s partner decided he wanted to be at home with the children so she needed to find full-time work. Here she describes what decision they made and how they worked it out together.
We were on holiday when my partner made his Big Announcement. Holidays are often when he does his Deep Thinking. He’d done some Deep Thinking and decided he wanted to quit his public sector management job and be a stay at home dad to our kids, then aged five and two. He felt he was missing out on them. Needed a break from the nine to five. It was my turn.
We’d talked about switching roles before, in an offhand way. But now he was serious. I needed to find a job. Not just any job. One of the full time variety. One that earned enough to pay the mortgage. After six years out of the workforce, it was a daunting prospect.
But it was exciting nonetheless. Here was my opportunity to get my career back on track, without seeing all my salary go on daycare and after-school care, without having to rush to pick up the kids and get dinner on after a full day of work. Someone would be around to support me. And not just anyone, but the kids’ dad. I knew I was pretty lucky.
I spent six months job-hunting. I got a few interviews, but the feedback was invariably, ‘We thought you were great, but there was someone else with more recent and relevant experience.’ Recent and relevant experience. How the hell was I supposed to get that, unless someone took a chance on me? Finally I got lucky. I was interviewed for a position in my field, for an organisation I highly respected. I vaguely knew two of the three people on the panel, and they all had kids. They could see what I could offer.
I took the job, which set in motion the various cogs required to make our role swap work. My partner told his employer he was resigning to become a stay at home parent, a move which sparked undying admiration from his cohort of mostly female colleagues. Huh? Why did no-one think I was amazing for doing the same thing six years back?
We told the kids, who were ecstatic at the thought of Dad being around all day, every day.
We came up with a tightened budget, as we prepared for a hefty drop in income.
I asked around my networks for advice from families who’d done this before. The common theme? ‘Don’t micro-manage him. Let him do things his way.’
Meanwhile my partner was fantasising about All That Free Time. Catching up on house maintenance, embarking on the renovations, a bit of contract work on the side maybe. ‘With a three year old as your constant companion?’ I inwardly sniggered. He’ll find out.
The first week of work utterly wrecked me. A 40 hour week plus a public transport commute from the burbs meant I left home at 7.30am and got home at 6. My body ached from sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day, and my head ached with the onslaught of new information and the continual company of other adults. Clearly I was not ‘match-fit’ for the peculiar rigours of office work.
The kids initially coped quite differently with my lengthy absences. It was like they’d huddled together to decide who’d play which role in exacting the most hurt and heartwrench from me. The three year old switched allegiances firmly to his dad and rejected me entirely. “Go away mummy, I DON’T WANT YOU!” with a deeply furrowed scowl, was his response whenever I came near him. I tried hard not to take it personally.
Meanwhile the six year old tugged at my heartstrings by missing me, theatrically. “STAY mummy, STAY!” she wailed as I kissed her goodbye every morning, sometimes accompanied by tears for good measure.
But things got easier. I found I really liked my job. And, once I rebuilt some of my eroded confidence, it turned out I was pretty good at it. My partner really took to stay at home parenting. Our new budget constraints meant we went from mostly organic food to homebrand, overnight. But dinner was on the table when I got home. The children were happy. They wore clothes. Not ‘micro-managing’ was easy – I was too tired to care that he was doing things differently to me; I was just grateful that he was doing them.
What’s more, he took on the ‘mental load’ as well. He read the school newsletter, organised dental check ups, birthday cards and swimming lessons.
We hit a rocky patch when my partner realised he didn’t have any of that Free Time. Chores, Playcentre duties, kid drop-offs and pick ups, groceries, play dates, toilet-training, homework, bathtime, dinner….that can be all there is time (and energy) for in a day. Anything else is a bonus. It was around this time I heard the words I’d been secretly yearning for: “Darling, now I know what it was like for you all those years.” Yusss!
But his temporary despondency passed, and he threw himself into his primary responsibilities with renewed vigour.
At one stage I was struck by the sudden notion that my partner deserved a romantic gesture to recognise his tireless work deep in the trenches of stay at home parenting. Flowers perhaps? Whoa, how cliched. Was this what it was like for other working parents? Was it normal to feel a strange combination of guilt and relief in response to someone else doing the grunt work of raising your kids, while you spend your days in a bubble of adult company and intellectual stimulation, punctuated by flat whites, the quiz at morning tea, and that holy grail of parenting, trips to the toilet unaccompanied by your children?
Undoubtedly the most beneficial part of this whole experiment is that we have a deep understanding of what each other’s life was like, before. And an appreciation of what things are like for each other, right now.
In the evenings, as I collapse exhausted on the couch with a wine, ignoring the dirty dishes and my other half while I scroll through mindless TV, I understand why he used to do the same.
Meanwhile my partner, who’s had limited adult conversation all day, animatedly fills me in on the latest power rankings of the three year olds at Playcentre. Who’s playing with who, who’s going through a hitting phase. He admits he used to feel bewildered when I nattered on about this stuff. Now he finds it interesting.
Another cool benefit? Our kids are getting some different role-modelling – seeing mum be the income-earner and dad be the nurturer at home.
Finally, I have a new found admiration for working parents who don’t have the support I do. Parents of young kids who both work. Solo parents who work or study and then have to do all the parenting and domestic stuff as well. Respect.
Nine months on, we’ve hit our stride. Recently after a particularly successful day at work, I came home to a cracking lasagne – my partner’s first attempt – and it felt like we’d reached a peak. Life is busy and weekends with my kids feel too short. But it’s not forever. We envisage that in a couple of years we’ll share the paid work and unpaid work more evenly.
I really want to recommend that every family with a stay at home parent should try a role swap at some point (or some less ‘binary’ variation that involves a sharing of both roles). But I know it’s not that simple. There are a couple of critical ingredients required to make this work – two willing partners, and an ability to cope with the likely drop in income. Our society is just not set up to encourage flexibility in paid work and care arrangements. Parents who stay at home (usually mothers) are penalised for their choice – their parenting work goes unvalued and their earning power and career prospects diminish. Meanwhile the parent who stays in paid work often moves up the career ladder. It’s unsurprising that most families are faced with no incentive to shake things up.
But if you can make it work, there are plenty of upsides. The relationship insights you’ll develop will be invaluable. You’ll see a whole new side of each other, and so will your kids. Just try not to micro-manage… and be quick to remember what life was like in their shoes.
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