Role Reversal

This past year has been an interesting one... wonderful because we made it to Vermont and love it here, and challenging because getting here meant a lot of changes. Probably the biggest change was my becoming the working parent and Dave becoming the stay-at-home dad. I haven't written much about that side of life, but here is an essay I wrote about our role reversal.

Role Reversal

When my husband, Dave, and I were in the Peace Corps, planning our future together, he warned me he had no idea what he wanted to do when he grew up. I replied with certainty, “That’s fine, I plan to get a high paying job so you can do whatever you want.” Then I ended up going back to school for nearly ten years.

I tried out that high paying job when we first returned to the U.S., but I only lasted nine months before I couldn’t stand making one more dentist appointment for my slimy boss. I decided at that point I would never again work for someone who thought he was superior; I applied to grad to school in hopes of getting out of having a real job for as long as possible (while promising Dave I would be done in two years and then get a high paying job I would like, in Vermont).

The reality of our post-Peace Corps plan was that Dave supported me through grad school and we had three children. I did end up getting a job, but mostly I was home with the kids, and we hadn’t made it to Vermont. We were still living in D.C. when our oldest daughter reached kindergarten last year, Dave and I decided it was time to move; we wanted to be in our final landing spot before she started first grade. So we both asked our respective bosses if we could telecommute. Dave’s said no. Mine said yes. Turns out that was all we needed and within a few months, we left our lovely city neighborhood of nearly ten years and moved to rural Vermont. I became the full-time working parent and sole breadwinner, and Dave became the stay-at-home Dad. Finally, I had come through on my promise. I had the high (relatively speaking) paying job, and Dave was free to figure out what he really wanted to do.

This role reversal has been an adjustment. I used to know all the details about the kids’ day: what they liked for snack, whose knee got scraped, who napped and who had a meltdown. Now when I come home from work I feel like my arrival is disrupting a scene I wasn’t written into. I sit down to draw with my six-year-old, not knowing she has been asked to put her books away three times and still hasn’t done it. I brush past my four-year-old to listen to a phone message, not knowing she’s been waiting for me by the door for thirty minutes. I cut my one-year-old’s quiche into bite-size pieces and then feel admonished when Dave tells me she hasn’t needed her food cut for weeks now. I feel out of sync with my children and admit to myself it would be easier to work late than to come home early. The guilt of this realization sits heavily on the weight of responsibility, and I have to fight the urge to throw up my hands and snap, “I guess I’m just not the mom anymore!”

It’s difficult for Dave, too, to be home all day with the kids and the monotony of daily household chores that never amount to any final product of accomplishment. Finding chunks of time to focus on a new career takes creative energy that he doesn’t always have after a day at home with three young children.

But the reversal has also been as enlightening as it has been challenging. For one, I am beginning to understand that having to work and getting to work are two very different things. I like my work slightly less knowing I don’t have a choice, but take greater pride in it knowing its value to the family.

Finding guilt-free time for myself is also far more difficult than I expected. It was easy to head out the door for a run when Dave came home from work; after all, he hadn’t seen the kids all day and would surely be grateful for an hour alone with them while I took a little break. Now, slipping out for a run not only adds an hour to Dave’s already long day, but takes away an hour from my already limited time with the kids. The time-at-home disparity of a one-working-parent set-up does not favor personal time for the working parent, a concept I didn’t grasp when I wasn’t the one working.

However, the piece I never fully appreciated is the responsibility the sole working parent carries. Everything is wrapped up in my job – our income, our health insurance, our retirement, and even our vacation schedule. I didn’t give Dave nearly enough credit for the burden he carried for all those years.

It still comes up in conversation every so often, my early promise of a high paying job. For years it was a question Dave asked in jest, “Tell me again, when are you going to get that high paying job you promised?” Now the conversation about that promise, which we have both fulfilled for each other, carries a deeper understanding and mutual respect for the other’s role in the family.