As a retired nurse promoting a career memoir, people have asked how I did it all—raise kids, get a PhD, and work in nursing.
It’s now an old story, but one that got resurrected recently when my husband asked me to read an article in the newspaper.
In the article, “Poll: Many moms resent carrying heavy burden,” Richard Chang presents the results of a study of 1200 mothers conducted by ForbesWoman and a pregnancy website, thebump.com. Both stay-at-home moms (89 percent) and working moms ( 92 percent) “felt overwhelmed by work, home or parenting” (Chicago Tribune, June 16, 2011, Section 1, p. 24). The upshot: to deal with their resentment, women have to be willing to give up trying to be superwoman, and they need to be willing to ask for help.
After I read the article, I felt as though we’ve made no progress since my young mother days in the early 70s. “You’re thinking about our contract,” I said to Marv.
‘Yes,” he said. “I don’t get why couples don’t get it—sharing the work.”
My mind went back to that time when, as a full time mom, I’d laid out a Redbook story for him to read. It was from “A Young Mother’s Story” page. So I went to my computer to search the Web and found that the story had to have been Alix Kates Shulman’s “A Marriage Agreement”. She and her husband had written up a contract for dividing household and parenting chores. When Marv had finished reading the story, he’d said, “Let’s do it. Let’s identify all the tasks that need to be done around here.” I was surprised that he agreed so readily.
Our two children, ages 2 and 4, were asleep upstairs as we sat at the Formica kitchen table in our Sears celery green kitchen. Shades of avocado green were in vogue that year, and the kitchen carpeting was green tweed. We felt rich, even though we had little money, but we had this townhouse that we could call ours. I guess that, after the busy first few years of babies, we were ready to move to the next phase of life.
The tasks we identified were simple: doing laundry, cleaning house, maintaining cars, mowing lawn, cooking meals, shopping for groceries, and bathing-reading-and putting the kids to bed. With the bedtime ritual, Marv suggested we alternate evenings, so when it was his night, I had the evening off. I loved that idea.
Marv remembers that our list numbered fourteen. We then chose what tasks we wanted to do. Serendipitously, the tasks I didn’t want, Marv did, and vice versa. I was shocked that he chose to do the cooking and grocery shopping. I’d had no hint of this; I’d always done both. And hadn’t enjoyed them. I gave them up that day, and now, forty years later, he still shoos me out of “his” kitchen. Some of our choices stayed true to stereotype: Marv chose all the outdoor work—house, yard, and cars, and I chose the indoor work—laundry, housework, and shopping for household needs and clothing for the four of us.
I remember that the piece of paper that we called our “contract” left me with a feeling of being free. Soon after, I decided to go back to working in nursing part time. Marv could arrange his hours as a probation officer to be home to babysit before I left for my 3-11:30 pm shift on a med-surg floor. We readily got comfortable with our system. A clear demarcation of duties. When we were both home, we shared “babysitting”: I’d bake cookies with the kids; Marv would play “horsey-back” with them on the floor. Later on, when I went back to work full time, practicing or teaching nursing, and when I went back to school for advanced degrees, we easily knew who was supposed to do what. And the kids (they’ll tell you!) inherited the tasks of making lunches and vacuuming.
On our anniversary every year, Marv and I go out for dinner. Part of the conversation is revisiting our contract. It has not changed, except now we no longer have kids at home and, living in the city, we no longer have yard work, so Marv has added some indoor work to his list. I only do part of the laundry and part of the housework each week, but still do all the household and clothes shopping. What’s not to like?
During my “working mom” years, Paul, our nonagenarian neighbor, nicknamed me “the queen” because he would observe Marv busy both in the yard and in the kitchen. I’d assure him I was a queen who sat happily on her throne, aware that many of my friends along the way were envious. My nursing colleagues would shake their heads when I didn’t have to rush home to make dinner, and friends at church, when Marv would help out in the kitchen after dinners, would buttonhole me with, “How do you get Marv to do this?”
No problem. We’d discussed it. We had the “open communication” that the Chang article suggests. The contract system has worked for us. Maybe it can work for you! And, just maybe, we can achieve a state where working and stay-at-home moms, and their partners, can be fulfilled and happy with the roles they choose.