Marriage and the Magic Question: Who’s Doing the Work?


April 20161 (800x400)

I sent the text at 6.30, when (according to his schedule) he should’ve been an hour into his ninety-minute journey home.

‘Hey, where are you?’

I hate sending that text – the studied casualness of it, the fact that I’m too tired even to put a smiley face on the end. Wherever he is, he is not here, and we both know that unless the answer comes back as ‘Five minutes away, and bearing a giant pizza with your face on it’, it will not be good news.

When I’m really cheesed off, I miss out the ‘Hey’. It sounds worse, somehow. AND I MEAN IT TO.

After sending the text it occurs to me to check Find My Friends, so I do. He’s still in London. I sigh out a sigh that empties my entire body of breath, and head upstairs to find pyjamas for the boys. Between tubes, trains and taxis, he won’t be home till almost 9pm. I will make a huge effort to remember that he’s had a hard day too. Some days (the 9pm days, when he walks in looking like stepped-on toast) I succeed. Some days (the 7pm-and-I-missed-bedtime-by-five-minutes days) I don’t.

Looking over the landscape of an eight-year marriage – the lumps and bumps and glorious vistas – nothing has stoked our mutual resentment more often than this, this question that only became important once we had children: who’s doing the work? Secretly, I suspect, we both think we’re doing the heavy lifting. Tim earns practically all our money, so is pretty much responsible for keeping four humans fed, housed and comfortable. It’s a high-pressured job that involves early starts, late returns and travelling away for days at a time. He has targets to meet, people to impress, an inbox full of emails to respond to. He can never quite keep up, however long he works. How exhausting.

Then me. While he earns the raw materials, I’m project-managing our whole lives into something happy and functioning. I manage the meals, the schedules, the homework, the outings, the finding of exactly the right pair of dinosaur pyjamas when literally none of the other five pairs of available pyjamas will do. I am always on call. When I want so much as a haircut I have to scrabble around for cover. My coworkers are irrational, demanding and sometimes downright abusive. I do not get paid one whit for any of it. How exhausting.

I’d rather our roles weren’t so thoroughly marked out, and so would he, but they are. Busy office jobs mean long hours out of the house; I’ve neglected my freelancing career enough lately (mostly through necessity, though this is something that hurts all on its own) that I struggle to justify the time it takes away from the boys. So there we are, despite our efforts decidedly not breaking down any stereotypes: the man works, the woman tends the children. We spend weekends recovering from breathless week-days, and at church.

Some days I watch him sail out of the door, on his way to deal with proper adults and get properly remunerated, and it feels like he’s escaping something, and I boil with the injustice of it. Some days I dance around a sunlit forest with a two-year-old hunting for Gruffalos, or watch H’s face light up when he sees me waiting after school, or put T down for a nap and settle to some writing under a duvet, and I know I’ll never be as lucky as this again in my life.

It depends on the day. I expect it depends on the day for Tim, too, whether his work feels like inescapable pressure or blissful, uninterrupted quiet.

Neither of us has really experienced the other’s life (my years of full-time work preceded our very-full-time children so I’ve never done both; the one time I’ve been away without them for a week, he had to work and the boys stayed with various relatives). Maybe one day it would be good for us to try. For now I think we’re where we’re supposed to be, as long as we keep reaching outside of our spheres to help and relieve each other.

We just have to remember (consciously, out loud, and over and over again) that work is work is work. Work, no matter what we’re wearing or which part of the brain we use. Work that keeps our lives, our family and ourselves intact. It’s all work, and it all matters, and we’re doing it all together.

Except for the boys, who are basically freeloading at this point. The rotters.

Photo 19-12-2015, 1 07 56 pm

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6 thoughts on “Marriage and the Magic Question: Who’s Doing the Work?

  1. Hey Rachel. You’ve put words to what I’ve been feeling since quite sometimes. And I wouldn’t call this post beautiful as it is raw. I’ve been between minds on getting a full time job. Never thought mothering would be such a tough job. As much as I love the child, I feel like I need my job and career as well. And then the next day I feel very lucky to be able to choose to stay at home, to see her growing on a daily basis. It is a daily battle within myself. And I get scared that I will have nothing to do once she grows up.
    You woke a thousand emotions with this post. And all I can say is: hear hear.

    • On a different note, why can’t I comment from wordpress? I get to read it in my wordpress reader but not comment. Hence my comments are scarce here.

  2. Great post, and you’ve described my situation exactly. I’m so lucky to be able to spend time at home with my children while my husband works hard and often away (and things are a great deal easier now that they are both in school) but sometimes I long for a day when I talk to more adults than the postman or to be able to book an appointment and know that I’ll be able to go on my own!

  3. Really nice post and well balanced. Poor both of you.
    If only there was some way to split it.
    A week each at work, a week each at home.
    For me, I feel I am missing out on a lot of the children growing up at work.
    But then I get to drink hot cups of tea all day, and wee alone (mostly).
    (Some of tea gets cold).


  4. I’m pretty sure I am living the American, brunette, with 2 daughters version of your life. Thank you for yet again putting into words exactly what I am feeling. Your stories bring kinship and comradery to what can seem like the lonely island of stay at home motherhood. This one in particular really hit the mark and at the perfect time for me. On top of all that you are also increasing my American vocabulary. I can’t wait to call someone a little rotter.

  5. Oh, I recognise that text message so completely. That slightly passive-aggressive, “how are you?”, when what you would rather say is “where actually *are* you right now, and in how many minutes will you be walking through the door??”
    I don’t think this is unique to the stay-at-home situation, although it definitely increases the stresses. I found it most difficult during the early newborn phase when the cluster feeding would start about 5pm, so every little bit of lateness was so hard to bear.
    I find it easier now when I know about it in advance, and can mentally prepare for it. We’ve worked a lot on trying to get honest (rather than optimistic) about those arrival estimates. But it was an issue before our daughter arrived home too. The stakes were lower, but it was still maddening, frustrating when I had made a dinner I was proud of, and then three, four hours later, he arrived when I had finally given up and gone to bed.
    I don’t know what helps. Being honest. Both giving each other equal opportunities to unload about the day. Trying to remember the good bits in both our days. Recognising that we both need time to do something that looks different from the rest of our day, whatever that means. I usually go for a run on Sunday mornings, but with the weather, and a cold that won’t leave, I’ve been missing it. But then I realised that if I don’t do that, I have to do something else that gives me ‘not on call’ quiet time, or I start to gradually feel quite trapped. So now I try to spot that feeling, and ask for that relief when I need it.

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