Report for duty! A couple’s guide to creating equality with childcare responsibilities.

My husband and I have always been true partners in managing the logistics of our lives.  We both have our strengths – for example, I’m an expert on planning fun day trips around the bay area, while he excels with our financial planning and investments. He’s an incredible cook, I’m a wonderful house organizer. We each play to our strengths, but at the end of the day I can confidently say it’s a 50/50 split with us. We both contribute and we both work hard to support our lives. And so, when we had our son, I didn’t expect things to change, but the day to day was certainly quite different. We needed a way to be sure that the other person didn’t feel overly burdened with childcare responsibilities. On any given day, one person might do more than the other, but we both agreed that the big picture contribution that each of us gives should be equal. We’re in a unique position in that we both have valuable full time (and often quite demanding) careers that we love, so neither of us will change our work life any time soon.

So, how did we create equality in the home with the different phases of my son’s life: never ending diaper changes and nighttime feedings during infancy to temper tantrums and daycare drop off and pick up of the preschool days?

We created what we call “Kid Duty” or “work shifts” related to all facets of childcare. We’re both hard workers and have been in the workforce since our teens, so the idea came quite naturally to us – treat the things you do in the home and with your child as real tangible work, and you’ll show up, do a great job and positively support your child’s development. As a society, we’re sometimes afraid to admit that even just being with a kid can be physically and mentally exhausting – the images on our social media accounts tell us we should be jumping for joy and frolicking in fields with our children, loving every moment to the point it certainly shouldn’t be considered “work.” But that’s exactly what it is – difficult (and of course joyful!) work that you must show up to every day – give 100% of yourself to and continue doing for the rest of your life. And so, my husband and I’s home life is made up of “work shifts” and “duties.” Here are some examples of how we have divided labor in our home:

Things we alternate:

  • Bath nights – we’re both in our 40s an although we’re fit and healthy, no amount of healthy can prepare you for the lower back pain that attacks when you bend over to give a toddler a nightly bath. Our son is super cute in the bath, but despite his cuteness, it’s challenging work. So, we alternate – every other night is your bath night! My son overheard us once discussing this and now he even jokes with us about it – “mama, is it your bath night??!” to which I typically reply, “No way man, it’s dad’s bath night!”
  • “Early shift” – my son’s wake up time can vary by an hour, and we found that we would both be obsessively watching the google home to see if he was standing in his crib and ready to get up – we’d do this for the full hour of that wake up window. And so, we couldn’t get anything else done. We created “early shift” so that only one parent was responsible for watching and getting our son out of bed each day. We alternate early shift, every other day. So, when you’re not on early shift, you can use that time to focus on other things: work or household duties, taking a shower, eating breakfast, sleeping – whatever your heart desires.
  • Drop off and pick up – earlier in my son’s daycare arrangement, we split drop off and pick ups by having one parent pick up one evening and then drop off the next morning. So, if you weren’t the parent doing that pick up and drop off, you had a big stretch of open time without that responsibility, which helped us from a work perspective. As my husband went back to work in an office more regularly with COVID restrictions lessening, we realized it was much easier for him to always do drop off and for me to do pick up. There are 10 opportunities throughout the week, he does 5 and I do 5 – so it’s perfectly split down the middle!
  • Reading books before bedtime – this may seem minor, but our kid loves to read, and so our nighttime routine consists of many books, and can last upward of  30 minutes. As much as I love Sandra Boynton, reading continuously for 30 minutes straight is exhausting. And so, I read a book, my husband reads a book, and we alternate until the end. It gives the other parent a little break to just sit and relax – we’ve even gotten ourselves into stretching during the time we aren’t reading – which is great for our health too!
  • Taking to swim class – our son swims every Monday after school, and he is still of the age that he requires an adult to be in the water with him. Again, a fun experience but also really exhausting to chase a toddler around in the water, try to get him to somewhat follow his teachers’ instructions and to swim along yourself! And so, we alternate weeks. If you’re the “off week” parent, you get a little extra time to get some work done, get dinner prepared and other household responsibilities completed.

We don’t always alternate tasks and shifts – there are some things that my husband is good at and others not so much, and same for me. So, in these situations, one person always does that task. We just try to be sure its relatively evenly weighted and that neither one of us has too many of the tasks that we always do. Some examples: when he was an infant, I switched to exclusive pumping after a few months and so for obvious reasons, I always pumped, and my husband always bottle fed when he got up in the middle of the night. As another example, my husband always takes my son to get his haircut because he also gets his haircut at the same place, so it’s easy to just add my son into the mix when he needs his haircut too.

It took us awhile to find our way in equal parenting and you may be wondering how you can get there too. There are a few things that are very important to establishing equality in childcare responsibilities:

  • Break childcare duties down into concrete tasks – you have to know what the tasks are in order to divide them equally. Sounds obvious, but without sitting down and considering each thing that needs to be done for your children each day, you won’t think to divide the work and inevitably one partner will end up taking the brunt of the responsibilities and be left feeling overwhelmed and disappointed.
  • Plan – my husband and I have a brief nightly check in where we make sure we know who is doing what the next day. We try to check in on bigger picture allocation of responsibilities about once a week. This planning is critical so that you can catch if there are any variations to the schedule (e.g., I have a late work meeting so even though it’s my pickup night I need you to do it, but I can do drop off instead).
  • Have open communication – critical to the success of a system like this is that you openly communicate consistently about what’s working, what’s not working, what you like to do, and don’t like to do. Things can easily get off course, especially if something unexpected happens (hello preschool shutdowns due to COVID outbreaks!). Maintaining consistent communication will help ensure that not only everything gets done, but you’re both happy and content doing it.

Everyone’s arrangement might be different – the one I’ve described here is likely most ideal for families where both parents are working full time jobs with 1 or 2 children in the home. You may have a different arrangement – for example, one parent works part time and picks up more childcare responsibilities on days off, or one person travels for work and does more during the time they’re home and not traveling. Whatever your arrangement is, plan for it and be sure you both report for duty . . . happily!

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