It’s early in the morning. Really early. The kind of early familiar only to dairy farmers, medical residents and the amazingly peppy people who open up Starbucks. And, of course, the parents of small children.
Mine, a 2-year-old boy with curly hair the color of a pumpkin, is sitting on a couch in the den waiting for me to hand him his bottle of milk. I know, he still takes a bottle. Terrible. The pediatrician and my mother-in-law tell us so every chance they get.
But if he doesn’t get a bottle he cries, and I don’t want him to cry. He’ll wake his 2½-year-old sister, and the thought of both kids up at this hour sends a chill down my spine. He’ll also wake my wife, and I couldn’t bear the guilt of ruining her turn to sleep in.
Turns. That’s what our life has become. My turn to get up with our son. Her turn to sing our daughter back to sleep. My turn to take the kids to the doctor. Hers to grocery shop. My wife and I both work, and so child rearing in our house is a team event —an endless rotation of shared duties. The two of us are not so much soul mates anymore as we are equal partners in a stressful, intense and always-open business.
Our situation is not unique. Studies indicate that dual-income households outnumber single-income homes by about three to one in the United States. What’s more, nearly 60 percent of dual-earner families have children present.
In the circles in which we run, however, I’m the closest thing there is to a Mr. Mom. Most couples we know reside in single-income homes where the husband catches the 8:05 each morning and is rarely back before dinner. That means that among the guys I normally join for beers, I probably know the most about the mechanics of sippy cups, how to get the medicine down, and, of course, the fine art of diaper changing. (One friend of mine with small children admits to having changed about five diapers ever. I tackle more than that during a particularly bad morning.)
All of which makes my life no more or less exhausting and chaotic than any other father of young children I know. I just get to break up more fights, clean more messes and engage in more battles over broccoli. In short, I get more chances to be humbled.
To clarify our family situation, we essentially have twins. After trying for years to have a child, we were fortunate enough to adopt a baby girl. Shortly before we got her, my wife learned she was pregnant. One day we had no kids. Five months later we had two.
Think about the work involved in, say, digging a large ditch yourself. That’s one child. Now try the Chunnel. That’s two. It’s not just that everything is doubled, it’s, well, actually it is that everything is doubled—every tantrum and time out, sing-along and sore throat, every thrown plate and spilled glass of milk. All of it times two. Not to dismiss the challenges facing any parent, but whenever Grandma and Grandpa take just one of ours for the night, I feel like I’ve been transported to the Ritz.
Anyway, as this sudden and earth-shattering transformation visited our lives, both of us decided to keep climbing the professional ladder. I don’t recall any weighty, late-night-at-the-kitchen-table discussions about the matter. We just did it. My wife had established her own law practice and I my own writing business, and we both wanted to keep at it.
A few things certainly helped to smooth our path, including our employment situation. Working for yourself definitely has its drawbacks. The lack of a steady paycheck comes to mind first. But it does give you the kind of flexibility that makes working and raising children more manageable. Most mornings in our house go something like this: Our son gets up with the first birds and demands his bottle. Then our daughter awakes and battles my wife for half an hour over what to wear. Allergy medicine needs to be dispensed, pacifiers have to be found, breakfast must be served, showers have to be taken, and through it all the Barney video has to be continuously replayed. I shudder to think how much tougher this act would be if the two of us actually had to rush out the door to punch a clock somewhere.
We also were lucky enough to stumble onto the world’s greatest babysitter. When we began searching for someone to watch our kids, we weren’t even sure how to look. We put an ad in our local newspaper and contacted a nearby agency, which sent two candidates to our home. One showed up with tight leopard-spotted pants, more make-up on than a cast member of Cats, and a boyfriend waiting outside in the car. We hired the other one. She turned out to be a godsend. A middle-age Polish woman, she is quite possibly the most earnest person I have ever met. She has never missed a day of work, never even been late. She has the patience of an ice fisherman, and she’s crazy about our kids.
Shortly after the sitter arrives each morning, my wife takes the train downtown and I head up to an office over our garage. Although I work mainly from home, I rarely see the kids during the day. Despite what you may have heard about freelance writers, I actually have to put in a full day’s work most of the time. Granted, it is too hard to resist popping down every once in a while to sit in on a kiddie lunch. But for the most part, I make myself scarce.
Because I do work from home, part of my daily routine includes shopping for diapers or any other baby essentials and getting dinner started at the end of the day. My wife then arrives home, and we spend the next several hours exhausting all the energy we have left on building blocks, baths and bedtime stories.
To be sure, ours is not a perfect arrangement. We do fret that we’re not there enough for our kids, and juggling two careers and two toddlers is not exactly the key to stress-free living. There are plenty of times after the whistle blows that I’d rather be mixing my own drink than handing out juice boxes. But there’s little time to wind down anymore. We spend our days satisfying clients and making deadlines, and then we meet up at home and start the real work.
What’s more, my existence as something between Stay-at-Home Dad and Organization Man does have its downside. First of all, it has done little to elevate my status in the house. Even though I’m around nearly as much as my wife and log more baby hours than most of my friends, I’m still second fiddle. I’m convinced that one of the things young children know innately is that mothers sit atop the food chain. A bad boo-boo? Only Mommy can hold them. Stroller ride? Mommy pushes. Help in and out of the car seat? You guessed it. Our daughter recently went through a mommy-only stage during which the single thing she allowed me to do for her was give her candy. Things are improving, though, as the two of them have begun to accept me as a permanent member of the family.
And then there are the pangs of guilt that hit me occasionally because my wife works while other wives we know do not. Granted, we both are living the life that each of us wants. But the truth of the matter is that we would be hard-pressed to make ends meet with me as the sole bread-winner. In the hard-charging and high-achieving world of Notre Dame alumni, such a realization can leave one fighting feelings of not quite measuring up. I suppose, however, that if my self-esteem could survive temporary rejection from my daughter, it can weather most anything.
In the end, I cherish the way things are. For one thing, our hectic existence has helped my wife and me to treasure more than ever our time alone. With two sets of grandparents pitching in, we manage to step off the roller coaster every once in a while and revert back to being soulmates. We never realized how pleasurable it could be to go to a movie, spend a night at a downtown hotel, or just linger at a restaurant with menus that don’t include hot dogs and chicken strips.
Just as important, this dual-career-dual-kid lifestyle has given me what I imagine most fathers everywhere want: a bit more balance between the competing worlds of our profession and our parenting. For that, I feel blessed.
Even on the mornings when our son awakes in search of his bottle while the street lamps are still on, and my wife whispers through a fog of comfortable sleep, “Your turn.”
Cheever Griffin is a writer and communications consultant in Chicago.