I’ve been wavering on the subject of motherhood for what seems like decades. Like Ruth Graham, who wrote of her fear of parenthood on Slate not long ago, when I contemplate jumping the gap between not-mom and mom, I see only catastrophe. The physical changes, the financial challenge, the increased difficulty of travel—having a baby seems like saying goodbye to my freedom. On the other hand, I’m 36, and if I ever were fancy-free, I’m not now. I don’t have a super-active nightlife, and I already pack little survival Ziplocs of nuts and carrots wherever I go. I’m willing to allow that being a mom might strip me of some independence, and the bright little faces of my nieces are a good argument that there would be ample compensation.
What I most worry about is that motherhood might make me hate my darling husband.
When I talk to my female friends who are moms about motherhood, the conversation often drifts to the changes that children have brought to their relationships with their spouses. It’s not just my friends: In a survey of the psychological literature in her recent book All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior points to multiple studies cataloging the many arguments couples have after they have children. For a person like me, a feminist with a keen awareness of the generally unfair division of domestic labor, my friends’ irritated gripes, or the findings in books like Arlie Hochschild’s 1989 classic The Second Shift, are little horror stories. “Many women carry into their marriage the distasteful and unwieldy burden of resenting their husbands,” Hochschild wrote. I can see how this would happen to me, and I Do Not Want.
So what’s the solution? People get prenups. What about drawing up a pre-pregnancy contract? (Not, under any circumstances, to be called a “prepup,” as my husband joked.) Wouldn’t a not-at-all legally binding document, outlining expectations and setting a course for periodic re-examination of the division of labor, alleviate my fears, and prevent aggravation, or fights, or divorce, in the future?
I find that any number of life challenges are more palatable when drained of their emotional content through quantification. Terrifying deadline? Take a realistic look at the number of work hours available before filing, and divide the work into those chunks. Feeling disorganized? Make inventories of the things we have in the storage space. My husband would naturally adopt a much more spontaneous approach to our daily life, but it’s that very looseness that worries me; in a “spontaneous” household, I observe, work tends to revert to the less spontaneous person, who is often the person who’s culturally expected to carry it out. Above all, there’s no such thing as “natural” when it comes to domestic arrangements. A baby would seriously increase the need for planning in our house. Why not start now?
There is a list of things I’d want if we had a kid. I’m a writer with a very flexible schedule—just the kind of mom whose work time gets bitten into when a child care crisis arises. Could I ask for a guarantee that I could have six (seven? eight?) hours a day to myself, for work, no matter how inconvenient that arrangement gets for him? Could I stipulate that he would need to be done with work at 6 or 7 p.m., rather than his current workaholic quitting time of 9:30 or 10—again, no matter what mitigating factors might arise? Could we acknowledge the unfair cultural expectation that allows fathers to take time for leisure, while denying the privilege to mothers, and try to change that in our own lives through planning? Could I ask for him to learn to cook and shop for groceries, so we could split that 11-hour-a-week burden?
I thought this pre-pregnancy contract was a revolutionary idea, but of course we’ve had this conversation before. Feminist and novelist Alix Kates Shulman published the essay “A Marriage Agreement,” which included her and her husband’s own housework and child care agreement, in the feminist journal Up From Under in 1970. Shulman was inspired by fellow Redstocking activist Pat Mainardi’s “The Politics of Housework,” an amazing and hilarious document, also published in 1970, detailing Mainardi’s partner’s strategies of housework avoidance.
Reading Shulman’s and Mainardi’s writing, one notices a distinct lack of punches pulled. While we often tend to drain the blood from the housework discussion, mentioning Pew statistics and bemoaning continued trends of inequality, Mainardi had no problem assigning blame. The comic foibles of her partner, who tries all kinds of rhetorical gambits to get out of his share of the work, are named and shamed for what they are: a man’s belief that women are better suited to do the kind of work that nobody wants to do. (Him, to her: “I don’t mind sharing the work, but you’ll have to show me how to do it.” Her translation: “I ask a lot of questions and you’ll have to show me everything every time I do it because I don’t remember so good. Also don’t try to sit down and read while I’M doing my jobs because I’m going to annoy the hell out of you until it’s easier to do them yourself.")
Mainardi’s polemic is deeply satisfying, and one can see how it might inspire a young mother like Shulman, who felt trapped in a cycle of unshared chores and duties. The “Marriage Agreement” was meant to relieve that pressure, and to save Shulman and her husband from divorce. Shulman’s agreement started with several “principles,” including the rejection of the idea that the work that brings in more money is more valuable. “The ability to earn more money is a privilege,” she wrote, “which must not be compounded by enabling the larger earner to buy out of his/her duties and put the burden either on the partner who earns less or on another person hired from outside.” Think what you might about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In; one of the most lasting insights of that book, for me, was that a woman’s time spent in a career is an investment in future potential, even when the money being earned doesn’t pay for child care in the present day. Shulman got this, back in 1970, and made it foundational.
This idea prompted a backlash from the likes of Norman Mailer, who wrote in The Prisoner of Sex that he would rather see a loved woman “sprain her back before a hundred sinks of dishes in a month” than help her “if his own work should suffer … unless her work was as valuable as his own”—a matter on which Mailer would, of course, be the judge. (Shulman later wrote that upon seeing this passage, she felt “exquisite triumph”— Mailer’s adverse reaction was proof that she had hit upon the meat of the matter.)
The job breakdown and schedule, which followed the Shulman document’s “principles,” was just as revolutionary. Dispassionately, Shulman listed all of what she later called the “insidiously unacknowledged” jobs of parents, no matter how small: transportation, helping with homework, fielding calls from babysitters, getting up with distressed children in the night. The idea was to make these “trivial,” invisible tasks obvious, and to demand that they be shared.
The Shulmans made the cover of Life in April 1972, and a photographer captured husband Martin folding sheets, a cigar clamped between his jaws. The Life article pointed to several other “50-50 marriages” “cropping up all over the country.” Coverage in New York and Redbook followed. Yet the truly equal marriage has yet to sweep the nation.