In January, I got a lucky career break. It wasn’t a promotion or a job offer. My husband left his law firm job to start his own firm from home. I knew the change would be good for him, but I had no idea how good it would be for me.
I got my first clue when I came home from a typical race-against-time workday to find our children’s clothes washed and folded, stacked neatly into piles. The vision filled me with pure unadulterated joy. I felt ridiculously happy, giddy with relief.
Was I overreacting? My husband thought so. But I'd been washing that kid laundry for ten years, struggling every week to find time. He had even folded the underwear! Why my husband would take the extra second to do that senseless task was beyond me. For my part, since becoming a mom, I had operated under an every-second-counts paradigm. Often I’d run out of time to put the laundry away after washing it, groaning when dirty laundry inevitably joined it in the hamper and later conducting a smell test to distinguish the dirty from the clean.
I never pretended to be a domestic goddess. Growing up, I expected to achieve stratospheric career success and wealth using my intellectual firepower. Domestic chores were not part of the plan. My high school boyfriend even joked he’d be my stay-at-home husband.
Once I actually got married, my husband never shirked household responsibilities, but working long days and commuting constrained his ability to undertake kid logistics.
Now that he has more time and flexibility, doing the laundry is only the beginning of what he has taken on. Orthodontist appointment? He’ll handle it. One of the 32 scheduled days off school? He’ll cover it. The “Surprise! Your work day is cancelled” call from the school nurse? He'll deal with that, too.
Even with the incessant interruptions of parenthood and the seventeen different tracks running in my mind, I had been a model employee, operating efficiently out of sheer necessity. Nonetheless I had scaled back my career to accommodate motherhood in a way my husband had not. A lawyer myself, I had left law practice and sought out a more flexible job as a legal journalist. I realize the ability to choose a more flexible job is a privilege afforded mostly to white-collar workers who have a partner to provide support, and I was and am grateful for it. Yet as the partner with the more flexible job, and the ability to work from home, that choice also meant I bore the brunt of family demands.
Now that my husband has job flexibility, I have been ramping up my career in a way that had never been possible before. I am not sure how long it is going to last, or how it may change once his firm is up and running, so I am firing on all cylinders. In one elated moment, I asked my husband a question: Could he play the lead forever? With his continued support, I was confident I’d be able to really gun it and double my salary. Without a moment of hesitation, he answered: “No.”
I knew it was a long shot—he derives satisfaction from his career just as I do, and his greater share of the domestic load would be hard to maintain once he has built up his business. I didn’t expect him to give up his ambitions. But with the rare advantage of two flexible jobs and two willing partners, I’m optimistic that we’ll ultimately figure out how to play co-lead roles.
At least for now, I have been freed of childcare-induced hard stops to my workday. With a reduced mental load, I have reallocated the gained mental space to my goals. My persistent exhaustion and sense of overwhelm has begun to lift. I have begun speaking on panels instead of sitting in the audience watching mostly male speakers talk about topics I know as much or more about.
I’m getting a taste of an advantage so many working men enjoy throughout their careers. Even in two-parent families where both partners work, studies show that women in heterosexual partnerships disproportionately tackle the mountain of invisible parenting labor: arranging play dates, buying gifts, planning dinner, and so on. Although men are increasingly taking on lead parent roles, they remain the exception. Women more than men seek out flexible jobs, which incidentally tend to pay less per hour, something Harvard professor Claudia Golden sees as a major cause of the gender pay gap.
After only a couple of months of having a partner with a flexible job, who is not even a full-time caregiver, my career has gotten a noticeable boost. I have to wonder how many more women would hold leadership positions if the “second shift” were off their shoulders, if we were that much closer to the 50/50 split a lot of us expected but few of us attained.