This blog post originally appeared on March 8th on Role Reboot .
I feel like I’m part of a new demographic—I’m happily married but still, most nights I single parent. Why? My husband works nights, while I work days. Like most working moms, I don’t just work days; I work days and “the second shift” at nights as a parent. Only, my second shift is a solo shift. So I’m picking up toys, making dinner, doing laundry, bathing the kids, reading stories, and playing games with them, but I’m doing it solo.
I knew going into my marriage that my husband worked nights, and would as long as he kept the job he loved, where he started working at age 18. I walked straight into this lifestyle without much hesitation. (This wasn’t the first time my unwavering optimism would get me in over my head.) My husband is the Recreation Director for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The 165 kids on campus he is responsible for don’t get out of school until 3:00 p.m., so he works 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., planning, organizing, and leading the kids, and often a crew of volunteers, through every fun recreational activity you could imagine, from creating a haunted house, to running a marathon, to playing air hockey.
Most of my friends are married, and both husband and wife work 9-5 jobs. In my active imagination, they joyously share the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning up after dinner, bathing, reading, and putting multiple children to bed while eating a gourmet meal and having a glass of wine. The rest of my friends are divorced and are co-parenting and, although I am ashamed to admit it, I envy them as well. When they aren’t single-parenting like me, they are “off duty” and childless every other weekend and select weeknights, free to sleep in, read books, head out of town, or nap all day.
There are times I send out cries for help, usually through social media. Or at work, I’ll bid my fellow 9-5’ers goodbye as I head out for my solo second shift. My frustrations are at once validated and gratified with messages of encouragement, sympathy, or admiration. I flash back to a few years ago when my twins were newborns, and I’d gone back to work running Girlstart, the nonprofit organization that I’d founded, after a few months of maternity leave. Sleeping in shifts, nursing, exhausted, and overwhelmed, I would have moments of feeling particularly isolated, starving for human connection or sympathy. I’d deck the twins out in cute matching outfits, put them in their stroller and bask in the smiles and compliments that complete strangers bestowed on me.
Was it narcissistic, selfish, or petty? Maybe, but it got me through some pretty rough days. (Even now, five years later, I still delight in seeing people’s faces light up when they see the twins. There is this sudden smile of recognition that these are not two ordinary children but a pair, and seeing that recognition of their uniqueness light up another person’s face as they kindly greet my children with a warm, beaming smile is a lovely experience.)
My husband is deeply offended by any referral to my single-parent status. A mention of my responsibilities or workload in his absence is perceived as a direct insult and condemnation of him as less of a father. It’s one of those classic Men-Are-From-Mars moments: All I’m seeking is sympathy and understanding, and all he hears is an insult. So instead I share with my girlfriends or work colleagues my latest supermom, singlemom feat: a homemade picnic dinner in the car on the way to swim class, or calming two four-alarm meltdowns occurring simultaneously in surround sound. While it feels glaringly obvious to me as the primary caregiver and main breadwinner that I shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility, my husband does take the kids to school every day and faithfully washes the dishes. While I definitely feel like I have more tasks on my plate than he does, I am grateful for what he does.
I’m friends with other women who, like me, are the breadwinners for their families. There are times I wish I weren’t doing this alone, and I want to shirk from the financial responsibility of it all, to say nothing of the single-parenting workload. Both the financial and the parenting arrangements just happened; I can’t say it was a premeditated conversation about roles. I ambitiously crafted my professional path, creating opportunities that were challenging and rewarding and that compensated me to my satisfaction. I love working and I expect to be paid what I am worth. So in some sense, it feels a bit like a loop without a logical or obvious exit. My husband has a drastically lower tolerance of risk than I do, and has been in the same role at a job he loves for many years. Could he make more and have a 9-5 job? Probably, but I don’t know that he would get the same sense of reward and meaning from it.
And so our arrangement continues in perpetuity. We move on, trudging forward in life and marriage often feeling like two coworkers with the same demanding, but adorable, bosses.
The other day at the twins’ swim class, I spotted two special-needs adults being gingerly, thoughtfully, carefully, and patiently encouraged by the staff members working with them to try out the swimming pool. I thought of my husband and what he is spending his time at night away from his family doing—helping blind kids learn how to ride bikes, swim laps, take a spinning class, dance the night away at the prom, and otherwise lead a normal life, enjoying all the things that we take for granted as sighted people. I watch how calm, patient, supportive, and encouraging these instructors are at the pool, and I think to myself how their work takes as much energy, if not more, than parenting does, and how lucky these special-needs adults are to have caregivers like them. And how lucky my kids are to have a dad, and me to have a husband, who has a job he loves helping blind kids to live joyful, independent lives.
Even if he leaves the toilet seat up after seven years of marriage.