Photo: Courtesy of Carissa Halton
“Where’d these undies come from?” I asked my husband as I stared at the unfamiliar item in my drawer. They were plain, cotton, with the kind of waistband I liked.
“I was waiting for you to notice,” said Mat. “Bought them a month ago when I noticed the state of your other ones. You’ve actually already worn them, gone through at least two washes.”
It was that morning I realized Mat had fully emerged as a homemaker. And if the Incident of the Unnoticed Underwear was any indication, I was emerging as the kind of partner that housewives have complained about for millennia.
We had swapped roles six months before when I was offered a director position in Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s office. Mat and I have experienced many different permutations of working and parenting since having our three kids: two full-time jobs and daycare, two part-time jobs and childcare trades with friends, one job and one stay-at-home parent. However, this job would require more of me than any other job either of us had held before, with long days and, when the legislature was in session, little flexibility to pick up the kids.
“If I take that job, how are we going to make this household work?” I asked. As we deliberated in the kitchen, the dishes judged me from the sink and groceries wilted with impatience outside the fridge. Our daughters, six and eight at the time, were in school and my three-year-old son was in daycare, but that took care of only the children. Already with me writing for a living and Mat working as a social services consultant, we felt we were drowning in the household chores that we fairly evenly shared. As the reality of my domestic duties overwhelmed me, Mat offered a great gift. “Why don’t I quit my job and then I can manage all of this?” he said, waving his hand around the kitchen.
With his offer, I was able to turn my focus outside the home and felt giddy at the new opportunity. And so began the gradual unloading of my domestic chores to him: kitchen management, laundry, field trip forms, groceries and clothes shopping. Mat took these roles on plus others: president of the school’s Parent Teacher Council, lead organizer for the playground fundraising efforts and booking agent for BBQs with our neighbours.
Though I felt gratitude that a meal had been prepared for me after a long day at the office, at first it was difficult not to criticize the way he prioritized and executed the work I had formerly done. Like when there was no vegetable at dinner, or he left crumbs in the sink, or he missed sales on ground hamburger.
Mat took on the jobs without complaint. He took pride in the tidy stacks of towels that smelled of lavender from the new dryer sheets he bought. He hated grocery shopping, but discovered he could order online and simply pick up at the store. While he did not feel confident about his cooking, he discovered that when he asked the Internet what to cook with cheese, eggs and broccoli, hundreds of options presented themselves.
He tackled the day-to-day tasks like any job, working through a problem step by step. Content enough with the work, he felt the proudest when his practical expressions of feminism began to change the way our kids considered the classic gender roles. Like when our oldest daughter came home from school with an assignment that asked her to connect the images of various workers to a list of jobs. Pictured were three men in varying uniforms and one woman in regular daywear. When it came to finding an image for the line titled ‘stay-at-home parent,’ her pencil wavered. “Dad, none of these pictures fit. They all have uniforms.” She was only considering the men.
Meanwhile, just three months into my new job, my paid responsibilities had taken over the part of my brain that once kept inventory of the kids’ socks. With shocking ease, I forgot my kids’ teachers’ names, the location of their classrooms and the appearance of their after-school friends. I relinquished more and more until I began to realize I was absent even when present.
One Saturday morning my son was singing from the toilet, “Daddy, daddy, come and wipe me.” It was a familiar tune he often repeated cheerily until an adult attended him. I was at work in the dining room and continued to type on my laptop, until Mat stalked by.
“You couldn’t get this?” Mat asked as he headed to the washroom.
My son had not been calling me, I reasoned guiltily. Then I swore under my breath. “Am I becoming that guy?” The one content to return to his castle every night, retire to his den and emerge only to wish his children goodnight with a whiskery, whiskey-scented kiss.
In the past, I could not escape the demands, but now the kids let me off the hook: When they needed milk, fell on the cement, or bit their tongue, they called on dad. By letting me off the hook, however, I was also left out. There were inside jokes I had to force my way into. They told Mat about their day at school as he prepared supper, so when I came home and asked they rarely remembered; so much had happened since then.
In other ways, Mat was missing out too. As a househusband, Mat’s role had some different pressures than the housewives of old whose friends and family jostled to show-off their domestic feats of a dust-free house or firm Jell-O salads. With few male friends around in the day, his regular social circle shrank to his sister and one or two female friends. The monotony got to him. Some nights, immediately on my return, he would drive to Canadian Tire to wander aimlessly in the aisles.
Mat grew to understand the frustration of being ignored as the familiar parent, and I inadvertently took on the more disciplinary role. One evening I was home in time for dinner and the kids were acting like Mat had served them dysentery. As their choking, coughing and whining routine continued, I interjected, “Stop this. Your father worked very hard to make this. Very, very hard. You are all being extremely ungrateful.” When I spoke in this measured, disappointed tone, the kids almost always responded with changed behavior. Mat, on the other hand, was Chief-Child-Nagger and they brushed his voice away like a housefly.
After almost three years of this arrangement, I faced another difficult decision:. A book of essays I had spent five years writing was finally being published. I knew I could not sustain my job and book promotion too, so I had to make a choice: I returned to my work as a full-time writer. And now, after being out of the job market for three years, Mat is facing the difficult task of looking for a job that isn’t a step backwards in his career.
As I look back on our time with rigid domestic and paid-employment roles, our experience has made us value even more highly the work and flexibility it takes to be a parent. Most of all, the experience made us both more empathetic to the challenges of the other: working parents have it hard, stay-at-home parents have it hard. Working together and not being limited by the traditional confines of our genders’ roles made it easier.
The experience also exposed the continuing gender biases our society has related to raising kids. Often people would marvel at how I juggled that job with three children, however rarely were my male colleagues’ family pressures acknowledged.
In Mat’s case, when he carried out the most basic of parenting tasks in public, he was regularly praised by friendly strangers. For instance, the day he bought my cotton underwear he also bought the kids a package of socks. The woman at the till scanned his items and gushed, “It is so amazing that you are buying your kids’ socks.” Mat felt warm basking in the affirmation.
Later, when he told me of the exchange, I laughed. “It’s a good thing they all notice, because God knows I don’t.”
He did not laugh. He had made a different connection: “Has anyone ever congratulated you for buying a package of socks?”
Carissa Halton is an award-winning magazine writer and the author of Little Yellow House, a book of essays like this one about finding community in her inner city neighbourhood.