I’ve been married for sixteen years. For most of our married life, my husband’s job has required frequent travel. Having a spouse who’s away from home a lot was not what I wanted. I did, however, want the option to stay home with my children. My husband’s job afforded me that opportunity, so we decided to make it work.
That decision wasn’t as easy as it may seem. While I’m able to be at home with my children, I also have a long-standing career as a journalist and producer. Just as all working parents do, I struggled with balancing my family and career.
Three years ago Anne-Marie Slaughter penned her famous article for The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” She described her struggle to balance her thriving career with her desire to be an engaged parent, available to put her children ahead of her work. I, like so many women, could relate. But I think many more of us may identify with Slaughter’s husband, Andrew Moravcsik, who was the one to take on the role, as he terms it, of ‘Lead Parent.’ He recently wrote a follow-up titled “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First.” In it, he says, “Lead parenting is being on the front lines of everyday life.” It means taking care of all the day-to-day needs of the children and the household. “I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis.”
Even in households that start off with fifty-fifty parenting, the role of lead parent will often fall more on one parent than another. Moravcsik writes, “In the overwhelming majority of two-career households, women pick up any slack. According to a Pew Research Center study, 50 percent of married or cohabiting women report doing more child care than their male partners, whereas just 4 percent of men do more than their female partners.” Until female business executives have what Moravcsik says that “male CEOs have always had: a spouse who bears most of the burden at home,” lead parenting is a challenge many of us must reckon with.
Because I am the one at home, and my husband is often on the road, the role of lead parent fell to me. But I have come up with a few useful game plans along the way. Whether you or your partner take the role of lead parent, here are some strategies that have worked for me.
01. Develop rituals to stay connected.
Having a spouse who travels or has great career demands can be tough on a marriage mainly because your partner is physically absent. That doesn’t mean he or she should be emotionally absent, nor should you. My husband, Tom, and I often stay connected via text messages and scheduled phone dates. We send photos of the little things we are doing. They can range from our son or daughter showing a test with an “A” on it to a photo of a clogged toilet. I spare my husband nothing of the good or the bad. He does the same for me. He will send me photos of the hotel room, restaurant, or interesting things he sees on his travels.
It’s also important to continue including him in most of the decision-making even though he’s not there. In some respects, our relationship is healthier because our separation makes us intentional about scheduling time for each other. We have continued dating in a sense, which is always great for a marriage.
02. Be clear about the division of duties.
This is easier said than done. As the lead parent, with Tom a thousand miles away, guess who cleans up when the dog gets sick on the carpet? Me! Some situations are unavoidable. But Tom and I sat down and made a conscious decision to divide up the workload as equitably as possible. Tom is fast and efficient with paperwork. So I hand off all bills, medical forms, school paperwork, and permission slips to him. It is a big load off my plate, and he’s happy to take care of it.
I also make a running list of things around the house that he does when he returns. There are certain extracurricular and school-related activities for our three kids that I outsource to Tom. Tom will Skype or text back and forth with our son or daughters when they need help.
And yes, my man cleans, cooks, grocery shops, and does laundry. So on the weekend or times he’s physically present, he manages most of these duties to give me a break. Woohoo!
03. Embrace the sacrifice.
The best way to prevent resentment from building up is to nip any feelings of resentment in the bud. You know the thinking: Your partner is off enjoying adult conversations, working toward professional goals, seeing new things, and generally leading a cushy life. Meanwhile, you’re at home doing all the grunt work: cleaning the house, cooking meals, running the kids around, checking homework, monitoring screen time, and monitoring friendships.
It’s easy to fall into the pit of self-pity. When this happens, I’m quick to give myself a reality check. I get to stay home with my kids, and this was one of my parenting goals. Tom is working hard so that I can be home with our kids. Work travel is exhausting and overrated (been there, done that, when I worked outside the home). And most importantly, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed or like I’m the only one parenting around here, I smile and think, “Yep. I’d rather be doing what I’m doing.” And I feel grateful instead.
04. Set realistic goals.
My initial goals were not realistic. At all! I’m an eternal idealist. A Leave It to Beaver and Brady Bunch type of family life was imprinted on my mind because that’s what I experienced growing up.
In reality, my Brady Bunch ideal of us eating together doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. Sometimes we are eating takeout off of paper plates, or microwave popcorn, or mini ravioli. Homework is an ordeal. Instead of living in a fantasy, I keep a realistic goal to have a family meal three times per week. As a lead parent, you have to maintain a doable routine. You’ll get more accomplished and avoid letting yourself feel like a failure.
05. Get help where you can.
A nanny, cleaning lady, or any service would be fantastic, but maybe it’s just not in the budget. If you can afford it, I say go for it. When my kids were younger, I hired help to watch the kids a few days a week so that I could write and run errands. I also joined a fitness club that provided child care as part of the membership. If you live near family, ask for help a few times a week, or offer to do babysitting swaps with mom friends.
It depends on the age of your children. If they’re little, it’s almost a necessity for sanity, I found, to get out of the house for a few hours. My kids are older now, so I can and do enlist them in household duties. They choose two duties for the week and two for the weekend. I withhold media use until they get those items done. They may not be as good at it as I am, but it lessens the load a great deal, and they learn some basic skills for maintaining a household. Since they started pitching in, they have become more appreciative of what Tom and I do for them.
06. Accept imperfection.
I’m a perfectionist by nature. I loathe clutter of any kind. So keeping order is not only a necessity from a functionality standpoint, but it’s also a personal need of mine. But in order for this lead parenting thing to work out, I had to tell myself to get over it. Unless I had a live-in nanny and a full-time cleaning staff, things were not going to be super-neat all the time.
It was either a clean house and perfect order coupled with sheer exhaustion, or a functional, somewhat disorderly home and a non-sleep-deprived mom. I’ve gone for the latter. Whatever your expectations are, it’s OK to lower the bar for the sake of your health and peace of mind.
07. Maintain friendships and personal interests.
Being the lead parent doesn’t mean not having a life. In fact, having a life outside of parenting is what makes us better parents. What adult can survive doing only cleaning, laundry, cooking, and homework? I’ve been in ruts where that is what I did for weeks on end.
I decided to make it a habit to plan one thing per week with someone other than my children. It might be lunch or a coffee date with a friend, a game of tennis, or working out at the gym together. I’ve also maintained many hobbies that I look forward to doing outside of child rearing and running a household. Raising a family is a great joy. But it can become a real grind if you don’t schedule time for yourself.
08. Make the most of time off together.
Being the lead parent forces me to schedule fun things alone with Tom and as a family. We almost always have a weekly in-person date and a weekly family activity. He also makes special time with each of our three children when he’s home. No amount of quality lead parenting can replace quality time with both parents. My husband likes football, and our daughter plays in her high school marching band. We go as a family to see her play while we all enjoy the game. It’s a family date and a real date in one; my kids like visiting with their friends, and I can be with my man. The date doesn’t have to be expensive or extravagant. It just needs to be alone time to reconnect with one another on an intentional level.
Like a marriage, or any relationship, being the lead parent has its ups and downs. When you hit the inevitable bumps along the road, as I have, you can find a way to navigate around them. These strategies have evolved over time. But for the most part, they have been the mainstay for my sanity, a happy marriage, a close-knit family, and an efficient household. They’re the greatest rewards this lead parent could hope for.