“My biggest fear – and it’s really scaring me – is what a baby is going to do to our relationship,” says Tara, five months pregnant with her first child.
Her husband, Phil, agrees. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled to be having a child, and to be having a child with Tara. I can’t wait. But I have the same fears – I want to continue to enjoy our happy life together. I don’t want our child in the middle separating us.”
Tara and Phil are a lot like many other young couples we’ve spoken with who are facing parenthood. They’re in love, and they’ve got a good thing going.
She is a project manager at a market research firm and he is an architect/project manager for a small company that designs athletic fields. At home in Arlington, Massachusetts, they both cook and clean, tend to shop together for food, and have found ways around Tara’s less-than-perfect household standards and the mountain of dirty clothes that Phil tends to produce each week.
Phil loves to watch Tara head out regularly for dinners with her girlfriends, something he knows makes her happy. Tara cheerfully makes time for Phil to get out on the golf course, snowboard down the slopes, or hone his budding photography skills. And they gush over their joint love of travel, tennis, and all the live music they attend together.
It is obvious to Tara and Phil, even before the reality of life with a newborn, that they will need to make some changes.
And they are ready. They’ve already altered their vision of travel to “heading off to the beach, or a weekend away somewhere locally once in a while,” their hobbies to “much less golf” and “going out maybe twice a month.” They’re ready to redefine their live music as “outdoor music festivals” and to cultivate relationships with the many parents who live in their neighborhood and even to create a babysitting swap so they can attend a rare ticketed concert together. They’re realists.
But they still worry – not so much about giving up any particular material thing or experience, but about how the sum total of the changes that parenthood can bring will eat away at who they are as individuals and as a couple.
In many ways, they have reason to be concerned. They’ve seen how the standard path for parents involves some pretty big compromises.
“One couple we know – she stays home and he works – is pulling apart in small ways that we would not want to happen to us,” says Tara. “The minute he comes home from work, it’s ‘Here’s the baby’ from his wife and he’s on duty. They don’t share anymore, they just take shifts.” Phil responds, “It would be frustrating if that was our existence.” This separation into his life versus her life is what bothers Tara and Phil the most.
Whether in a stay-at-home/breadwinner relationship or a dual-career juggle, couples who previously related to each other as a team of two so often fall into prescribed roles instead. Primary parent vs helper parent. Provider vs homemaker. No longer simply Tara-and-Phil-in-this-together.
It doesn't have to be that way. Phil and Tara have been together for five years. They’ve had a decent amount of practice learning to be happy together. What if they used this knowledge and these skills to approach parenthood differently from what is expected by society? What if they could rework the script together?
Ask them how they think they’ll handle the chores, their jobs and a baby, and Phil quickly responds, “Your guess is as good as mine!” Tara plans a three-month maternity leave. Could Phil do the same – maybe even simultaneously, so they really avoid the ‘shift’ worry from the start? Yes, he could, he tells us, at least by working much less for those three months.
Tara is considering asking her boss if she could work from home one day per week to reduce childcare costs when her leave is up. Could Phil do the same, even further reducing these costs? He tells us that his company doesn’t seem as sensitive to family needs. But he already works from home many days. Could something be worked out?
“I assume we’ll share caring for the baby based on each other’s schedules,” says Tara. But what if they could take responsibility for creating schedules that lead to truly sharing this joy (and work) rather than letting their schedules passively dictate their ability to do so?
Maybe Tara’s messier housekeeping will save them from the typical burden of chores that mothers take on far beyond their husbands’ contributions.
But maybe their shared home labor should be left to more than this chance. Could they keep the conversation flowing so that they find ingenious ways of sharing the work just as they’ve done pre-baby? Could they both dedicate themselves to becoming ‘good enough’ at every chore and every baby task so that neither is the expert and default doer? Could they focus on learning from each other rather than instructing each other, so that neither is the home/child manager and neither is the apprentice? Could all of this competence and teamwork lead to a life in which both of them get to keep enough of their hobbies, and their intimacy can grow rather than shrivel?
No doubt that parenting involves sacrifices: sleep, freedom from anxiety, privacy in the bathroom, calm days, to name a few. But our culture typically expects new parents to sacrifice the very things that stoke their relationship – togetherness, balanced lives, having enough time for ourselves as individuals – in favor of divide-and-conquer roles that seem so efficient on the surface but don’t always make us happy.
Tara and Phil, like every couple about to enter that wild ride of parenthood together, have a chance to differently. Equally shared parenting is an option for them because they share its one requirement – simply a joint wish for remain equal partners with balanced lives.
Phil and Tara's baby was born on January 1. Good luck to them!