Picture this: A young American couple arrives in York, England with their two-year-old son to start their new life—the mother to return to school and earn a PhD at the University of York, the father to become a stay-at-home-dad. Amidst a light drizzle, they walk the streets of York on their first day in the country, obtain library cards, relax at a café, and then saunter back to a quaint bed and breakfast. They fall peacefully into a deep and restful sleep, and visions of their delightful prospects dance through their dreams. They, indeed, are ready to live out England’s World War II motto: Keep calm and carry on.
Now picture this: A young American couple arrives in York, England with their two-year-old son to start their new life—the mother to begin a demanding school schedule, the father to face a dramatic shift to full-time dad and homemaker. They haven’t slept on the overnight flight from Boston. When they land in London, the rain comes down in microcosmic waterfalls. Everywhere. They use half their savings to take a taxi to the train station, then the other half of their savings to take a train into York—their new home for the next three years. Amidst an onslaught of torrential rain, they stagger into the public library, track down library cards, stumble into a café, and finally collapse into an unfamiliar bed. None of them are able to fall asleep, and the father finally has a panic attack at three in the morning. They, indeed, are ready to live out the inverse of England’s World War II motto: Now panic and freak out.
Both pictures were us. Are us. Now at the end of the second year of our role-swapping, living-abroad journey, the place we have arrived at is one of acceptance of the highs and lows involved with making big life changes. In a word, what our counter-cultural decisions have shown us more than anything else is the absolute power of God’s grace. And this grace is teaching us how to live life in a more holistic way.
As parents, it is essential that we identify the needs of our family: physical, economical, emotional, and spiritual. What healthy meals will be prepared? Are there clean clothes to wear? Have we paid our bills? Are there opportunities to connect with a larger community? Does everyone feel listened to and understood? Is faith growing? Is trust in God deepening? Is there specific time devoted to prayer and studying Scripture? This list of needs, when written out in full, can become quite overwhelming, especially when facing such dramatic life changes.
In our Christian culture, we frequently attempt to manage these challenges by focusing on who is fulfilling a need or should be fulfilling certain needs, based on assumptions about gender. But our life story to this point has shown us something different: Our family’s needs are met best when we embrace a fluid approach to the roles we occupy as parents, rather than a fixed, unchangeable structure.
Each morning when we wake up in England, we find ourselves asking questions about who will do what. Our original role-swapping model has now transmogrified into a role-sharing parenting plan. Over the past two years, what God has been repeatedly showing us is that we must relinquish an all-or-nothing approach to parenting and living. Our culture likes to say, Mothers will do this; fathers will do this. Many of us at one point in our lives or another could probably make two columns on a sheet of paper and delineate the cooking, cleaning, and childcare to mothers, while placing economic responsibilities, the car, and the yard in the care of the father. But these kinds of differentiations fail to account for spiritual gifts, the needs of the family, and the time and resources available to meet those needs.
It is almost as if a legalistic vision of parenting and marriage has come to replace the life-giving, emancipating, empowering, and sustainable vision that Jesus teaches and Paul endorses. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes a deeply impassioned account of what matters in our journey as Christians: it’s not the legalistic rites of passage on which the Galatians were placing so much importance—not circumcision, the law, and the carefully delineated roles for men and women, slaves and free, Greeks and Jews (Gal. 3:28)—but “what matters is faith that works through love” (5:6).
The challenging aspect of “faith that works through love” is that it looks different for everybody. And, the inertia of our Christian culture’s assumptions that all parenting must look alike and be based on gender roles is hard to resist. Messages from the pulpit seldom seek to discuss fathers as nurturers or mothers as economic providers. Christians often frown upon fathers who stay home and mothers who work, and we have found few role models who are living outside of traditional expectations. Yet, as we continue on our journey—which will most certainly cross confusing terrain—we must sit and discuss who will take care of what responsibilities, and how the needs of the family will be met. It isn’t easy, to be sure, but our “faith that works through love” compels us forward. And the more we learn to parent based on need and gifting rather than cultural expectations, the more we experience great empowerment and freedom.
Not so long ago, our son was scheduled to receive two vaccinations. Like his father, he is quite wary of sharp needles. Both of us brought him to the doctor’s appointment, and thirty minutes of chaos ensued—complete refusal on our son’s part to remove his shirt and let the doctor “poke” him with the “special” medicine. As parents, we wallowed in despair after his refusal turned to shrieks, and his shrieks, upon leaving the unsuccessful visit, turned to a complete emotional meltdown on the walk home. When we arrived home (trying to forget about all the judgmental looks we received from strangers for being “those” parents with “that” child), we tried to figure out why the appointment had been so terrible—what we could have done to have made it go more smoothly. But we were all exhausted, and after two years of living with no car, no dryer, no microwave, instant coffee (dreaming about the luxury of brewing a “proper” cuppa!), and fighting the cultural trends of parenting and family life, we were, quite simply, wiped out. We had little gas in our tanks, and we had no clue where to refuel. Even at this late stage of the journey, we asked that treacherous question: What if we have made an awful mistake—about everything?
The question sat with us like a grumpy army of curmudgeons the entire day, and we went to sleep that night confused and unsure about the path ahead. What is more, since our son hadn’t actually received the necessary shots, we had to go back in a week. Was it now time to panic and freak out again, as we had when we first arrived? One week later—and after a series of days seeking Christ in prayer—we returned to the doctor’s office. Our son was no giddier than the previous attempt to have his arms assaulted by needles, but, as parents, we were armed with renewed faith. We questioned less, trusted more, and held on to the fact that Scripture never guarantees ease and prosperity, but it always guarantees that God’s love “endures forever” (Ps. 136). God’s promises to us, which we claimed on the second doctor’s visit, were the same as God’s promises to the Israelites as they sojourned in Egypt, to the disciples as they followed Jesus, to the early Christians in Acts—quite simply, You’ll never be alone. It won’t be easy, but God's love will provide a way for us to prevail.
In our one tiny moment, watching our son receive his shots became a metaphor for our whole experiment of parenting differently; there were cries and pain, yes, but the effect of the medicine was powerful, and it entered in and worked. Prevailing doesn’t always look like ease and comfort. Prevailing by faith sometimes looks like loving when it’s hard, keeping calm when you want to panic, and carrying on when you know that the confusions won’t altogether disappear. But you take one step forward, then another, and another, because you believe that when God calls, God also equips—whether that takes the shape of an out-of-home vocation, an in-home-vocation, or a mixture in the middle.
Advice for Parents who are Practicing Shared Parenting
- Try to avoid making other big changes, such as moving to a new house or a new country, at the same time as you change parenting responsibilities.
- Talk frequently and in depth with your spouse. Share your emotions in honest ways, and listen to the difficulties each individual faces with the new situation.
- Avoid blaming each other for the challenges you experience. For example, do not say, “I’m upset because the house is not meeting my standards of cleanliness” when you really mean, “I feel guilty that I’m away from home so much and am having a hard time at work.” And do not say, “I’m angry because you should get home earlier,” when you really mean, “I am still fried from the tantrum this morning and from having to nourish and entertain a moody child who would not nap. I am overwhelmed and exhausted.”
- Expect confusion. Anything new, different, or counter-cultural elicits ambiguity as you proceed; be patient and make prayer a top priority.
- Ask for dedicated prayer partners to support the life change your family has made.
- Search out a community that will support and encourage your choices. This becomes incredibly helpful in the difficult, confusing moments—sometimes you need to cry on the shoulder of someone other than your spouse; likewise, it is uplifting and fun to share successes or insights with others who believe in what you are doing.
- Expect some criticism and disillusionment from others. Learn to smile and nod, but seek the Lord’s approval rather than the approval of others.
- Laugh. Watch a clip on YouTube of a comedian you both enjoy, laugh about the mistakes you make in your new roles, laugh about the silly things your children do. If necessary, force the laughter until it becomes real.
- At least once a week, sit down together for encouragement. Make time for each spouse to share compliments with the other regarding how they are handling their new responsibilities.
- Try to refrain from critiquing your spouse; understand that they will perform their responsibilities differently than you would, and this is okay!
- Even if you only have a few minutes: Pray together, every day.