As a couple, we have always valued equality, even if we haven’t always practiced it. It seemed to be not only an issue of basic fairness but also a practical way to share the joys and burdens of our life together. But implementing this ideal has been an incremental process.
Like most newlyweds, we came to our marriage with great optimism, but also with ambivalent beliefs about roles. Our ideals of equality competed with traditional expectations of who would actually cook the meals, take out the garbage, change the oil, earn the money, and change the diapers.
One of the first arenas where we faced this incongruity was meal preparation. It seemed easy at first. We have always loved to do things together, so as newlyweds we planned meals, shopped, cooked and washed dishes jointly. We enjoyed experimenting with new recipes and re-creating old family favorites.
But as our lives filled with school and work (and the novelty of cooking wore off), there was an unspoken expectation that whoever got home first would start dinner preparations. Instead, we each lingered on the way home, hoping the other would get there first, resulting in late dinners simmering with resentment. It was clear something needed to change. After a brainstorming session, it was agreed we would take weekly turns planning and preparing dinners. Unfortunately, the discussion about who would do the cleanup was more contentious.
The problem is that one of us is a careful cook, cleaning as he goes, and the other is quick and dirty, worrying about her mess later. The solution? If you cook it, you clean it! The benefits? As the “chef of the week” prepared our meal and did the dishes, we felt pampered and treated to delightful menus we would not have attempted ourselves. The penalty clause for unwashed dishes at the end of the week: You clean the other person’s mess until the dishes are caught up.
With the birth of our first child, renegotiations were in order. Now we each cook every other day. Cambria, who is 14 years old, is encouraged to be part of the rotation when her schedule allows. And six-year-old Schuyler loves to be the chef’s assistant and was tearing lettuce for salads when he was only two. Additional benefits for the kids include getting to make something they really like, as well as learning the mechanics of shopping and food preparation.
Children, of course, require time and attention. We wanted to share both the pleasures and pains of parenting, so we expanded our model of scheduled responsibility. We take turns chauffeuring, supervising homework, reading, volunteering at school, putting to bed, and getting up in the middle of the night. We even have elaborate charts showing who does what when, but we’re flexible about adapting to the moment or renegotiating any changes.
Some things we do together, like church, doctor’s appointments, and our children’s school and sporting events. Just recently our son’s dentist expressed appreciation that we both were there, noting how unusual that was. We even fold laundry as part of our weekly family meeting.
Other tasks are traded off, based on our likes and dislikes. She mows the lawn; he shops for groceries; he researches the trip; she makes the reservations; she drives; he navigates. And there are some jobs, like bill paying, where roles are alternated periodically. Of course, we have some tasks, like washing windows and cleaning closets that no one does.
How do we find the time to do all this? We are not independently wealthy, so someone has to work. Early in our marriage we agreed to share the financial responsibilities of our family. But we didn’t want to spend most of lives at work. We wanted time for each other, our children, personal and spiritual growth, recreation, and service. How could we do it?
Our solution is that we both work part time. This may sound radical, but it is actually legal in all fifty states. It has required creativity and occasional compromises, but we have successfully worked part time throughout our professional careers. In fact, neither of us has had a full time job in the last 24 years! (A friend tells us, “You always seem to be beating the system.”)
Obviously, this decision requires us to make choices, ones that reflect our value of time over money. We live modestly. (Of course, “modest” in affluent North America is absolutely luxurious by historical or global standards.) We don’t have new his-and-hers SUVs. But neither are we living under a bridge. We are able to travel, we have our toys, and we own our home in one of the more desirable areas of coastal California.
Working part time has allowed both of us to be fully involved with parenting our children. This far outweighs any material bounty we could give them. (This is not to say that their rooms are not crammed with far too many possessions.) Because at least one of us is usually home, we can give guidance and support to our children when they need it most.
Through all of this, we are attempting to live a practical equality. Philosophically, we have always embraced the principle that we are both equally responsible for all the decisions and tasks in our home. But equality has become a reality only as we have structured it into our daily lives.