“Join Us!” the subject line shouted from my inbox. Not yet sure whether I was being invited to a MLM selling diet pills or a LinkedIn webinar, I clicked through.
Inside the email was a pixelated gold square crafted to look like a shiny envelope with my first name printed on it. Another click took me to a page with all the details for an upcoming birthday party for a child. My child, in fact.
If you’ve never received an email invitation to your own kid’s birthday party, I can tell you that it’s a strange phenomenon. One of those micro-moments that, before divorce, you couldn’t really anticipate would hit you in a weird way until it happens.
The party would be at the home of my ex-husband, the one I’d finally just signed over in what was the last of the lengthy to-dos in the dissolution of our marriage. The one where my monkey birthday boy had clambered his way up the steps of the backyard playset at barely nine months old. The one where he’d sat on the porch with the cheesiest of grins for the photo I took on his first day of school.
The party would have pizza! And a movie! And an ice cream cake! And, I was invited.
My mind started circling around questions of whether my ex-husband really wanted me there or had felt pressured or obligated to include me. But despite my sometimes obsessively inquisitive mind, I decided to simply appreciate that he had. It represented another step toward sharing events and spaces for our kids, something that felt vitally important.
It also represented the first birthday party fully planned and hosted by my former partner. We’ve been parenting for over a decade and have a brood of kids, so this was no small moment.
I moved my mouse over the “I’ll Attend!” button and clicked. I wasn’t going to miss this.
The man I married back in the early 2000s was driven and industrious. He would have also described himself as a feminist and we happily envisioned the type of progressive and equitable partnership to which most couples of our generation aspired.
The man I married actually never stopped being driven, industrious, or a feminist. He didn’t get lazy or sick and while he wasn’t spending his free time like me reading books on invisible labor, he was generally trying to be an active partner. But like most of the men in couples of our generation, he – we – fell prey to the traditional gender roles that we had promised we would resist.
Because of school and moving and infertility, we were married a bit longer than many when we finally had a child. I’d hoped that the time we’d invested in being a childless married couple would help inoculate against the unbalance I saw around me in homesteading and parenting. But as soon as our first son made his way into our arms, the cultural forces started nipping at our heels.
As the familiar story goes, it started small with things like me letting him sleep through the night feedings since he had to get up in the morning for work, whereas I had to just get up in the morning to tend to a terrorizingly colicky infant. Before I knew it, all the additional practice I had in feeding and changing and soothing our newborn turned into additional practice in teething remedies and scheduling music classes and registering for preschool. Suddenly, all of the daycare and pediatrician and other parents’ phone numbers were stored in my – and only my – phone, so it would just make sense for me to call. After years and more babies, I found myself being the holder of everything, from knowing what time was best to text the babysitter to get a response to where to park at Children’s Hospital to when it was time to schedule family photos to have them in time for the holiday card.
He never said he didn’t want to do these things. (Okay, exception – he was clear he wanted no part of planning family photos.) To be fair, he never said he wouldn’t do these things. He just didn’t do them, usually because they were already done. Or because he didn’t notice to do them.
That might sound like a dig, and maybe it’s an unconscious one. But what I’m speaking to here is the fact that my former partner was a good human with a solid drive who, like almost every one of his cishet male peers, ended up getting the much longer end of the domestic labor stick. And in many ways, though not all, it cost us our marriage.
I would never tell anyone ever (seriously, listen to me here) to get a divorce solely to rebalance the division of labor. I’m simply saying that since getting divorced, my load has lightened significantly, and in ways I couldn’t have dreamed when I was married.
I seem to be far from alone in this experience. In fact, research demonstrates that married mothers spend significantly more time on housework than single mothers and have less free time each day. Married moms even end up sleeping 13 minutes less per night, on average, than single moms, a difference that might seem small, but adds up majorly over the course of a week or a year.
What’s important here is not a matter of minutes, but the fact that not only does a partner not help mitigate the load of managing a home or children, but adds to it.
As someone with a busy professional life, I’d spent a long time fretting about what it might be like to be divorced and running a household alone. I’d worried too about juggling the activities and needs of several kiddos without another adult at hand. And while it’s certainly been tricky – and sometimes a downright magic act – I have to tell you that it hasn’t necessarily felt harder.
There are probably a few reasons for this, not the least of which is that being in a strained relationship is its own special kind of exhausting. But it’s also because divorce – at least relatively amicable divorce between two reasonably mature adults committed to being good parents – necessitates a kind of division of labor that so little else seems to be able to accomplish.
After a decade of being the only one to know have the school admin’s direct line, we suddenly both had to know how to let school know a kid would be late. While he’d never made more than the occasional grilled cheese, my ex has recently been making homemade pad thai that my kids are raving about. He’s learned more friends’ parents’ names. We’ve divided up kids’ dentist appointments. And we decided we would alternate planning birthday parties. I’d take two of the kids’ celebrations on even years, then the other two on odd years.
I was lucky enough to see not just one but two of my heroines speak at a conference recently. One was Eve Rodsky, founder and author of Fair Play, the system that helps couples reallocate domestic responsibilities and share the load. In her keynote, like in other talks I’d seen her give, she talked about her marriage being on the brink of divorce before she developed her system.
The other heroine was the brilliant poet, Maggie Smith, who just authored a gorgeous memoir on the breakdown of her own marriage. In We Could Make This Place Beautiful, Maggie writes lyrically about how her own disconnection with her husband grew as she raised her children.
During one of the breaks, the two authors were signing books at adjoining tables. When I finally made it up to the front and stood in front of Eve to present her my book to sign, she pointed over at where Maggie’s book sat. She joked, “You’ve got two choices here. Which route are you going to take?”
“I think I took both,” I told her, laughing, and then shared that I’d gotten divorced before ever really trying Fair Play, but had now adopted the method and was actively practicing it in my new relationship.
I explained that while I wasn’t sure a better division of responsibility alone could have saved my marriage, it never would have been saved without it, of that I was sure.
An inequitable mental load takes a huge toll on a marriage, one that I don’t think most of us see and appreciate until we’re sitting in an attorney’s office trying to speak as quickly as possible since we’re paying by the minute.
It’s not just the resentment that builds when one feels like they are carrying the greater burden. It’s the chasm that develops when we’re leading such different lives, separated by huge gaps in knowledge and responsibility. It’s the not feeling like a person anymore because managing the load seems to require giving up sleep and recreation and personhood. And a non-person can’t be in an intimate relationship.
While I adore Maggie Smith with all my heart and am enjoying the hell out of my own unmarried life, I want to be clear again that I don’t want this path for most people. I don’t want it, and I don’t think it has to be this way.
What I want for most people is the Fair Play path – the one where, through hard conversations and task redistribution and some habit breaking, we find the partnerships that so many of us dreamed of, the ones that many of us even started with. I truly believe that most of us can traverse that path if we have a partner who’s willing to go it with us.
And for those who have seen the sunset on our relationships already, I can tell you that there are bright moments ahead, even through the plentiful challenges of single life. One of them is eating cake at a birthday party for your kid that you didn’t have to plan and you don’t have to clean up.