When my neighbors in Oakland tried to set me up with their friend Ken in 2004, I declined. I found out later he’d declined too. We were both mid-thirties and focused on our careers, settled into the decision not to marry or have kids. Then we got to talking at a party hosted by my neighbors. We got engaged on our third date and had a daughter in the first year of being married. She’s now seven and, though she rolls her eyes at it, we call her by the nickname Bean.
When Bean was one, we decided to move from Oakland to a smaller coastal town. I worked from home as a freelance writer during her first year, but the move was made financially possible by me going back to work full time as a public defender. We talked about rotating who worked full time but the reality is that I have a higher earning potential and steady income. This slid me into the role of breadwinner and I’ve remained there for six years. This weekend I sat down with Ken to ask each other a few questions so I could report on how this arrangement is working for us:
Describe your professional career.
Ken: I have a private acupuncture practice focused on sports medicine and helping people with active injuries. I was always involved in sports and interested in medicine. As an acupuncturist I can have my own office and set my own hours.
Jenny: I work for the County of Sonoma as a deputy public defender, defending poor people accused of committing crimes.
How many hours per week do you work outside the home?
Ken: I work when Bean is in school, probably thirty hours a week, twenty hours seeing patients and ten hours doing paperwork in the evenings.
Jenny: Probably forty-five hours per week when I’m not in trial, ninety hours when I’m in trial. If I go to trial on a serious felony that lasts weeks or months, I go spans of several days without seeing Bean with her eyes open. I love my job but that aspect of it is pretty awful.
Is there anything about that you would like to change?
Ken: Doesn’t everybody want to work less? (laughing)
Jenny: I’d love to work halftime for a few years while Bean is young, but that isn’t available. My job doesn’t offer part time, job share, flexible hours, or anything other than full time. I’ve asked and been turned down.
Ken: There are always more things I’d like to do—at work and at home– but not enough hours in the day. I’m running from the school to work to the store to school to home. Piano lessons, homework, gymnastics. I don’t see how I could fit in more work.
Jenny: It’s a daily marathon for both of us, five in the morning to nine at night. Someone is always overdue to go to the dentist, or one of the animals to the vet.
Ken: You just finally went to the dentist.
Jenny: Yes, the dentist told me I’m brushing too fast. She asked if I could slow down and take an extra thirty seconds brushing. I actually stopped to think about whether I could find the time, which is lunacy, because of course I have thirty seconds.
How would you describe your contributions to income, childcare and household chores?
Ken: Income: 20%. Childcare: 60-70%. Household chores: 80%.
Jenny: Those numbers sound right. I feel the weight of being responsible for all the bills: the mortgage, the car payments, the vacations. You do the school drop off and pickups and volunteers in the classroom twice a week. I do all the laundry and pick up the toys and socks strewn all over, so the house doesn’t look like an episode of Hoarders. But you do all the shopping and cooking; that’s huge. You’re a great cook and you pack amazing lunches for Bean to take to school and me to take to work.
Ken: That is so many hours of my day: feed the Bean, wife, dog, cat, chickens. Then, do the dishes, repeat. Then there’s cutting firewood, watering the garden, tending the bees, pruning the apple trees. I never get to the end of the list.
Did you ever picture having a family life like ours?
Ken: Thinking back, I had friends whose parents both worked, but as kids we’d hang out at the houses with a parent home, and it was usually the mom. The mom was with the kids, the mom was making snacks.
Jenny: Me, too.
Ken: I’m glad we’re figuring it out our own way. It works for us.
Jenny: Speak for yourself. I’m tired.
Ken: Aren’t all parents tired?
What do you find most satisfying and challenging about the work/family roles we have:
Ken: I get to spend time with Bean, in her class, with her friends. We get to live here in a beautiful place. She has great opportunities to learn and experience things. At work, I make a difference in people’s lives, that’s great. But I can’t dedicate the time I’d want to research and write and teach, or generate enough income to take the burden off of you. I’d like to contribute more financially.
Jenny: I’m glad that I’m able to make a decent living for us, we’re very lucky. But the financial burden is also constraining; sometimes I think that if I’m going to work all these hours I want to design a cutting edge career in criminal justice policy, but I’ve had to pass on some amazing career opportunities because they were grant funded and not enough income. I enjoy trial work and I do a good job for an under-served population, so that’s satisfying.
But it’s hard having other people control my schedule. Clients and judges make decisions that cause us to cancel vacations or me to be away for long hours. I’m clear that my family is my highest priority, but I spend more hours at work than with my family. I miss relaxed family time. I miss cooking, I love to cook, but I feel unwelcome in the kitchen sometimes. I get scolded for putting things away in the wrong place or eating a dinner ingredient for lunch.
What do you think are the best and worst aspects of our career/family roles for Bean?
Ken: I think it’s amazing for her to see her mom in a powerful job being a kick-ass attorney. She says she wants to be a doctor and she knows that’s possible. She doesn’t think it’s weird to ask her dad to braid her hair.
Jenny: I think it’s going to make her relationships stronger throughout her life that she’s so close to her dad. I feel bad that she says she wants more time with me. She complains sometimes that the other mommies are at the school more. I’d like to be able to do that. But we also don’t get sick of each other, we’re always happy to see each other and to find time to hang out together.
What about other people’s reactions to our non-traditional roles?
Ken: People are finally used to seeing me at school and the market. But they treat me like the dad who’s helping the mom out, not the one who’s taken on these responsibilities, like I’m the helper. Patients ask for five o’clock appointments even though I keep saying that I don’t schedule past three because I pick up my daughter. They just keep asking, like it must be temporary. The moms complain to each other sometimes about their husbands not picking up the house, and when I walk up they stop talking.
Jenny: The same moms complain to me about how the kids always come to them for band-aids and snacks, even if the husband is sitting right there. I just laugh and say “she goes to her dad, I’m the second string parent.”