With a monotonously slow shift in gender roles, mothers and fathers are finally awakening from the Don Draper Decades and realizing it need not be so. Not only does staying-at-home not have to be the definition of subjugating the “inferior sex” (although anyone who’s child is teething, having diarrhea, going through puberty, or has back-to-back hockey and soccer practices is likely to feel both subjugated and inferior), the office is also no longer a bastion of machismo politics, cigarettes and abused female secretaries.
Being a stay-at-home parent is also (finally!) starting to be recognized as serious business.
Almost every stage of child-rearing is studied by the primary caregiver through the art of research; either through literature, comparison to a neighboring family, or the greatest art of all—Googling. Is my child tall enough? Is my child smart enough? For how many minutes should they be allowed to use the iPad before they suffer cerebral and retinal failure?
What does it really mean to be an office-parent?
Being an office-parent (I refuse to ever use the term “working parent.” I mean, when are you ever at home with a child and not working?!) has also become a case-study in accelerated living. 9 to 5 is becoming more and more perverted into something people insist on calling “flexible.” What that means is you may no longer be at the office for eight consecutive hours; instead you pop in and out of the building like a slalom skier carrying a smartphone.
The obligation to remain connected to work means the skier is now never able remove his or her helmet and boots. Ever. Even on the weekend or during family holidays.
What hasn’t changed all that much is the belief each parent—whether they take care of the children full time, or they spend forty hours weekly in an office—can have that they have the tougher job.
One will say the other has no idea what it’s like to be home with monosyllabic, incontinent, explosive infants all day; the other will insist there is no pressure like being responsible for a full-time salary and obligations to the The Man at The Corporation.
The consistent complaint for all of us is: pressure.
And that’s what airlocks are for.
Submarines have them for divers transferring from a wet to a dry environment (the Navy’s diaper change, if you will); the space station has one to be able to go from where there is no air to where there is a lot of air, without passing out (insert other diaper reference here).
Whenever I give parenting talks, I refer to the parental airlock. The portion of the conversation always starts like this (I rely on the male and female stereotypes because—despite what we read in the press and in the blogosphere—our roles haven’t changed that much. The majority of stay-at-home parents are still moms):
“He’s been away at work all day. Your youngest has started to give up napping…today of all days. Of course, it is also the day your 5-year-old has remembered how much he misses the terrible two’s, and your 8-year-old won’t stop reminding you how bored she is because all her friends are at camp. The laundry is piled up in the washer and wrinkling in the dryer; there is nothing substantial for supper (so you’ll have breakfast for dinner again, like you did two days ago). Also, you didn’t sleep well last night because you remembered two birthday parties are around the corner and those presents haven’t been bought yet. You don’t even know what kids like anymore!
When he waltzes in the door—late as usual—you’re going to hand these kids over and have a bath, alone with the door locked! After all, you’re earned it.”
Then I continue:
“He’s on the way home, stuck in traffic. The emails are still pinging on his work phone, because there is no such thing as “checking out” anymore. As usual, twenty-percent of the people at the office are doing 80-percent of the work, and he is one of the former group. He hasn’t even finished filling the last order and dealing with its weak links, and the next project has fallen on his desk because the person responsible for that project is away. When will he get time off? Well, you are all supposed to go away this weekend, but he hopes you’ll understand if he has to check his cellphone from time-to-time. He wishes he could just tell them he is clocking out for forty-eight hours, but it’s not that easy. The workplace has become competitive and, although they say bonuses are based on performance, he knows the truth—they’re really based on attitude.
When he gets home, he’s just looking for fifteen minutes to put on some sweats, wash his face and grab a beer on the porch. After all, he’s earned it.”
So, what happens now?
He gets home and opens the door; you get up and greet him. You are now about to try to squeeze by each other in a very narrow emotional hallway, eager to get to where you both deserve to be.
Each of you may also end up feeling resentful because you both want a break…from everything.
This won’t change, even if the gender roles are swapped.
The airlock is a question of understanding.
One of the great tenets of being a decent human being is to “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
A shift in gender roles is (again, slowly) allowing the men to better understand the pressures of full-time child-rearing, and allowing women to appreciate the pressure of being the primary wage-earner.
There are good days and bad days for both. And, in my experience, if you do either one for too long a stretch you’re desperate for a change. Desperate for a trip through the airlock.
The airlock, in real terms, is a time buffer: a period of fifteen or twenty minutes of daily alone time for each of you. It can be immediately after the office parent walks in the door, or just before supper for a bath, or after supper to go for a run, etc.
Gaining access to the airlock isn’t difficult; but it requires a conversation, and no one is going to start that conversation for you.
One of the toughest things I ever have to say to my wife is, “I need some time.”
It’s difficult, because I know she needs time, too, and there isn’t a lot of free time to go around.
But, without that decompression, the airlock door is left open, and all sort of nasty stuff creeps in: resentment, fatigue, and passive aggression.
Whether it’s nursing children to sleep, or nursing colleague through computer applications, I think you will enjoy your family time much more if you allow each other a little breathing space, and a little decompression.