Almost Utopia: What It's Like When Both Parents Get Leave Together

Photographed by Jackie Harriet.

Going through my second pregnancy with an early June due date meant that I was used to hearing comments like “good thing you won’t have to be pregnant all summer,” or “hope you have air conditioning!” But rarely did anyone pick up on one of the reasons I was most psyched for my baby's summer arrival: It meant that my spouse, an assistant professor at a state university, would be on summer break and then have family leave come fall. We'd hit the holy grail of postpartum life: both parents at home together for months with our newborn and our 3-year-old.

For many moms, the first weeks at home with a new baby can be stressful and terrifying, exhausting and lonely. I try to be careful when I bring up our arrangement, because it can be like rubbing salt in someone’s episiotomy wound. Only 60% of Americans can access FMLA for parental leave, and paid leave is only available to 13%. I know how rare it is for a family to be able to have both parents at home together. As a freelancer, I'm in the no-paid-leave camp (no formalized leave at all, really). Instead, I scaled back my writing when my daughter arrived, and have been slowly easing back in as time allows. That's one of a few intentional choices that brought us here, in combination with sheer dumb luck and a progressive family leave policy from my husband's employer.

Another choice was that we live in a college town in Eastern Washington, with a cost of living forgiving enough that we can get by on my husband's salary, while I build my currently inconsistent and not-so-lucrative career from home. Various drafts of this essay, for example, were written with my newborn sleeping on my lap, or breastfeeding while I typed one-handed. Our older child isn't such a passive participant, though, and it can be hard to regain focus after pausing to clean peanut butter and jelly off the face of a tiny person who won’t stop dancing.

I’ve long given up on any semblance of work/life balance; it’s more like a swirl of the two together, constantly, which I don't recommend for anyone whose work wouldn’t recover from a toddler bashing nonsense on a keyboard, or who can’t sleep if there are dishes in the sink (which there always are, because we eat nearly all meals at home). It definitely wouldn’t do for someone who needs peace and quiet in order to function. While this arrangement works for my family (for now), it may not forever, nor for anyone else.

I’ve long given up on achieving any semblance of work/life balance; it’s more like a swirl of the two together, constantly.

On some days, it looks much like you’d expect it to, with the four of us in our pajamas late into the morning, sprawled on the living room floor with various books and blankets and trucks. We play and snuggle until someone needs a snack or a diaper change. When that happens, my husband and I take turns, letting the duty fall on whoever needs a stretch or a bathroom break. He’ll pour coffee for himself and milk for our son, while I practice Peek-A-Boo with the baby, hollering for him to hurry back when she actually responds with a giggle. We typically keep this up until our 3-year-old’s due at preschool, or until his pent up energy requires my husband to start a rollicking round of “ninjas” or “pirates” or “ninja pirates,” leaving me with our youngest.

On other days, however, it’s not quite as simple or as blissful as it would seem. We criss-cross in the hallway, him with our 3-year-old clinging to his leg, and me with our baby in my arms, and my yoga pants and pajama shirt getting more wrinkled and spit-uppy by the hour. It can feel like I’m always with my husband, but I rarely see him, because we’re both perpetually distracted. More than once, I’ve texted him pictures of our baby while he’s in another room of the house, and we’ve all but given up hope of ever watching an entire movie together.

We divide and conquer, because what our 3-year-old wants (unrestricted access to his Legos, high praise for all of his amateur stuntman performances, and a steady diet of his favorite food which is, literally, “sugar”) rarely ever matches what our newborn needs (milk on demand, gentle snuggles, and tummy time). It’s certainly not the worst problem I’ve ever had, but I wasn’t exactly prepared for it to be a problem.

Usually I feel equal parts lucky, exhausted, and guilty, often all at the same time. Lucky, for getting to do what I love surrounded by people I love; exhausted because, hello, we have two small children in the house; and guilty because I’m not devoting 100% of my energy to them, all day, every day — and isn’t that what moms are supposed to do?

I’ve had to contend with being a far cry from the image of a supermom that plays out in sitcoms, laundry detergent commercials, and in online mom groups (at least the ones I find myself scrolling through). None of the displays of motherhood I see in those places show her hunched over a laptop with a sleeping baby strapped to her chest, with a partner and preschooler shooting foam rockets in the next room.

I lean on my spouse for many traditional “mom” duties, too. In his dad element, he's quick to change diapers; he styles our newborn adorably when he dresses her; and he can somehow defuse a meltdown over gummy bears, after I struggled to do the same for 10 minutes. Okay, 20. If I weren't breastfeeding our daughter, I’d have some major insecurities about whether or not I'm pulling my weight. There are moments that make me cagey in this two-parent parenting plan; I always want to be the one who reads our son his last book before bed, and soak up the sleepy snuggles when he’s already breathing heavily and drifting off, but I rarely get to do it these days. This is only possible if my husband’s got the baby occupied and not in need of a breast. Only I can fulfill that need; but since either of us can read to our son, I’ve had to learn to let go.

Upside, though: Having my husband here means I can shower and pee without fearing that one of my kids will face catastrophic injury in my absence (or that they’ll accompany me to the bathroom). And, since my husband typically wakes up with our toddler, I can sometimes catch an extra half-hour — or, if I’m lucky, whole hour — of sleep in the morning (after waking up to breastfeed two or three times at night). This is perhaps the single greatest gift I've ever received.

I can barely imagine the utopia that would come from more new parents having a wider range of choices when it comes to designing their families’ everyday lives.

While our situation is indeed unique in the U.S.A., legislation is slowly creeping toward the leave options parents find in other countries. Coincidentally, this summer our state, Washington, passed a new family leave law, joining California, New York, Washington D.C., Rhode Island, and New Jersey as the only states currently offering paid parental leave (New York and D.C., where the law was nearly overturned, begin in 2018 and 2020, respectively). The other 90% of states don’t offer such a benefit yet, though Rep. Rosa DeLaura and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand are out there fighting for a bill that would offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave nationally.

Still, our country has a long way to go before enough families have the option to do what we’re doing. Most dads don’t have access to paid leave (just 9% of employers offer it at all, and not all employees qualify), and for those who do, it’s much more common for them to take it separately from their partners; each bonding with their child solo instead of witnessing the other in action, as we've been able to do.

Without such legislation, parents are at the whims of their employers. And while countless studies and experts consistently tout how much millennials value our flexible schedules (in fact, Deloitte’s 2017 Millennial Survey founds that 84% of millennials have “some degree of flexible work in their organization”) there have been far fewer conversations about what it looks like when those of us who have that flexibility at work become parents. My hope is that it’s only a matter of time until these factors start meshing for families who want the space to carve out untraditional routines.

Earlier this week, some of my mom friends were lamenting their partners’ long hours, and joking about how much of their day is spent looking forward to their kids’ bedtimes. It was clear that many felt trapped in their current routines. I can barely imagine the utopia that would come from more new parents having a wider range of choices when it comes to designing their families’ everyday lives.

Parenting is tiring, and draining, and wonderful, and messy, and exhausting, but my spouse and I were lucky enough to find a way of doing it that suits us and, miraculously, our personal goals. That’s how it should be for everyone.

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