For this Back-To-School Season, I’m Bringing My Family Forward

As busy as summer can feel, there is nothing like the start of a new school year. From classroom visits to supplies to buy, new schedules to learn and lunches to pack, activities to sign up for and snacks to prep, it feels like an endless task list for any parent.

But it’s nearly always mom who is planning, scheduling and checking items off the list, carrying both the ‘mental load’ and actual load. Sure, dad might help with execution, but it’s mom who has the vision, the game plan and the snacks in hand.

As we come up on the start of another school year, I wonder how we got here. When my husband and I first got married, we thought were so progressive, and wanted to blaze our own path – even when it came to our family name. Rather than taking my husband’s name, we creatively adopted a new last name (my maiden name translated into Spanish in fact) to reflect both our heritages.

But two years into our marriage, we were exhausted and unhappy. Turns out that reinventing the wheel at home wasn’t as easy as picking a name. And while we wore ourselves out discussing the political and social ramifications of who is doing the dishes, some of our other newly married friends stepped into more traditional gender roles with grace, knowing what was expected of them.

We eventually found our rhythm, but that all changed after we started a family five years on. When my maternity leave was up after the birth of our first and my company wasn’t willing to negotiate a flexible schedule, I decided to not go back to work. I then found myself home all day with the baby while my husband went off to work, and we quickly descended into traditional roles. He did pick up one feeding a night after I broke down from lack of sleep, and maintained his role as our family chef, but otherwise I managed the baby and the house, even when I went back to work full time after the birth of our second child. He was willing to help, but he asked so many questions (where’s this? what about that?) that it was just easier to do it myself.

This left us in a very typical dynamic for a modern marriage – where my husband is a willing and helpful executor, but the conception and planning stays stays with me – leaving me with an exhausting mental load and alternatively feeling either like a drill sergeant barking orders or a director coaxing the best performance out of my family.

But now that we have landed back in the US after years of living overseas and are preparing for this new school year, we have re-started conversations a lá our early married days, taking our learnings before kids, after kids, and overseas to divvy up child and home responsibilities.

We’re experimenting with a couple different approaches. Previously we split up tasks based on our strengths – for example, I created the weekly menu for the week since I like to plan, and my husband would procure the grocery items and cook. But taking a cue from Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play, we are trying to assign full responsibility for a complete category of tasks (like weekday meals, afterschool activities, or tidying the house) to one person – though this still requires one person (ahem, mom) to download the required elements of the task.

Alternatively in Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home, Kate Mangino gives a ‘trial by fire’ approach for dads, suggesting that in giving fathers more time alone with their children, they will see the full scope of responsibilities required for care giving and figure it out on their own. Both methods are designed to encourage dads to recognize and shoulder more of the cognitive load.

I’m also taking a cue from my own techniques that I successfully use with clients. First, I will list how much time I spend on work, chores, family time, relationship, and health, then chart what I want my life to look like in the future. I’ll ask my husband to do the same. From this intentional place, we can then craft the path to get from current chart to the future by discussing who will take what task, from beginning to end, what tasks need to be outsourced, and which can be eliminated.

I know it will be a long conversation with frequent re-visits with each life change, but I believe it will be worth it to have a truly equitable home. We will move forward, imperfectly, but continually working to embody the progressive values we espouse.