Original, 5/19/2020: My husband and I have signed the final paperwork. And no, we’re not getting a divorce.
I’m actually surprised it didn’t occur to me earlier. I’m not a litigious person, but I am practical. I’m also the daughter of two attorneys, and, as a result, I’ve always tried to put everything in writing. I have stacks of saved documents: occupancy agreements, privacy agreements, contracts, legally binding letters. Some of these have proven useful over time. Others of these have probably served only to calm my racing nerves. Still, a letter can outline responsibilities between you and another party in the times before (or even after) you’re emotionally invested. The point of a contract is to remove yourself from the hotheadedness of wherever your headspace is. The point is to place reason over emotion.
When COVID-19 hit New York, where I live, it hit quickly, fiercely, and, to us, at least, without much warning. Suddenly, our parental responsibilities over a 1-year-old and 3-year-old were much greater. Our older child was in preschool three days a week, our younger in daycare. I was already a part-time, stay-at-home mom, since my husband's job can’t be done from home.
With our kids around all the time, and my husband’s role somewhat essential (meaning still needs to leave the house sometimes), I felt myself drowning. Our conversations devolved into arguments about who deserved what. He saw his position as intractable. I saw my mental state as steadily deteriorating. Communication wasn’t getting us anywhere.
That’s when I thought of a different approach. That’s when I drafted a contract.
A contract, for us, was a good way to determine what our rights and responsibilities were, both to each other and to our kids. How many hours would my husband be out of the home each week? Instead of nagging him over text, or asking each week when he’d commit to a schedule, I could put it in a contract, and, in writing, it was irrefutable. Which days would he fill in at home so that I, in turn, could get work done in my own office (i.e. the kitchen table)? In a contract, the lines seemed clear and factual, an equitable division of labor.
We wrote in negotiating points. Need to switch hours? Flexibility is a part of life, and it’s accounted for, all in our contract to one another. We often point to data when we break down the work between women and men. Women have more domestic responsibilities, and, as more than one study has pointed out, the bulk of the invisible labor, the so-called “worry work,” when it comes to caring for families and family life. In black-and-white, though, I was able, for the first time as a mom, to level the playing field. In some ways, that was liberating, even as we drew lines that some may see as constricting.
It’s harder to argue over terms when they're right there before you. It’s harder for my husband to steal an extra hour at work, when he knows that our contract binds him to a certain agreed-upon amount. It’s harder for me to let time slip away from me in the afternoon, when I’m engrossed in my own work, say, when I know I’ll owe him back the hours on another deadlined day.
I’m not naive enough to think that every childcare problem can be solved by drafting a piece of paper between two negotiating parties. Nor do I believe that I won’t want to sit and cuddle with my kids one rainy afternoon instead of sending emails to editors, or editing the essay that I’ve been avoiding. But so far, we’ve done ok, mostly upholding our ends of the bargain the way we promised we would, contractually.
Unlike many of the agreements in our marriage that are unspoken — like the agreements regarding who makes the bed (me), who empties the dishwasher (him), or who changes the diapers (whoever loses the coin toss) — this agreement is clear and finite. There is no room for seething emotion. There is no room for the feeling of, “I wish he would just offer to make the bed” to take root and grow (or, for his part, “I wish she would just empty the dishwasher, just this once.”) Marital resentment is a real and tricky thing, but a contract absolves you of it, because your obligations are already out there in the open. You don’t have to sit around and wait for things you want to happen, but know probably never will.
The push and pull of childcare, and who takes care of it, is the central nervous system of home relations as we navigate a quarantine that is exposing how we really, truly parent. I see good parenting as any other brokered deal: a full and complete negotiation, which has to be palatable and workable on all terms, especially in uncertain times, when no single one of us is at his or her best. Functional communication is hard in any marriage, and the pressure cooker of quarantine is a fulcrum for disaster.
But it doesn’t have to be that bad. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen.
Update, 10/14/21: I’m typing from my pool as I write this, in late September. I’m here because, on this sunny and sublime day, I did not want to go with my family to my town’s car show in the beating hot sun. Also, I’m here because all week I’ve toggled through obligations — driving my kids home from school at different times in different towns, making dinner for my family of four, doing load after load of laundry — and those obligations left no time for me.
It’s been a year and a half since I first wrote about the contract I made with my husband. Our contract allowed for equity, in black ink, and, for a while, it worked for us; my husband, an essential worker, came home early from work to lessen my load. We divided hours like kids divide Halloween candy. It was a way to reclaim fairness in a society that makes it nearly impossible for many parents to split responsibility down the middle.
That contract was short-lived, however. For our first pandemic summer, my husband and I agreed to bring on help (in the form of a part-time sitter, two days a week) so that he could return to work full-time. By fall, my sitter had returned to her normal life in New York City, and I had slipped back into my old role of chauffeur, laundress, housekeeper and cook. We never really looked back and we never officially discussed it, either.
Our contract was not entirely a failure, though. It allowed me to re-frame the idea I had in my head about entitlement, and how to ask for what I needed. When you first get into the habit of putting your own needs first, asking for what you want feels hard. It doesn’t any longer. These days, when I require a break from my adorable, time-consuming children, I simply say that I’m taking it. (My husband’s work adage, which I have steadily adopted in my personal life is ask forgiveness, not permission, and so I hope he forgives me for going to Mexico alone at the end of the month; actually, I know he will.) Is this a more reasonable agreement than our contract? In some ways, yes. I think he feels relieved of the structure, while I feel freed to look down the scope of the calendar and plan whatever my heart desires.
I am better about asking for time to myself now — better, maybe, than I was about holding him to our not-really-binding agreement. Go to the car show without me, I say. I’ll be here when you get back. It’s a new contract: one I made with myself.