I got home from work at six, and I was exhausted. I didn’t really want to do anything but soak in the tub for a while, and take a moment to clear my head. I walked through the front door, and Mel, my wife, unloaded. She told me about how Tristan, our seven-year-old, hadn’t cleared the table for dinner or started his homework. She told me how Aspen, our four-month-old, had blown out her diaper twice that day and refused to take a nap, and how Norah, our five-year-old, had done little but throw one fit after another.
Mel was a stay-at-home mom and a part-time student. She was in blue jeans and a striped t-shirt, her brown hair pulled back. She was stirring something on the stove, and on her hip was Aspen, who was crying and wearing nothing but a diaper. The house was a storm of toys and unfolded laundry. The bags under her eyes, her makeup-less face, her sagging right hip, her slumped sounders, everything about Mel said weary.
She’d had a long day.
But so had I.
I work at a university as an academic counselor and tutor coordinator in a program that serves under-represented students. A friend once described my job as the “social work of higher education” and I think that is a good assessment. That day had been spent answering emails, writing a grant, and trying to help a dozen students work through their financial and emotional problems so they could stay in school. One of my students had gotten arrested the night before. He was facing felony charges, so I’d spent a good amount of time chatting with university legal services trying to help make sense of the situation. I didn’t have the kind of body ache weariness my father probably felt after a long day of installing heating and air conditioning equipment, and I didn’t have the kind of frazzled weariness Mel had from a long day with the kids, but more of an emotional and mental weariness. I could feel it behind my eyes and in stomach.
Moments after walking in, Mel was holding a crying, drooling, angry baby out for me to take as thought it were a ticking bomb.
“Take her,” she said. “She’s driving me crazy. And get Tristan and Norah to clean the table and start their homework, dinner is almost done. I’m about to crack. After dinner, I’m taking a break.”
The last thing I wanted to do when I got home was hassle the kids to get their homework done and clean up the living room. What I wanted to do was soak in the tub and not think. And all Mel wanted to do was dump the kids off on me so she could get a moment of peace.
“Hold on a moment,” I said. “Let me put down my bag. I’ve had a long day.” I went on to say more, but before I could, Mel cut me off.
“You’ve had a long day?” She scoffed. “You got to get out of the house. You didn’t have to deal with the kids acting like little maniacs and clean up a bunch of baby poop.”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t.” Then I went on, telling her about my student who was facing prison time, and how stressful that was.
“I’m sure you got a lunch break,” she said. “I didn’t even get that.”
“No, in fact. I didn’t,” I said. “Honesty, I’m surprised I made it home for dinner.”
We went back and forth, both of us attempting to argue that our day had been the worst, and therefore, that each of us was the one justified in taking a break. When I think back on this situation, it seems clear that both our days were equally bad, and in fact, we were both due a break, but only one could take it. Neither of us had done anything wrong. In fact, we’d done everything right. We’d both completed our responsibilities, worked hard that day, but the problem was, young children don’t take breaks. They never stop needing and whining and asking and taking and pissing and shitting. Sometimes, it feels like the universe is out of balance when you’re a parent. There should be time to hang out, take a break, take a breath, but it doesn’t work that way, so you have to suck it up. But you don’t want to; rather, you just want sit in a dark room, or soak in the tub, and not think. Just shut out the world, your family, your job, your homework, for an hour or two so you can catch your breath. But there is no time, and you can’t blame the kids because they are innocent, so you end up blaming your partner. They should know you better than anyone, so why wouldn’t they understand how tired you are? How difficult your day was?
The problem was that both Mel and I thought this way. We both wanted the moment of peace, we had both earned it, but neither of us wanted to give it to the other.
I took a breath. I set down my bag, took Aspen, bounced her, and got her calm. I got the two older kids cleaning the table and doing homework, while Mel finished cooking dinner. And once it was all said and done. Once we were all at the table, having dinner as a family, it seemed like we were both calmer and ready to distribute the labor.
“Listen,” I said. “I’ve noticed that the moment I walk into the house after work, is the moment we fight the most.”
I went on, telling her that we had very similar expectations for that transition, we both wanted a break, and I think that both of us had valid reasons to want a moment alone, but only one of us could take it.
“We really need to realize this,” I said. “Me coming home from work seems to be a slippery slope. It’s got nothing to do with not loving you or our children, but everything to do with endless hours that it takes to raise and support our family. It’s the reasons 8pm feels like midnight when raising young kids, and an undisturbed night feel like accomplishing a life goal.”
“You’re right,” Mel said. “Let’s do it in shifts.”
Mel said I could take a bath after dinner if I’d get the kids ready for bed.
So much of the transition between work and home is about expectations. Most of the day I look forward to getting home so I can take a break, while Mel looks forward to my arrival for the same reason, and suddenly we are at an impasse. Not every evening is like the one I just described; more often then not, I come home to a happy family. But for those really stressful days, Mel and I have had to learn how to acknowledge our expectations and assume that we have both equally earned a break, rather than arguing about who deserves it more. It’s not a perfect system, but I must say, it’s made coming home from work after a bad day a lot less stressful.
Clint Edwards Kickstarter Campaign from DonaMajicShow on Vimeo.