When Rebecca Onion looks into her baby-filled future, she sees “only catastrophe.” In an article on Slate.com she vets a solution: the “Pre-Pregnancy contract.” Her goal is to avoid what she dreads: an uneven distribution of household and parenting work. The as-yet childless Onion, 36, accepts that a baby would limit her freedoms and she suspects the physical changes and financial challenges of a baby would be compensated for by the sort of cuteness she sees in “the bright little faces of [her] nieces.” Knowing she’s edging nearer her fertility window, she wonders if a “not-at-all legally binding document, outlining expectations and setting a course for periodic re-examination of the division of labor” would avert what she worries about most. “That motherhood might make me hate my darling husband.”
It’s not about a bargain
If only it were that easy. Tally up all the cleaning, cooking, laundry, and home maintenance, add in the feeding, diapering, rocking, and lullaby-singing and presto: a magic number neatly divisible by two. Hubby takes half, wife takes half, and all is well on the home front. But as with the baby Solomon threatened to divide with a sword (1 Kings 3:25), the wisdom is revealed in the folly. Cutting the body in half would give each of the women a portion of the baby they were fighting over, but half of a dead child is no child at all. So too, cutting household chores in half would solve one problem and create a host of others. Contractual distribution of sweeping, dusting, and dishes would only encourage self-centeredness. And a home with two spouses fixated on fairness is no place for nurturing new life.
Having a baby is exhausting and life-altering. Even if you could find the elusive solution for splitting jobs 50/50, it still wouldn’t be enough. What’s needed is a vow bigger than either party, with more staying power than a non-binding agreement that can be gotten out of just as easily as it’s gotten into. What’s needed is a lay-your-life-down commitment that sees beauty in the heroic. Such are the vows you took the day you got married.
In their book Recovery of Family Life, Elton and Pauline Trueblood explain why marriage requires couples to go further than meeting each other halfway:
The commitment we call marriage is not a bargain! It is a station in which one gives all that he has, including all his devotion and all of the fruits of his toil. ‘With all my worldly goods I thee endow.’ … The result is that marriage is an amazing relation in which the ordinary rules of business, with its contracts and escape clauses and limited liabilities, are despised and set aside. Marriage is no marriage at all if it is conditional or partial with the fingers crossed. There must be, on both sides, an uncalculating abandon, a mutual outpouring of love and loyalty.
Nothing less than total sacrifice
What’s required of dad and a mom is nothing short of total sacrifice. You have to be willing to set aside your desires, your whims, your convenience—not always—but often. You have to be other-centered; focused on the good of one who is dependent on you for his very life at first, and as time goes on, for nurture, training, teaching, leading, and more. Parenthood is all-in, always-on. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get to take a nap or a vacation, but the responsibility of being a mom or dad never goes away. It takes two people, a man and a woman, who are both giving 100 percent, to even come close to supplying what’s required.
In the last paragraph of Onion’s article she petitions readers who have “a process for discussing issues . . . don’t avoid conflict and . . . don’t prolong fruitless stalemates.” She wants to hear from any who’ve found that it works.
Living out your vows
And so, Ms. Onion, here’s my answer to your request. Steve and I have been married for 17 years, have four children ages five to 14, and have regular dates where we discuss our plans and expectations for the quarter ahead. You’re right to want an approach that hits challenges head-on. We’ve made the Bible’s command to “not let the sun go down on your anger” be our guiding principle for what we call “keeping short accounts.” When we disagree, we work it out. We don’t stew, don’t harbor bitterness, and generally don’t let things fester overnight. (I can think of only two times we went to bed not speaking to each other.)
We also have what you might consider a foundational document. It includes our mission as a couple, and by extension, our family. It captures our priorities for the year ahead, including people we’d like to host, milestones we’ll celebrate, things we’d like to learn, trips we’re planning to take, purchases we’d like to make, and more. Making this annual plan together the first of January is something we both anticipate. After the busy Christmas season, it’s a respite to get away, pray, and dream about the year ahead. It echoes our dating days when we were looking forward to what life as husband and wife could be.
What we don’t have, however, is the sort of equitable score sheet that tracks our chores around the house. Such would seem mighty petty after the parenting adventures we’ve been through these past 14 years. The challenges and responsibility of raising children are far too steep for me to stop and count how many times he cleared the table last week. The vision for shaping the lives of other living, breathing human beings, with all their potential and promise, is too grand to get stuck in the weeds of whether I did more laundry and dusting.
The way to resolve the anxiety you feel isn’t a transactional, non-binding agreement because the person you’re working to resolve it with isn’t your lawyer or your business partner. He’s your husband. The man you married. The one you promised to love and cherish in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, till death. Don’t let the possibility of an unfair distribution of trips to the pediatrician keep you from the fruit of marriage: babies. Embrace the heroic. Don’t keep score. Plan for big changes in your home and marriage, not with ultimatums about what you will and won’t do, but with a commitment to work together on your most important endeavor. Hint: it’s not emptying the dishwasher.