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A friend whose partner is grieving a loved one’s death recently told me that they have been struggling to know what to do, even though they very much want to help and support their partner. “It’s hard being the one who always has to be okay, the one picking up the pieces,” they told me. The comment was in no way targeted, but I couldn’t help but think of my own situation.
Sometimes I jokingly refer to my spouse as Parent A, which I suppose makes me Parent B. We both work and do laundry and chores, but he has long handled most of the cooking. As I write this, he’s helping one of our children with their math homework, a task I’m rather hopeless at (around these parts, I am known as the ELA parent). He’s just as likely as I am to make necessary appointments for the kids, and more likely to ferry them to activities. He is also the one who kept the household running—the one our daughters relied on most—while I tried to support my mother through both my father’s death and her final illness.
One data point offers no meaningful counterweight to the experiences of so many women in many partnered households who do the lion’s share of domestic work and child care. Still, I am so accustomed to our division of labor that it can be bewildering to run up against the assumptions of others: The school, the music studio, the pediatrician’s office will always call me first, despite having both our numbers on file. An educator sent me a form to fill out and said, “Mothers just know these things! Fathers never have all the details.” Pre-pandemic, when I traveled for work or went home to help my mom, occasionally someone would ask who was watching my kids. I generally refuse to feel either guilty or unduly pleased over our labor split—like most people, we do what needs to be done, and neither of us deserves particular praise for raising our children or not letting our home fall apart.
Lately, though, when I call myself Parent B, it’s a joke that aches a bit, because I know that both my availability and my capacity as a parent have been eroded by trauma and grief.
I often hear people express a wish for “normalcy”—something I can hardly imagine, although I do find myself trying to picture other impossible things. Who would I be without my losses? Maybe I would be healthier, happier, less frayed at the edges. I might hold less stress in my body, have more energy, sleep better at night, and, yes, get more done around the house. There wouldn’t be entire weeks after my dad died that I cannot remember. I wouldn’t find myself laid low by grief several days out of the year—holidays, my mom’s birthday, a random Tuesday for no particular reason. I would be an entirely different person—and a different parent, too.