If any of you are fans of J.R. Tolkien, then you are likely familiar with The Hobbit. My husband loves The Hobbit – the book and the movies. While I am not as avid a fan as he is, I have seen the movies, and there is a quote in one of the films that I think about often. It is Thorin Oakensheilds’ last words: “If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world.” That is a powerful statement.
One reason that quote has been on my mind is because my husband and I recently decided that I should take a hiatus from work so that I could focus more on raising our kids. I was anxious about quitting work. Without work being handed to me by an employer, I realized I would need to put more thought and planning into keeping up my professional skills. There would also be less adult interaction for me, and of course, less money for us. My biggest worry, though, was that my relationship with my husband would no longer be as egalitarian as it had been before; I was afraid I would lose respect for myself and eventually respect from my husband, as has been the experience of other women.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized there really shouldn’t be any loss of respect. Our real joint-venture as a couple is not making money, but raising our family. Making money, although important, is only one part of that bigger picture, and although I am no longer bringing home any bacon, I am still putting a lot of time and effort into our family.
Of course our children need food, clothes, and shelter. We are fortunate enough that we can pay for those things with one income. But kids also need time from adults to build attachment and trust, and to get the help and guidance they need to develop into happy, functional adults. I’m providing that. The roles are different, but both are necessary.
Because egalitarian marriage is seen as a push from Feminists, people tend to think of an egalitarian marriage as one where both partners focus on their careers. This is probably what I would have thought as well, before I had children. Since I have experienced how very consuming parenting can be, however, my view of what it means to have an egalitarian marriage has changed. After all, why is money often valued so much more than sanity and happiness? It’s not that my husband is working to support me and I’m staying home for me, or for him. I could support myself just fine if we didn’t have kids. Likewise, he would have no trouble getting his own laundry done if he didn’t want to spend time building a relationship with our children. So really, we’re both doing what we do for the kids and the family, not to prove we’re better or to gain authority over each other.
Robin Rhine, a christian author online, writes that an egalitarian marriage “means that wives are considered equal partners with their husbands, capable of making decisions, collaborating, and using their God-given talents and gifting”. She writes further: “Egalitarian marriage is not the neglect of the household or parenting. It is the stance that both mothers and fathers are necessary in the lives of their children and that both parents are responsible for their home.” Her description of egalitarian marriage is focused on family, not on careers.
Of course, if one partner stays at home, that means he or she can’t constantly nag the bread-winner for not making enough money either. Money becomes a means to an end (rather than an end itself) and it needs to be managed appropriately. Therefore, part of keeping things egalitarian means both partners agree on a financial plan based on the family’s present income and they stick to it. If there simply isn’t enough money to support the family, or if one partner feels they “just can’t live that way”, then it’s back to the drawing board. While the idea is to keep the family in mind as a whole, don’t forget that Mom and Dad are part of the family too, so if one of the parents is unhappy with the arrangement, they need to speak up. Whatever the financial arrangement, keeping the focus on building a home gives couples the flexibility to do what they truly think is best for each other and for the family as a whole, without fear that the marriage will become a hierarchy.
This kind of perspective could alleviate a lot of stress in families where both parents have been working long hours for a career that they think will help them feel equal to their partners. Many of us start our families thinking it will be no problem for both parents to work and still have ample time to take care of house, home and family relationships. Maybe that is in part because we grew up with shows like the now-controversial Cosby Show. My husband and I used to watch re-runs of the Cosby Show before we started having children. In the show, he’s a doctor and she’s a lawyer. They were both very successful at their jobs, and it seems like at least one of them is always home with the kids. There is no undue amount of stress, and everyone in the family likes each other. Oh, and the house is always clean! Did they have a housekeeper? I never saw one in the show. After our first son was born, though, we asked, “How on earth do they have so much time at home with their kids?” We decided that the show was an artful Hollywood depiction that ignores the stress, time-constraints, and fatigue that would come with the Cosby’s lifestyle in the real world.
The real world isn’t ideal, and this often means that having one parent stay home isn’t even possible. There really are a lot of factors that determine what is best for each family. For many out there, the working-dad, stay-at-home-mom arrangement probably is the best fit. Whatever your division of labor, if you are worried about slipping into a hierarchical marriage pattern, maybe you could try measuring equality with family needs and happiness at the center. That way it would be possible to maintain equality no matter what arrangement you agree upon. As I said before, I’m a stay-at-home mom, and this is the perspective we’re adopting. So far I like it, and it all seems so much more sane, even “merry”, as Thorin might say.