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The Gear Theory of Parenting

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Get in a serious relationship, maybe move in together, maybe marry, your lives change some but not a seismic shift. That comes when you have kids. When you’re really responsible for someone other than just you. And then it’s like 4 jobs: yours, your husband/wife’s, the kids, your home. How do you do it all?

When my husband, Jim and I had 2 kids in 3 years and both had demanding careers, we discussed the division of duties. We realized if we did everything in 5th gear, something would crash. So we decided to aim to spend no more than 60 hours per week combined on paid work. Certainly, childcare and housework is work but for most of us, it’s unpaid work.

Despite my good earning capacity and caution from colleagues, we dialed back my legal career to 3rd gear when I returned to work part-time after having our first child. Although Jim has had a busy medical practice, he deliberately avoided extra endeavors that would have increased his earnings but decreased his family time. As much as he could, Jim worked in 4th gear.

We were fortunate to have the choice for one of us to work part-time. The choice was made easier by some other conscious choices: moving to and living in an area with a lower cost of living, not buying a large or second home, not buying luxury cars. They're all choices.

We bought what we called the “high school house”, a house in a strong public school district in our small city, a house we could, and did, stay in thru the kids finishing high school. A new house that would require less maintenance. A reasonable-size house that was manageable. An affordable house that left us money to buy out of chores, like periodic cleaning and lawn care. If we had the option between me, him or other, we chose other when we could. We spent less time on things we didn’t care about and more time on things we did. While raising kids, we limited house projects. The house varied between 2nd and 3rd gear, but took a back seat to our most important job, parenting.

Raising kids was a joint effort, the one job neither of us hesitated to work in 5th gear, although I was the main driver. I was a part-time lawyer but occasionally had to work full-time and then some when a case required lots of hours. One summer I asked my husband to work part-time one week to take care of the kids who were 7 and 4 at the time, so he did. I had 11 depositions and was gone from 6 am to 11 or 12 pm all week. At the end of week, Jim told me, I realized it would be a problem if you died! And I thought, this is just now occurring to you?!

Another time when the kids were teenagers, I had to work on a difficult case throughout an entire Memorial Day weekend. I literally only left my home office to eat and sleep, and otherwise barricaded myself in my office to prepare for an emergency hearing on Tuesday morning. When I arrived home from court on Tuesday, the larder was bare and there was no milk left in the house. It’s a lot of balls to keep in the air and many women think they’re the ones who have to catch them all. Sometimes they’re going to drop. Let others - your spouse, the kids, extended family, a friend - catch a ball or two for you.

Jim wisely said early on, you don’t have to enter every event. Halloween costumes don’t need to be homemade, unless the kids decide to make them. You don’t have to be crafty, you don’t have to be an entertainer, just be there. And your kids don’t have to enter a gazillion events either, nor do they have to start before they can walk. During the school year, our kids typically played one sport at a time and another activity or two. TV was not an option on school nights. Dinners together were nothing fancy, and it was the norm, not the exception.

Time is time to kids, there’s no distinction between quality and quantity time, kids takes time. Maintenance at first - feeding, diaper changes and so forth. Graduating to toddler safety and discipline. Discipline at 3 or pay at 13. Setting limits, setting schedules, shuttling, trying not to shout. Boring but consistent, our kids could count on us being there. You can’t buy your way out of it. Regardless of their school, you need to know what’s going on with their school work, with their lives.

Sometimes it’s the middle of the night, whether toddlers or teenagers. Sometimes it’s the middle of the day, whether doctors’ appointments or sporting events. Find the time, make the time. Show up, it matters, it’s worth it.

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