Beyond Doing Half the Parenting

Doing my fair share for my son means I have to start carrying my weight in other areas at home.

Malcolm's first time sitting at a drum set. Gotta work on his grip but his timing is not bad!

Posted by Anil Dash on Saturday, December 5, 2015

Growing up as an Indian-American son, in a family-oriented culture, I considered it an inarguable truth that I would have kids when I grew up. So when I met my wife and she first introduced the idea that we should really think about whether we wanted to have kids—that we might decide to never have kids—it was as radical an idea as I’d heard. I loved the audacity of it, and the many logical, rational reasons to stay child-free.

Forgoing parenthood would mean more flexibility for things like travel, and a lot more freedom to take risks in our careers. We would of course have much lower financial obligations. And while I didn’t know what other changes might be in store if we had a kid, there was a comfort in knowing that nothing really had to change.

Naturally, we eventually decided to have a kid. I wish I could say one particular argument in favor was persuasive, or that there was a single conversation that cemented our decision, but it was ultimately just intuition on our parts. We came to the conclusion that we could probably be pretty kick-ass parents.

I didn’t take the decision lightly. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment and definitely did not want to move to a house in the suburbs. My wife and I are both entrepreneurs, each running our own startups, so we knew we’d have to carefully juggle our careers and our responsibilities as parents. And at a personal level, I had grown up in a household with very traditional old-fashioned gender roles, with my mother working full-time and then coming home to do pretty much all of the cooking, cleaning and housework. If I was going to have a child, I decided, I would have to commit to being a much more participatory father who was an equal contributor at home.

Before having a kid, I had imagined I understood what the commitment was like. It would involve, I was told, lots of diaper changing and sleepless nights. There were these vague, jokey refrains among parents that I heard most often, and I had imagined it to be a little bit like crunch time at a job, where you’re staying up all night to get some project done.

For me, though, the lack of sleep was almost a footnote compared to the changes in perspective that arose. Before, my career (and more broadly, all the things I was interested in) occupied almost all of my waking hours, except for time with my wife. Immediately after my son was born, the entirety of my work life shrank from its central role in my thoughts. There’s a clarity about what matters that I could only have found as a father. My son Malcolm is now four and a half, and I don’t know if we’re kick-ass parents, but he is a kick-ass kid. My son is one of my best friends, and I truly can’t think of anyone I’d rather hang out with.

The pragmatic effect of my change in perspective has been that I actually became more efficient and effective at work. If I had five items on my to-do list in the morning, I might have checked off one or two of them by the end of the day before I had a kid. Now, I know I better get four or five done, or they’re just not gonna happen. I thought I was unique, in that parenthood actually increased my productivity at work, but I’ve heard this from a lot of other parents as well. Life hack!

Spending lots of quality time with my son has turned out to be relatively achievable. I have a career that is flexible enough to allow me to be present, so I am able to do pretty close to 50% of the work of caring for my son. Both my wife and I can take time from work if needed for a dentist or doctor’s appointment, and we alternate between which of us drops him off or picks him up from daycare. The exception is when my work takes me on the road, for meetings or conferences; almost all of the burden of parenting falls on my wife then, but I’ve tried to ameliorate the situation by cutting back on a lot of my trips and having all of us travel together when possible.

That said, one of the biggest stresses that parenthood puts on mothers and fathers is that doing things for the kid crowds out every other responsibility. In my case, that has often meant that while I’m doing my fair share for my son, I haven’t always carried my weight in maintaining the rest of our family’s life together. That could be anything from not doing the dishes to not always being intellectually and emotionally present during those precious few hours in a day when my son is asleep and my wife and I can have a conversation among adults. I’m still working on it, but it’s among the hardest self-improvement challenges of my life, and that has been a humbling realization.

The challenge of actually doing half the work is probably amplified by the fact that I’ve tried to be an advocate for better inclusion and diversity in the technology industry that I work in. If women who choose to have children are going to be able to be full participants in tech, then those of us who are their partners have to carry half of the burden. And for many of us men, that’s far easier said than done. Lately, I’ve begun to match the to-do list that I maintain at work with a mental to-do list at home; I want to take on more of the responsibilities that I used to say I was willing to do, but that often would somehow “mysteriously” land in my wife’s lap.

Of course, this entire structure still depends on my wife being the lead parent handling all the responsibility, from household and parenting duties (which are really just two facets of the same thing) and then being responsible for educating me about my role, too. It has to change.

I know I’m not the only one who has the “right” ideas about inclusion when it comes to the tech industry overall, but who isn’t doing the work at home to make that a reality. Interestingly, the biggest turning point in me starting to change my behavior was when I realized my son was becoming old enough to observe my actions, and that he would be learning from the example of whatever he saw me do. The idea of having your kid mirror your worst traits can be a powerful motivator to get off your ass and get to work.

I originally wrote this piece for Medium's Working Parents in America series. It's reprinted here with only slight edits.