I Made My Husband Sign a Childcare and Housework Contract During the Coronavirus Pandemic

My husband and I signed the last documents. And no, we don’t get a divorce.

I am actually surprised that this did not occur to me earlier. I am not a contentious person, but I am practical. I am also the daughter of two lawyers, and therefore have always tried to put everything in writing. I have stacks of recorded documents: occupancy agreements, confidentiality agreements, contracts, legally binding letters. Some of them have proven useful over time. Others probably only served to calm my racing nerves. However, a letter can describe the responsibilities between you and another party before (or even after) you are emotionally invested. The goal of a contract is to get away from the burning head of your headspace. It is about placing reason over emotion.

writer hannah seliger and her happy husband on the beach

The writer and her husband.

Hannah Seliger

When COVID-19 struck New York, where I live, it struck quickly, violently and, for us, at least, without much warning. As a result, our parental responsibilities towards a child of 1 year and 3 years were much more important. Our oldest child was in preschool three days a week, our youngest in daycare. I was already a part-time stay-at-home mom because my husband’s work cannot be done at home. With our children all the time, and the somewhat essential role of my husband (which means that we still have to leave the house sometimes), I felt drowned. Our conversations turned into arguments about who deserved what. He considered his position insoluble. I have seen my mental state deteriorate regularly. Communication was getting us nowhere.

This is where I thought of a different approach. This is where I wrote a contract.

A contract, for us, was a good way to determine what our rights and responsibilities were, to each other and to our children. How many hours would my husband be away from home each week? Instead of harassing him over the text or asking him every week when he would commit to a schedule, I could put him in a contract, and, in writing, it was irrefutable. What days would it take at home so that I, in turn, could do the work in my own office (i.e., the kitchen table)? In a contract, the lines seemed clear and factual, a fair division of labor.

We wrote in the negotiation points. Need to change hours? Flexibility is part of life, and it is taken into account, all this in our contract with each other. We often report data when we break down work between women and men. Women have more domestic responsibilities and, as more than one study has pointed out, most of the invisible work, the so-called “worry work”, when it comes to caring for families and of family life. In black and white, however, I was able, for the first time as a mom, to level the playing field. In some ways, it has been liberating, although we have drawn lines that some may consider binding.

It is more difficult to discuss the conditions when they are right in front of you. It is more difficult for my husband to steal an extra hour at work, when he knows that our contract binds him to a certain agreed amount. It is more difficult for me to let time escape in the afternoon, when I am absorbed in my own work, say, when I know that I owe him the hours of another fixed day.

I’m not being naive enough to think that every child care issue can be resolved by writing a document between two negotiating parties. I also don’t think I don’t want to sit and cuddle my kids on a rainy afternoon instead of emailing the editors or modifying the essay I’m avoiding. But so far, we have done well, mainly respecting our market ends as we had contractually promised.

two children happily sitting on a sofa

The creation of a contract makes it possible to put the babysitting tasks in black and white.

Courtesy of Hannah Seliger

Unlike many agreements in our marriage that are unspoken – such as those regarding who makes the bed (me), who empties the dishwasher (him), or who changes the diapers (whoever loses the draw) – this agreement is clear and finished. There is no room for bubbling emotion. There is no room for the feeling of “I wish he just offered to make the bed” to take hold and grow (or, for his part, “I wish she would just empty the washer- dishes, just this time. ”)) Marital resentment is a real and delicate thing, but a contract absolves you of it, because your obligations are already there in the open. You don’t have to sit around and wait for the things you want, but know that you probably never will.

The push and pull of child care, and who cares for it, is the central nervous system of family relationships as we navigate through our forties that show how we really, really are parents. I consider good parenting like any other negotiated agreement: full negotiation, which must be acceptable and achievable at all levels, especially in times of uncertainty, when none of us are at our best. Functional communication is difficult in any marriage, and the quarantine pressure cooker is a fulcrum for disaster.

But it doesn’t have to be that bad. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen.

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Hannah Selinger’s work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Curbed, Wine Enthusiast, Slate, Architectural Digest, Eater, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Al Jazeera, HuffPost, Glamor, etc. she lives in East Hampton, New York with her husband and two sons.

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