The Pre-Pregnancy Contract

If I’m going to become a mom, I need my husband to sign on the dotted line.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I’ve been wavering on the subject of motherhood for what seems like decades. Like Ruth Graham, who wrote of her fear of parenthood on Slate not long ago, when I contemplate jumping the gap between not-mom and mom, I see only catastrophe. The physical changes, the financial challenge, the increased difficulty of travel—having a baby seems like saying goodbye to my freedom. On the other hand, I’m 36, and if I ever were fancy-free, I’m not now. I don’t have a super-active nightlife, and I already pack little survival Ziplocs of nuts and carrots wherever I go. I’m willing to allow that being a mom might strip me of some independence, and the bright little faces of my nieces are a good argument that there would be ample compensation.

What I most worry about is that motherhood might make me hate my darling husband.

When I talk to my female friends who are moms about motherhood, the conversation often drifts to the changes that children have brought to their relationships with their spouses. It’s not just my friends: In a survey of the psychological literature in her recent book All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior points to multiple studies cataloging the many arguments couples have after they have children. For a person like me, a feminist with a keen awareness of the generally unfair division of domestic labor, my friends’ irritated gripes, or the findings in books like Arlie Hochschild’s 1989 classic The Second Shift, are little horror stories. “Many women carry into their marriage the distasteful and unwieldy burden of resenting their husbands,” Hochschild wrote. I can see how this would happen to me, and I Do Not Want.

So what’s the solution? People get prenups. What about drawing up a pre-pregnancy contract? (Not, under any circumstances, to be called a “prepup,” as my husband joked.) Wouldn’t a not-at-all legally binding document, outlining expectations and setting a course for periodic re-examination of the division of labor, alleviate my fears, and prevent aggravation, or fights, or divorce, in the future?

I find that any number of life challenges are more palatable when drained of their emotional content through quantification. Terrifying deadline? Take a realistic look at the number of work hours available before filing, and divide the work into those chunks. Feeling disorganized? Make inventories of the things we have in the storage space. My husband would naturally adopt a much more spontaneous approach to our daily life, but it’s that very looseness that worries me; in a “spontaneous” household, I observe, work tends to revert to the less spontaneous person, who is often the person who’s culturally expected to carry it out. Above all, there’s no such thing as “natural” when it comes to domestic arrangements. A baby would seriously increase the need for planning in our house. Why not start now?

There is a list of things I’d want if we had a kid. I’m a writer with a very flexible schedule—just the kind of mom whose work time gets bitten into when a child care crisis arises. Could I ask for a guarantee that I could have six (seven? eight?) hours a day to myself, for work, no matter how inconvenient that arrangement gets for him? Could I stipulate that he would need to be done with work at 6 or 7 p.m., rather than his current workaholic quitting time of 9:30 or 10—again, no matter what mitigating factors might arise? Could we acknowledge the unfair cultural expectation that allows fathers to take time for leisure, while denying the privilege to mothers, and try to change that in our own lives through planning? Could I ask for him to learn to cook and shop for groceries, so we could split that 11-hour-a-week burden?

I thought this pre-pregnancy contract was a revolutionary idea, but of course we’ve had this conversation before. Feminist and novelist Alix Kates Shulman published the essay “A Marriage Agreement,” which included her and her husband’s own housework and child care agreement, in the feminist journal Up From Under in 1970. Shulman was inspired by fellow Redstocking activist Pat Mainardi’s “The Politics of Housework,” an amazing and hilarious document, also published in 1970, detailing Mainardi’s partner’s strategies of housework avoidance.

Reading Shulman’s and Mainardi’s writing, one notices a distinct lack of punches pulled. While we often tend to drain the blood from the housework discussion, mentioning Pew statistics and bemoaning continued trends of inequality, Mainardi had no problem assigning blame. The comic foibles of her partner, who tries all kinds of rhetorical gambits to get out of his share of the work, are named and shamed for what they are: a man’s belief that women are better suited to do the kind of work that nobody wants to do. (Him, to her: “I don’t mind sharing the work, but you’ll have to show me how to do it.” Her translation: “I ask a lot of questions and you’ll have to show me everything every time I do it because I don’t remember so good. Also don’t try to sit down and read while I’M doing my jobs because I’m going to annoy the hell out of you until it’s easier to do them yourself.”)

Mainardi’s polemic is deeply satisfying, and one can see how it might inspire a young mother like Shulman, who felt trapped in a cycle of unshared chores and duties. The “Marriage Agreement” was meant to relieve that pressure, and to save Shulman and her husband from divorce. Shulman’s agreement started with several “principles,” including the rejection of the idea that the work that brings in more money is more valuable. “The ability to earn more money is a privilege,” she wrote, “which must not be compounded by enabling the larger earner to buy out of his/her duties and put the burden either on the partner who earns less or on another person hired from outside.” Think what you might about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In; one of the most lasting insights of that book, for me, was that a woman’s time spent in a career is an investment in future potential, even when the money being earned doesn’t pay for child care in the present day. Shulman got this, back in 1970, and made it foundational.

This idea prompted a backlash from the likes of Norman Mailer, who wrote in The Prisoner of Sex that he would rather see a loved woman “sprain her back before a hundred sinks of dishes in a month” than help her “if his own work should suffer … unless her work was as valuable as his own”—a matter on which Mailer would, of course, be the judge. (Shulman later wrote that upon seeing this passage, she felt “exquisite triumph”— Mailer’s adverse reaction was proof that she had hit upon the meat of the matter.)

The job breakdown and schedule, which followed the Shulman document’s “principles,” was just as revolutionary. Dispassionately, Shulman listed all of what she later called the “insidiously unacknowledged” jobs of parents, no matter how small: transportation, helping with homework, fielding calls from babysitters, getting up with distressed children in the night. The idea was to make these “trivial,” invisible tasks obvious, and to demand that they be shared.

The Shulmans made the cover of Life in April 1972, and a photographer captured husband Martin folding sheets, a cigar clamped between his jaws. The Life article pointed to several other “50-50 marriages” “cropping up all over the country.” Coverage in New York and Redbook followed. Yet the truly equal marriage has yet to sweep the nation.

When I ask my happily married parents, who both worked while raising three children in the 1970s and 1980s, about division of labor, my father says, “I was always willing to do whatever your mother told me to do.” That’s exactly the problem: I don’t want to be the Captain. My mom was the Captain for our family, and now she organizes compulsively, unable to get rid of the habit. I’m the Captain in my house already when it comes to boring inventory-related things like remembering whether or not we have paper towels, and I don’t much like the feeling. When I hear somebody referring to a “honey do” list—a common cultural artifact of women’s captaincy—I want to puke.

Hochschild describes this as the problem of mothers feeling more responsible—a type of emotional labor that can add much time to the second shift.

More women kept track of doctors’ appointments and arranged for playmates to come over. More mothers than fathers worried about the tail on a child’s Halloween costume or a birthday present for a school friend. They were more likely to think about their children while at work and to check in by phone with the baby-sitter.

Shulman pointed out this difference in her contract, including it as a primary principle: “As parents we believe that we must share all responsibility for taking care of the children and home—not only the work, but the responsibility.”

My cousin, who has a 3-year-old son, is the Captain, and she told me that she combines child care with household chores, unable to just do one thing at a time because of her awareness of everything that needs to be done. The Captain is in critical danger of becoming a “scold,” a “nag,” or the “unfun parent,” always rushing kids from one thing to another because she’s trying to cram in housework and other family admin along with child care. Meanwhile, when it’s his turn, her husband dedicates himself wholeheartedly to child care.

The Marriage Agreement appeals to me because it has the power to distribute the captaincy. If my cousin’s husband knew (was not reminded but knew on his own) that he had to go pick up a prescription on his child care day—and he took that role seriously, as seriously as she would—then my cousin wouldn’t have to worry about that errand anymore.

Do you, parent reading this, think to yourself: “What a cold fish! Maybe she just shouldn’t have kids?” Perhaps it’s true. A friend told me that she was so excited about having a baby, she had the opposite impulse to mine. While I want to shock my husband with Shulman’s extensive list of duties (or an updated version thereof), she massaged the data for her reluctant partner, making charts and graphs to show him how easily a baby could fit into their lives.

Parents may also think I’m crazy to assume that I’ll be able to anticipate needs and duties before knowing what my future-kid is like. Another mom friend told me as much, pointing out that while each of her children are annoying to bathe in their own ways, her husband doesn’t mind giving her daughter a bath, and she feels the same about her son. This is a situation that they could never have anticipated four years ago, when making the decision to conceive.

But here’s why I still think my approach is pragmatic. In their 10-year study of 100 couples’ transition into parenthood, psychologists Carolyn and Philip Cowan found that couples that had differing understandings of what life with a child might be like were at the highest risk of conflicts. They saw that partners who succeeded at being parents and maintaining good marriages “have a process for discussing issues; they don’t avoid conflict and they don’t prolong fruitless stalemates.” The Cowans emphasized the importance of setting an agenda for these conversations, getting over the idea that a “date” to talk is “terribly artificial,” and instead seeing the “checkup” as an outlet. Perhaps our contract could stipulate a weekly summit—a time to re-evaluate the division of labor, based on whatever strange bathing preferences (or dietary needs, or hobbies, or …) might evolve. Certainly, it would serve as a foundational document, which could be referred to whenever disputes arise.

If any readers have tried this approach, and it’s worked, I’d love to know. Time, she marcheth on; I have to make this decision somehow. Pro and con list, anyone?