Tapestry

From tenure-track prof to work-from-home dad: how families are renegotiating household roles

Writer Stephen Marche explores how changing economic tides affected fatherhood and domestic work in his family, and families across North America.

Writer Stephen Marche explores how changing economic tides affected domestic work in his family.

(Stephen Marche)
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For Stephen Marche, it was great news when his wife, Sarah Fulford, landed a new job. It meant more money for a family with an infant son. It meant leaving New York City, for a less expensive life, closer to family, in Toronto.

But it also meant he'd have to give up his stable job and become a dad who worked from home.

I went from [a stable job as a professor] to being a writer in the world, which is rewarding but is definitely the jungle.- Stephen Marche

Marche, at the time, was a tenure-track professor of English at City College of New York, while Fulford looked after their son at home. In 2007, she learned she'd be next the editor-in-chief of Toronto Life magazine.

Marche says trading the role of primary earner with his wife was a rational economic decision. But shifting his identity wasn't entirely comfortable.

"The stay at home part was the easy part. Not being a professor anymore, that was a lot harder. Not being in New York anymore, that was a lot harder," said Marche.

"I went from [a stable job as a professor] to being a writer in the world, which is rewarding but is definitely the jungle."

Marche explored this transition from a sociological angle in his book The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century. His essays are accompanied by footnotes from Fulford sharing her perspective of their relationship.

As economic stresses become greater, Marche argues, the division of labour has become more even overall in North America.

Marche noted that his mother, a physician, was also expected to maintain the family home according to the standards of a 1950s housewife. "You know, making Halloween costumes and vacuuming the parlour that nobody went into. I mean, it's absurd."

Marche argues it is not feasible for working people to maintain those standards today.

"If you're going to work in an office and do everything that's required of a professional, you cannot then have standards that were inherited from a time when women lived in the house. That just is not doable by human beings."

Striking a new balance in the household

Though he doesn't like the term emotional labour, Marche said the phrase does get at a fundamental issue in the household: trying to ensure that both partners are appreciated.

"The nature of what constitutes cleanliness in the home is not a material reality. It is, in fact, a very emotional reality… What people want is the feeling that the other person is caring as much as they care, to avoid the feeling of being taken for granted."

Whenever there's an emergency, I am there. That's part of being a freelancer, right? Like, if some kid's sick, it's always me.- Stephen Marche

Marche said every couple needs to arrive at their own arrangement for dividing household tasks, but it needs to be determined "on the basis of caring."

So how does is the labour divided in the Marche-Fulford household?

Marche admits that Fulford still does most of cleaning.

"She cares about it more," he said, adding that she also does the laundry.

In The Unmade Bed, Fulford notes that she doesn't argue with her husband about these tasks and points out that Marche plays a larger role in taking of the children.

He handles the cooking, family finances, picking up their son and daughter from school and taking them to swimming and gymnastic lessons.

"Whenever there's an emergency, I am there. That's part of being a freelancer, right? Like, if some kid's sick, it's always me. And I know she appreciates that. If she needs to go out and do something at night, I'm there," Marche said.