Facing the dragon

So, this is it: my husband is back from his recent last trip to the Antarctic – this was the additional last stint after the last stint before that. After we moved to Germany last spring, he was here for two months over the summer, then gone for four and a half months, back for two and a half, and gone for over two months again. Which sucked.

One of the biggest reasons we moved was actually to be able to spend more time together; something that was difficult with these Antarctic jobs we both had – both of us had to spend time away, and it just turned out that my husband went on more and longer trips. The other big reason was that I wanted my son to learn German – I spoke it with him in Colorado, but he answered in English. Once here, he picked it up in a breathtakingly short three months (not fair at all considering how hard we second language people have to work at it – it was amazing to watch him!). The final reason was to be closer to family – my family – who my son can now communicate with without problems. I love it.

Here’s the catch: to be able to do all this, I have to be the main income provider for us. My husband does not speak fluent German yet, so he gets to be the primary care provider for our son (and take German classes). Of course, this sounds as if it shouldn’t even raise an eyebrow these days… but it does.
It’s not a problem for me at all to pull my full weight in a full-on job: this is what I’ve been doing my entire adult life, what I – similar to my peers – knew I was going to do growing up and what I prepared for. Surprisingly though, it does add a certain quality to the ‘job thing’ when your family depends on the income you generate. I do not perceive this as a crushing weight of responsibility, but it does add a level of – for lack of a better word – seriousness that feels new.

What’s difficult for me is that I’m the one who gets to spend less time with our son. I also have to rely on my husband to hold things together at home. The most difficult part about that is accepting that he has his own way of doing things – concerning taking care of our son, running the household, the whole thing – because naturally, there are things that I’d do differently, that I think can be done more efficiently, or timely, or thoroughly (but of course he’s doing just fine).

So I’m having to learn to let things go on one end while taking full control at the throttle on the other.

Just as long as I come home to see the Dragon Slayer before it gets wiped off…

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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8 Responses to Facing the dragon

  1. Maxine Clarke says:

    You sum it all up so well, Steffi. There are always so many competing pulls, it seems to be impossible to satisfy them all….It seems to me that you are doing a great job to achieve a balance under the circumstances, and I am sure the dragons will stay unwiped for long enough!

  2. steffi suhr says:

    That particular dragon actually looks quite friendly, doesn’t it?
    What fascinates me about the process is how much I need to adjust, being a ‘modern woman’ and all – I still feel ultimately responsible for keeping all balls in the air and for making sure everything runs smoothly. I’m having to learn to let my husband be the emancipated guy he is!

  3. Heather Etchevers says:

    Great post, Steffi! It is really hard to let go of some of the training we’ve had growing up – the training we went out of the way to acquire, or that we’ve accumulated passively, as well-rounded women!
    Not only do we not have to do it all, we should not. We should learn to delegate earlier in our lives. It’s great to know how to do everything (or nearly) – I was thinking this yesterday – and you do feel underutilized when you don’t actually use all your skills in a situation in which you could – but you must conserve your resources and apply them in the most effective and useful way.
    Do you find that eyebrows are raised higher in Germany than they would be elsewhere? In France, I’ve known two stay-at-home dads, and they had to develop rather thick skins, despite it being a culture where it’s pretty easy for women to work and a tendency towards gender equity is perceptible (if not already obtained). Things are slowly changing, but they’re not quite there yet.

  4. steffi suhr says:

    I don’t know whether eyebrows are going higher here than elsewhere – but I only have the US to compare to, since we didn’t have a child in the UK (oh, the days of blissful independence!). What I am observing is that, although there is daycare for everyone (the daycare workers might be underpaid though), and although there are great laws and regulations allowing for parental leave (for both mothers and fathers) and breastfeeding (e.g. allowing women time to pump/breastfeed at work without having to use breaktime), there is a culture of women pulling most of the weight – sometimes to the extent of stressing over having to dash to daycare from work in order to breastfeed, because the expectation that they’ll do it is even higher given that they have the opportunity. (I should stop there on that subject, there was a different place for that discussion, wasn’t there?)
    I get asked “…and what is your husband going to do?” so regularly, I think we’ll both have to develop a thick skin.

  5. Heather Etchevers says:

    Heh. I missed that discussion the first time around… having uttered many opinions on the subject when it was more in the forefront of my mind.
    The expectation that they’ll do it is even higher given that they have the opportunity is exactly why we work full days and then still come home and throw the laundry in the dryer to tumble out the wrinkles before we hang it, because otherwise it will be harder to iron later. After all, washers and dryers save us so much time! Goodness, don’t get me started. Ah, but you did. Today’s examples, since I have the flexible lab workplace in the couple – dash out for an hour to get a car repair diagnosed and the part ordered for installation tomorrow; call next year’s potential school for our daughter to see if she is enrolled; cook a full meal from primary ingredients upon returning home when my husband is out of town because he used up the pasta and other rapidly cooked foods when I was out of town last, cook the cake for a child’s class…
    Sorry about that. I also wanted to add that the question about your husband is also the unimaginative person’s way of showing interest in your life, so it may come as much from good intentions as from gender role stereotyping.

  6. steffi suhr says:

    The description of your day is spot on Heather – coincidence that all of those things are the kind of thing that, if you don’t do them, you let someone down in one way or another? If it was laundry or vacuuming – those can wait (for quite a while, if necessary…). But deadlines, food and cakes for children, and car repairs – all have to happen right then.
    I guess the only thing you could have done is order pizza?
    I keep feeling that this point I am trying to make / was trying to make in the discussion I linked to is slipping away from me: we need to accept each others choices of how to cope with it all, and we also need to learn to let go of some things – that’s just as essential of a step as developing good support options for raising a family, such as making good daycare available for everyone and having paid leave for mothers or fathers (depending who chooses to stay home).
    Hang on – I am getting a morning cuddle, and then I have to rush to work.

  7. Austin Elliott says:

    My Significant Other and I have completely failed as bilingual parents, despite good starting intentions. ‘Er Indoors’ Muttersprache is Tiefbayerisch, but before the arrival of Junior #1 we had sort of decided I would speak English to her, ‘Er Indoors would speak Hochdeutsch, and that way we would end up with a bilingual daughter. (My German is far short of fluent). But we couldn’t make it stick, and having grown up in the UK Junior is now (at nearly 5) entirely English-speaking. Oh well. Perhaps one day we will get to go and do a Sabbatical in Germany and see if we can tease out any “latent German language brain wiring” in her.

  8. steffi suhr says:

    Austin, that was exactly our experience in Colorado – so now, with a whopping n = 2, I conclude that for a child to successfully grow up bilingually, both parents must speak one language at home while the other language is spoken outside of the home.

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