This column is an edited excerpt from the “Dear Sugars” podcast, an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains an extended conversation and more letters; submissions are welcome at email@example.com. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet)
My husband and I got a cat before we married five years ago. It was a shared decision, though I wanted a cat more than he did. I cleaned the litter box daily, but never to his satisfaction. He was home more than me during that time — I was working two jobs while he was studying for the GRE — and since he complained constantly about how I did the litter box, I eventually tasked him with the job. We now both work full-time, and a few years ago I took over the litter-box cleaning again with the understanding that the cat was my responsibility for the rest of his life. I’m fine with that.
I’d like to have a baby soon, and my husband’s in favor of this, too, but he has one caveat: He wants me to be the primary caretaker of our child. He claims I abused him by forcing the litter-box chores on him earlier in our relationship, so now he won’t agree to a 50-50 split of parenting chores. He also says since I want kids more than he does, I should be their primary caretaker, as I am with our cat.
I have no interest in having children with a partner who doesn’t want them as much as I do, nor am I willing to sacrifice my career to have a family. Shouldn’t my husband put the litter-box argument to rest? Is it possible for two people with full-time jobs to share parenting responsibilities equally? I’m afraid we don’t want the same things.
Cat and the Hypothetical Cradle
Steve Almond: There’s a real problem here, and it doesn’t have to do with the cat or the litter box. It’s the realization that you and your partner are not into shared goals and shared duty. You want the desire for a child and the care of that child to be shared, and you even have a clear idea about how you’d like those responsibilities divided: 50-50. Your partner is not onboard for that. That is what you found in the litter box.
Cheryl Strayed: Your husband’s attitude is stingy, mean and immature, Cat. Let’s start with the litter box. While there’s nothing wrong with dividing domestic tasks, reasonable adults who live together in a loving partnership generally behave as if they’re on the same team. They help each other out. They do this especially if they have a pet or a child together. If your husband still resents you for a brief stint on litter-box duty during an era when it made the most sense for him to do it, you’re in real trouble when it comes to having kids.
SA: Your letter makes clear that there’s a history of shifting rationale in your marriage — blaming, keeping score, manufacturing excuses and justifications for why you should be the one to clean up the poop and the mess. You think cats are messy? Wait till you meet babies.
CS: Isn’t that the truth! There’s also this, Cat: You’re considering having a baby with somebody who’s explicitly telling you that he’s not going to do his equal part as a parent. Implicitly, he’s telling you that he doesn’t care about your career aspirations or your wishes. He doesn’t have your back. What’s a marriage if it isn’t that? Over the course of most long-term romantic partnerships, there’s a natural ebb and flow of how home-front obligations are divided based on a number of shifting factors: jobs, school, travel, health, the needs of children, if a couple has them. It’s impossible to split every task down the middle, but it’s perfectly reasonable to expect to share the burden equitably with your spouse and to do so with a model of your choosing, whether it be in a double- or single-breadwinner household.
SA: You have to talk this over with him again, Cat. Avoiding this discussion — or reducing it to a dispute over cat poop — won’t do. There’s too much at stake. You want to have children with a man who wants them as much as you do. Your husband is telling you he doesn’t, and disregarding your desire when it comes to dividing the child care duties. It may be that he’s staking out these positions to express his anxieties and ambivalence about having a child. (He wouldn’t be the first person.) Perhaps in confronting this incompatibility, as calmly and compassionately as possible, you’ll be able to find compromises that work for both of you. But there’s no hope unless you initiate that hard work.
CS: Most couples argue over who did more of what on the domestic front and those conflicts are exacerbated if the couple also has children, whether they both work full-time or not, but if they at least start with the premise that they’re in it together and committed to sharing the burdens of all that homemaking, breadwinning and child-rearing entails, things generally come out fairly in the end. Your husband has told you he isn’t starting with that premise, Cat, and so he isn’t committed to it. You wrote that you fear you don’t want the same things as your husband, and I think you’re correct. I see so many flags. They all say: caution.
SA: You see the flags, too. That’s why you wrote us. Your task now is to reveal the contents of your heart to your husband. It may be that the two of you would benefit from some counseling, to help you communicate more honestly about this fraught subject. Cheryl is right (of course) that the first requirement of a partnership is trust and support. But second on that list, for potential parents, is a willingness to sacrifice. I sincerely hope you and your guy can move past the litter box and on to the real issue: whether you have a future together as parents, and what each of you is willing to sacrifice to build that future.