We all know that fathers today are much more involved with their children than the stereotypical men of decades past. This optimistic tale of the modern, involved dad leaves heterosexual couples with outsized expectations around equally shared parenting—expectations that are not supported by empirical data in the social sciences. Do not confuse the really good dad with a man who is committed to setting aside his own gender privilege vis a vis his wife in the home. It turns out they are not one and the same.
Though fathers increased the amount of time spent in childcare throughout the end of the 20th century as mothers’ labor force participation peaked, time use data in the U.S. and other western nations has found that this increase leveled off around the year 2000. Research continues to find that mothers in dual-earner couples shoulder about 65 percent of the childcare work. Mothers are 2.5 times as likely as fathers to get up in the middle of the night with their children. Fathers of babies spend twice as much weekend time engaged in leisure activity as their wives. Seventy-seven percent of coupled, working mothers report that they are the ones to stay home with a sick kid. The metrics go on and on.
If men tend to be blind to this uneven distribution of labor, women are anything but. In interviewing working mothers for a book on this pervasive gender dynamic, I heard from many women like Monique, mother to a toddler in New York City, who told me, “There’s definitely resentment. It’s not a deal-breaking kind of resentment, but it’s there. So when the three of us are together, I’m edgy. If he suggests that our daughter needs something, I have an immediate visceral reaction and it’s hard not to start an argument because the implication is that I’m supposed to take care of it. I try to say something nicely. But I don’t always say it nicely. He knows how I feel and it hasn’t produced any meaningful, consistent change. How much convincing of the other person can you do?”
It’s true that you can’t convince another person, but you can advocate for gender equity in your marriage. The women I interviewed who were the most successful at navigating sexism (both their partner’s and their own) in their relationships have done it by taking these steps:
Make the commitment to an equally shared workload explicit. Many contemporary couples have egalitarian values, but family studies research finds that attitudes do not predict behavior. A neutral conversation about those attitudes can be used to lay the groundwork for behavioral change.
Elizabeth, a mother in northern California, spent her college years studying work-family conflict, so she knew from the research how it was likely to go in any heterosexual partnership she might be in. She spoke to her then-boyfriend (later husband) about her concerns, and they agreed that domestic equality was important to both of them, and that they would make its maintenance a priority. When things became unbalanced, either could begin a conversation not by accusing the other of slacking off, but rather by saying, “We are not meeting our mutual goal.”
Spend a week keeping a time diary. Recently, as a guest on a podcast, I had the opportunity to hear a dad podcaster named Jerrod interview his wife Marissa about her feelings about the division of childcare labor in their relationship. “I think we share things pretty evenly,” he said to her. “More like 60-40,” she replied, waiting a beat. “Or 70-30 if I’m being really honest.”
In my research, I found that women who were angry about carrying the burdens of child management often had spouses for whom the discrepancy barely registered. To keep a time diary, spend the last few minutes of every hour noting how you’ve spent your time throughout that 60 minutes (e.g., 10 minutes cleaning breakfast dishes, 20 minutes showering and getting dressed, 5 minutes on Amazon ordering gift for birthday party, 10 minutes tidying toys, etc.). These diaries allow couples to quantify the work they are doing for their families as well as their paid work and leisure time. The spouse who contributes less in the home is often surprised by all the tasks the other partner has taken on. That surprise can be a catalyst for change.
Divide the physical and mental load. Employed mothers spend more time in solo care of children than fathers. Research also demonstrates that women in heterosexual couples are responsible for most of what social psychologists call “mnemonic work”—the tasks that involve planning, tracking and remembering the needs of the family. When asked who is responsible for the mnemonic work in their households, mothers and fathers agree that mothers are more likely to take this on.
While school drop-off and pick-up or getting up with young kids on the weekends lend themselves to dividing, mnemonic tasks are also surprisingly easy to break down. Together, couples can brainstorm a list. It might include tasks like being in charge of planning childcare for school breaks, taking care of summer camp registration and forms, tracking and scheduling doctor and dentist appointments, storing hand-me-downs and buying new clothes, and filling out permission slips.
According to Pew Research, 63 percent of working mothers report that they do more to manage the kinds of tasks listed above (53 percent of working fathers also say their wives do more; only about two percent of men and women report that fathers do more in this area). Couples invested in sharing can agree to make certain jobs their responsibility alone, gaining expertise and ease with their chosen assignments, and removing the burden completely from the (m)other’s tracking list.
Agree upon standards that satisfy both parties. Fathers I interviewed insisted that their wives’ high standards were to blame for their own refusal of responsibility. Mothers often elaborated that their partners’ low standards crossed the line of acceptable behavior. For example, one mother in California told me that if she wanted her sons to be at school on time, she’d resigned herself to having to be the one to do drop-off every day. Another said that if she wanted her kids to eat anything but Hamburger Helper, it was up to her to do the cooking.
Rather than end the conversation at if-you-don’t-like-how-I-do-it-it’s-on-you, couples might decide together that having lower standards is no excuse for refusing responsibility. True partnership means hearing your co-parent out, and even agreeing to raise your own standards to be closer to his or hers.
Schedule regular check-ins. Because of the entrenched gender roles in contemporary society, in the absence of regular conversation the work of parenting tends to default to mothers. Rather than leave it to women to spearhead every discussion around division of labor, couples can jointly decide to spend an hour on some given day every month talking about who is doing what, and whether that is working for all involved parties. Dividing labor is hardly the most romantic part of a marriage or partnership; still it’s a crucial one for maintaining a sense of shared well-being among couples.
Darcy Lockman is a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership.
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