Doing My Fair Share of Parenting
Splitting parenting responsibilities equally is a chore. It needs to get done.
Patrick Coleman is Fatherly’s Parenting Editor, father of two young boys, and author of the forthcoming ‘Fatherhood,’ for which he’s interviewed, by his estimate, 254 experts in varying fields of child development.
My wife and I used to engage in the occasional game of responsibility chicken, a dangerous pastime that involves listing all your responsibilities until you prove you do the most. The whole thing would kick-off after an inconsequential request to do a chore or favor — changing the laundry, for instance, or going downstairs to fetch a seltzer.
“C’mon! I took out the trash and got the kids in the bath and loaded the dishwasher … “
“Well, yeah, but I worked all day while keeping the kids occupied and made dinner … “
On and on it would go until we’d laid our burdens on the table, reaching a frustrated, resentful stalemate. Nobody wins in a game of responsibility chicken. But luckily the collisions only resulted in a bent feeling or dented ego.
To be honest, if we’d found some objective way to measure our responsibilities, I’d lose every time. Most fathers would.
The vast majority of men do not recognize the hidden labor that women take on in their households — often little, crucial tasks that add up to a massive burden. It’s not for nothing that according to data from the PEW Research Center mothers are more likely to report they do more for the family compared to how much fathers say they do. We’d like to think that with more moms in the workforce that would naturally lead to some kind of home equilibrium but it’s just not the case.
And there are very big consequences to this inequality at home. We’re in the midst of a gender regression in the workforce. Since the pandemic began, nearly 2.2 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic began, according to the National Women’s Law Center. At least one in four women are considering downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce due to challenges created by the pandemic, a study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org found. One of those challenges? Kids, and dads not stepping up to the plate.
I understand that fathers would think that we’ve achieved home equality. We’re doing far more parenting duties and household chores than our fathers ever did. But let’s not pat each other on the back just yet.
Forgive my gross generalization, but dudes, dads, and men in general aren’t known for their subtlety. Many of us prefer strong man action and bold strokes. It makes a very stupid kind of sense that we would be blind to the subtle work our partners do that doesn’t require a force of effort and will.
I’m not trying to signal any sort of feminist virtue. Frankly, the less shit any parent has to do, including dads, the better off we all are. But, in the last few years I’ve realized that marriages have never been an institution of equity and I aim to try and change that in whatever way I can.
This conclusion didn’t come particularly easy. If you’re a man who cares and wants to do his best, trying to embody the masculine traits of selflessness and protection, it’s not easy to hear you’re not doing enough. But there are two roads from the initial pang of incredulity and hurt: You can listen to what women and researchers say and change, or you can reinforce the status quo until it all breaks down.
This is a task men need to take on for a couple of reasons: First of all, asking women to tell you how to change is just giving them another job. Second of all, your partner may not be willing to ask you to change themselves.
Clinical psychologist and writer Darcy Lockman puts the latter in stark and powerful terms in her book All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers and the Myth of Equal Partnership.
“It’s easier to feel grateful for all that has changed than to acknowledge all that has yet to,” she writes. “Gratitude is the precursor to less conflict rather than more. For women raising children with the modern involved father there is some pressure — self imposed and otherwise — to land on the side of appreciation, of sugar and spice and everything nice.”
I had the honor of being interviewed by Lockman for her book, and I laid out the places I knew I was failing in building an equitable division of labor. My wife makes all of the appointments with the doctors and specialists (sometimes, I’m chagrined to say, even for me). She is the primary point of contact with our school. She does homework with our boys. She maintains a calendar of bills and makes contact with repairmen. She plans a weekly meal calendar and does the grocery shopping. She sets up the babysitter for date night.
This probably sounds familiar to a lot of dads. Hopefully, like me, they also want to be fair. We need to take steps to make the shift.
One of my first solutions was to set up a daily morning meeting where my wife and I can come at these issues as a team. We’re both looking at the calendar and the bills and the appointments. When we need to make calls or communicate with people outside the family to get things done we talk about who has the most bandwidth rather than making assumptions. It’s helped out a lot. But I’m still not there yet.
Striving toward equal labor in the home also means that we as fathers make a point to reorient the people outside our homes who are naturally inclined to see our partners as the contact person. I haven’t been great at that. But the school needs to understand that fathers are part of the equation and stop defaulting to moms. They can’t make that shift unless they see more involved dads. Same goes for pediatricians, babysitters, and other people who have regular contact with our kids outside the home.
Fathers need to take much more responsibility in understanding the minutiae of our children’s lives. I can honestly tell you that when I’m folding clothes, I often don’t know which shirt belongs to which boy. Why? Well, I’ve not made the effort to learn because my wife takes responsibility for putting away the clothes, despite the fact that I do often wash them, dry them and fold them. How fair is that?
I’m getting better. Slowly. The upshot is that, yeah, if we take an honest appraisal of what our partners do for the family, beyond the physical work of chores, we’ll see they do, indeed, do more. That will mean taking on more. Does that suck? Yep. But it sucks more for women right now.
We can blame all of this on the ridiculous expectations of modern parenting. Sadly, we have to live this way. In order to pay the bills and make sure the kids get to where they need to go in life we have to work far harder than our parents ever did.
None of this is fun to hear. But it is the truth. Take it as the truth and take it with a sense of conviction and love for your wife and your family. If you want true equality, because that’s what love requires, then you’ll do the work and stop playing responsibility chicken.
Dear Parenting People,
Have a question about child development or how to get out of a parenting bind? Drop them in the comments and I’ll respond there or in full detail in the next email.