There have been times in my marriage when I’ve been so fed up with the unfair division of labor in my home that I have mentally divided up the furniture about who would get what in the inevitable divorce. These black moments – he can have that stupid “king’s chair” in front of the TV, I’ll take my grandmother’s botanical prints he hates – usually came when I was wiping up the soup or sauce or dressing that someone had put in the fridge without a lid that exploded all over the shelves, while he watched TV in said chair.
The smoldering resentment over how I somehow was supposed to do it all burned for years like low-level radioactive waste in my gut. Pediatrician? Me. Stay home when kids were sick? Me. Summer camp planning? Me. Arrange child care? Me. Scramble to arrange backup child care when everything fell apart? Me.
Oh, he did more than his own father, changing diapers. And he was great with the kids. But when it came to the drudge work of running house and family, he’d sometimes do things when I asked. But often he’d do them so badly that I thought it was just a ploy to drive me crazy enough to take it all back. And some stuff never even occurred to him: like the fact that kids grow out of their clothes and new ones have to be bought and old ones taken out of closets and given away. It had gotten so bad that, at one point, I said, “I just want you to notice everything I do, and say thank you.” Even though we both worked full-time (and I, truthfully often worked longer hours because they were so scattered with other responsibilities) I often felt like he had the career, and I just tried not to get fired.
It wasn’t always that way.
When we were first married, we’d promised we would be truly equal partners. And we were. We both worked full-time and supported each other fully. We grocery shopped together. We both cooked and cleaned up the kitchen. We did laundry together. And on the weekends, we’d blast music, vacuum and dust in a frenzy, then go out and play.
Then we had a baby.
And before we knew it, instead of being the egalitarian couple for the new millennium, as we intended to be, we had unintentionally slid into pretty traditional gender roles. Except that I still worked full-time. Some days, I thought my head would explode.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised by a new study released online by the Journal of Marriage and Family. More than 95 percent of the nearly 200 couples in Ohio State University’s New Parents Project longitudinal study — all of them highly educated — proclaimed to want egalitarian marriages. Most of them, indeed, had them. In-depth time diaries showed that both the men and women, on average, worked about 40 hours a week. And both each spent about 15 hours a week doing housework.
Then they had a baby.
When the babies were nine months old, after whatever parental leave either parent took, time diary data showed that the women continued to do about 15 hours a week of housework. And they added 22 hours a week of child care.
The men picked up 14 hours more of child care. But they’d started doing less housework. Five fewer hours a week!
Now most studies of these kinds of “chore wars” tend to show that women offset this heavier burden at home – women still do about twice the housework and child care – by curtailing their work hours while their husbands or partners don’t. The argument is that this is fair, because both men and women have roughly equal workloads. But that specious view overlooks a couple key points: Putting in longer hours at work is likely to lead to higher pay, more challenging work and a greater likelihood of promotion. Longer hours in the carpool line or at the kitchen sink, the necessary and invisible labor of family life, is likely to lead to the flexitrack, Mommy track, side track or off ramp at work.
But here’s why this New Parents Project study is so instructive. The women were putting in 37 hours of housework and child care each week. The men 24 hours. And both the men and women continued to work the same number of full-time hours.
This is wholly, patently and wildly unfair.
“If anyone is going to have an egalitarian division of labor, it would be these couples. They are highly educated. They have the financial resources. This is a very privileged sample,” said Claire Kamp Dush, one of the report authors and professor of human sciences at Ohio State. “They say they want to have equal divisions of labor. But that’s just not happening.”
Plus, the study found that men were doing more of the fun child care – like playing peek a boo and reading, while the women were doing more of the diaper changing, the schlepping to child care and the often time-sensitive work that can make new parents feel so breathless, rushed and feeling pressed for time.
Interestingly, Kamp Dush and her co-authors found that both men and women overestimated the time they were spending on child care: both men and women thought their child care workloads increased by about 30 hours. Yet in reality, women overestimated their work by eight hours. And men overestimated their time in child care by 15 hours.
“That tells us that parenthood feels like a lot of work,” Kamp Dush said. “And it really calls into question any study that relies on self-reported data, because our perceptions are so out of line with reality.”
Though I would argue that what that perception reflects is not just the actual physical work of child care, but the heavy – and just as real – mental load of thinking, planning and worrying that never ends.
The New Parents Project was initially designed to study “maternal gate-keeping” – the phenomenon of women doing everything with new babies and keeping men out of the picture, which does, indeed, add to the unfair division of labor.
But this study, Kamp Dush said, shows that there’s more than maternal gatekeeping going on. And perhaps the women are working full-time hours now, when the babies are nine months old, but may become so stressed juggling this heavier workload that they won’t be able to for much longer, leading them to lean out of the workplace.
“After seeing this, we’re really starting to argue that men need to stop leaning out of housework across the transition to parenthood. And, even though men tend to be more uncomfortable caring for an infant, stick in there and learn how to do it.”
The most compelling research shows that starting early and setting family dynamics right from the start leads to the greatest likelihood of truly egalitarian partnerships. In some of the Nordic countries like Iceland and in the Canadian province of Quebec, governments have made it “normal” for fathers to take solo parental leave with a “Daddy quota.” A portion of paid leave is reserved just for fathers, and if they don’t take it, the family loses the time. That’s not only boosted the share of fathers taking leave, but, three years later, shows that mothers and fathers are more equally sharing paid work, child care and housework.
In the United States, the only advanced economy with no paid parental leave, and where dads taking paternity leave is still stigmatized, I’d advise couples to create their own “Daddy quota.” Say, Saturday morning. Or Sunday afternoon. Dad, you’re solo and in charge. Mom, you leave. And when you come back and the baby’s outfit is on backwards at first, or the snacks aren’t packed for the park the way you’d do it, bite your tongue. Keep the maternal gates open. Each of you learn how to take the lead in your own way and support each other.
Even so. It’s never too late. After 20 years, my husband and I began taking long walks to figure out how we’d gotten so off track, and began to work to more fairly share the load. We started small: I empty the dishwasher. He loads. We divided chores based not on gender, but on what we like: I like yardwork. He’s better at grocery shopping. Just as he had to raise his standards, I had to lower mine. Sometimes the laundry doesn’t get folded.
We both take turns with the pediatrician, the dentist, making the appointments, rescheduling them, and planning trips and summer camps.
It takes work. Talking. Holding each other accountable. Adjusting. And keeping in mind the kind of life we really want together. But that low-level radioactive waste of resentment is gone. And rather than me feeling constantly mentally polluted doing it all, and he feeling defensive and unappreciated for what he did do, we’re a lot closer to that egalitarian ideal we’d promised each other all those years ago when we didn’t know how to make it real. We’re finally learning how.