This is the first of a series of posts about how working couples share the under-the-radar tasks that, taken together, represent the “psychic burden” of parenting.
Even though studies show fathers are changing more diapers and folding more laundry than ever, mothers are still bearing most of the “psychic burden” of parenting—the scheduling, organizing, and myriad little tasks that fall to the primary caregiver.
A month ago, I put together a survey asking parents how they divide certain responsibilities at home, and linked to it here. In the first week, more than 300 parents—moms, dads, gay, straight—filled out the survey.
According to the survey, even in households where both parents work outside the home, mom is still in charge of things like clipping the kids’ nails, researching daycare options, scheduling doctor appointments, and buying and sorting the kids’ clothes.
Is this fair? About half of you said yes, and half said no. But fairness is a complicated concept, one I will explore in more depth next week.
Please note, all anonymous quotes are from comments people left at the end of the survey.
Here’s who responded to the survey
- 338 total respondents
- 302 identified as “a working parent in a household where both parents work”
- 95% female; 5% male
- 94% households = 1 mom + 1 dad
- 5% households = 2 moms or 2 dads
- 1% other (divorced but co-parenting, or 2 parents + grandma)
To keep the survey short, I picked 10 chores (more about how I chose those 10 in a moment) and asked who did them. Parents could choose one of three answers:
- “I usually do this”
- “My partner usually does this”
- “We split it pretty evenly”
The majority of the respondents (262 out of 338) were working mothers whose husbands also work. This is how many of these moms say they are primarily responsible for these tasks:
- 92% Buying and sorting clothes
- 88% Scheduling dentist and doctor appointments
- 84% Organizing kid birthday parties
- 80% Research daycare/schools
- 75% Clipping nails
- 69% Checking for lice
- 68% School communication, volunteering, etc.
- 47% Stay home with sick kids
- 46% Brushing kids’ hair and teeth
- 35% Drop off and pick up kids
Here’s how many people said they split those same tasks evenly:
- 54% Drop off and pick up kids
- 49% Brushing kids’ hair and teeth
- 43% Stay home with sick kids
- 29% School communication, volunteering, etc.
- 18% Research daycare/schools
- 13% Organizing kid birthday parties
- 13% Buying and sorting clothes
- 13% Clipping nails
- 11% Checking for lice
- 10% Scheduling dentist and doctor appointments
Here’s how many dads are primarily responsible:
- 13% Clipping nails
- 11% Drop off and pick up kids
- 10% Stay home with sick kids
- 6% Brushing kids’ hair and teeth
- 3% School communication, volunteering, etc.
- 3% Scheduling dentist and doctor appointments
- 2% Research daycare/schools
- 2% Organizing kid birthday parties
- 2% Buying and sorting clothes
- 2% Checking for lice
There were no tasks in the survey where the majority of dads were primarily responsible, although I suspect if I’d asked who did the yard work or household maintenance, they would have scored some points there.
Here’s a pdf of all the survey questions in case you haven’t seen them.
This pdf file shows the full breakdown of responses by working mothers whose husbands also work.
About the survey
The questions in the survey were geared toward parents with very young children. I didn’t ask things like ‘Who stays up until the teenager gets home?’ or ‘Who teaches the kid to drive?’ That’s partly because my children are between the ages of 3 and 9, so that’s where my head is, but it’s also because the early years of parenting are particularly demanding and tend to really mess with our ability to work.
The majority of you also included detailed comments about your situations. I’m sorry to say there would have been far more responses, but due to a technical glitch, the survey crashed the day I left for vacation; I didn’t find out until a week later. Argh! I’m also sorry to say there weren’t enough responses from gay and lesbian families to make any meaningful comparisons between the dynamics of straight versus same-sex couples.
However, there were plenty of fascinating data to pore over, and I used up a ream of paper printing out the responses.
Why should we care who clips the nails?
Social scientists have long known about the housework gap between husbands and wives, as described in Arlie Hochschild’s book “The Second Shift.” Lately there have been many stories in the media saying this trend is changing. One study went so far as to say men’s growing contributions to household tasks are “substantially lessening the burden on women.”
I’m skeptical. Most of these studies focus on the obvious daily household and childcare responsibilities, but they leave out something very important. Are dads actually taking on their share of the thinking and planning of family life, or are they simply taking orders from mom? How much are these dads really lessening our “burden?”
Someone has to remember to do it
Although this certainly isn’t true in all families, we know that in general dads are doing more laundry and dishes. So I didn’t ask about those types of chores in the survey.
With a few exceptions, such as picking up and dropping off kids at school or daycare, I asked about things that don’t need to be done every day. It doesn’t take that long to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Sorting through outgrown clothes only happens a few times a year. But someone has to do it. And more than that, someone has to remember to do it. These little details have a way of piling up in our brains and taking up a lot more space than one might expect. Taken together, they represent what I think of as the psychic burden of parenting.
As several of you pointed out, there are plenty of other questions I could have included:
“Other Mom-duties-by-default in our household: meal planning and nutritional oversight (variety, vegetables, vitamins); extra-curricular/summer plans/daycare coverage research and planning; carpool planning and coordinating (with other moms, of course); babysitter finding and scheduling; parenting research (e.g., figuring out how to deal with sleep and potty issues thru BPN/internet/books); making basic hygiene happen (washing hands, wiping mouths, making sure baths happen and that hair gets shampooed).”
When we carry these details of family life alone, the effect can be isolating. Here’s how a few of you described it:
“In rereading my responses, it would seem that we are doing a pretty good job splitting tasks and my husband IS very active and involved. Yet, I still feel that the burden of parenthood falls more heavily on me. So why is that? I think it is because even though he totally steps up, I am still the one doing most of the directing/thinking ahead. For instance, he will happily give the kids a bath, but defers to me to decide whether they need one. That is a small example, but extend that out to what the kids wear each day, what we need to bring whenever we leave the house, what we should be looking for in a new daycare. He is doing the grunt work in these instances, for sure, but it would feel more fairly divided up if there were tasks he did without any input from me, just there are tons that I do without input from him. ”
“I think my husband would say we split things evenly but your questions point out things I typically do alone that often go unnoticed.”
“I think it’s not necessarily that women are doing more (though, this survey makes me think perhaps it’s not as egalitarian as I thought!), it’s that they are running the show. In terms of actual time spent with the kids I think it’s about evenly split. I’m always saying, “Hey, can you do this or that” and my husband is totally delightful and helpful and follows through. But he’s not delegating responsibilities to me because I’m the one with the master plan. Even though he goes to the store about 50% of the time to do our shopping, I always send him with a list. He never sends me with a list when I go, just might mention that he needs something. If I asked him to cut the kids nails, he most certainly would, but he doesn’t notice on his own that they need cutting (or his threshold for “long” is about 2 weeks past mine). I think that today’s women with extremely engaged husbands are still the family CEOs.”
What if I like to clip the nails?
Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that we don’t want to do these things. Many of you were quick to point out that you get joy from taking care of your family. It can be fun to buy our kids clothes. Clipping the nails can be an opportunity for quiet intimacy (unless you have a 3-year-old who screams every time she sees the nail clippers). However, when we’re working and trying to juggle all the details of home life, these seemingly invisible tasks can feel like a burden.
One dad who filled out the survey wanted to know if I have an axe to grind with men. Let me tell you a little bit about how things work in our house.
I have an embarrassingly supportive husband. I say ‘embarrassing’ because I know a lot of women don’t feel this way about the men they married, and some of them might be annoyed with how pleased I am with mine.
My husband is competent in house work, work-work, and childcare. He organizes closets with zeal, packs a mean lunch, and instinctively knows when it’s “hair wash” night. On my many business trips, I never had to worry about whether the kids were OK, and when I came home, the house was always clean, because he knows how stressful it is for me to come home to a dirty house. He respects my contribution whether I make more money or less than he does, and whether I make any at all.
And yet, Brian would freely admit that I’m the one who carries the psychic burden of parenting. (I know this to be true because he also edits my blog posts, and he just added the word “freely” to the previous sentence.)
Even when I was working full time and we shared drop-offs and pick ups, sick day coverage, and standard household chores like laundry and dishes, I made sure the kids were immunized (after researching the possible dangers of early immunization), bought and wrapped birthday presents for their friends’ parties, and fought nightly to get them to eat their veggies. Once in a while, Brian would buy the girls dresses, but I was the one who went through their closets, weeding out things they’d outgrown and distributing the hand-me-downs (or “hand-it-overs” as Martha called them) to friends. To this day, Brian has never once clipped the kids’ nails. He says their shoes would have to stop fitting before he noticed that their nails were too long.
I don’t know why things are this way. Mostly it works, but when I had a full time job, it was a lot to keep track of. Could we have divided things more evenly? If so, would that have made it easier to stay at my job? Would Brian have had the nervous breakdown instead of me? Would I have wanted to give up the things I did? I don’t know.
Was it fair? Read Part II.
*A brief disclaimer: The survey participants were self-selected. The results of this survey would probably not pass scientific scrutiny. However, they do reflect what other more serious studies show over and over again: the looming “housework gap” between men and women.
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