A few years ago, I put together a survey called “Who Clips the Nails?” I wanted to find out how parents in two-parent households divide up childcare tasks.
At the time, the media was reporting that men were doing more chores and childcare, and that the “gender wars” were over. But I was skeptical. After all, not all chores are created equal. It’s one thing to take turns dropping kids at daycare. It’s another thing to do the thinking tasks, like clipping the nails, sorting the kids’ clothes that don’t fit, setting up doctors and dentist appointment—the things that require planning, that take up more of what I call the psychic burden of parenting.
More than 300 people filled out that survey. Not surprisingly, the results showed that mothers overwhelmingly did these psychic burden tasks, even in families where both parents worked. The most interesting finding, for me, was when I asked how people felt about this. Many women were really angry about the unfair division of labor; others blamed themselves saying they were too controlling, they didn’t let their husbands help.
With that in mind, I’d like to share this exclusive excerpt with you from Getting to 50/50 by Joanna Meers and Sharon Strober. In the book, the authors argue that working moms and dads can have it all, if men and women divide chores equally at home.
Excerpt from Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All, by Joanna Meers and Sharon Strober
Chapter 7: The Great Alliance: How Your Husband Solves the Work/Life Riddle
Creating an equal partnership
We want to be very clear with our women readers here. You may be the one with the stretch marks, or the one who stays with a baby in its first months at home. But the minute you start thinking about “my child” instead of “our child” you are setting yourself up to be in this alone.
The 50/50 mind-set means that you have an equal partner—and treat him as an equal. Really. No matter how many baby books you marshal to support your view, if the evidence does not sway your partner, remember he has half the votes. Let him cast them.
Joanna didn’t think she was a fussy dresser. Yet, when her daughter was born, Joanna learned she had strong opinions about fashion, at least about the baby’s wardrobe. Jason would take charge of getting their daughter ready in the morning but Joanna never liked his clothing choices. Joanna would criticize Jason for his efforts, take the baby back to the changing table, and redo Jason’s work so their daughter wore outfits Joanna chose. “I’m not doing this anymore,” said Jason after several months of this. “If you want to be the clothing director, be my guest.”
Karen came home from a business meeting and saw her husband on the floor with their eight-month-old son, playing, and both of them were eating Honey Nut Cheerios. “What are you doing giving our son honey?” she asked in alarm. “Don’t you know he can’t have honey until he’s one? I told you what to feed him. Why didn’t you do that?” He thought, I was having a great time with my son—until you got home.
When you are working with a peer at the office, do you tell her how to do her parts of a joint project? You know to keep your mouth shut even when you’d like to offer some “advice.” You won’t be a very popular colleague if you intervene on her turf. She’ll resent you (even if—particularly if—your way was “better”). And then she’ll ask for a transfer. When husbands stop helping, that’s what they’re doing.
Marriage expert Joshua Coleman, the author of The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework, told us, “When moms have rigid standards, dads walk away from the bargaining table.” In fact, research shows that women with perfectionist expectations have lower satisfaction in their marriages overall.
We know, very personally, that easing up is tough to do. Our feelings about our kids are stronger than any other emotion (and that may be both natural and good). Even 50/50 moms confess that it’s an epic struggle to cede control. “The burden disproportionately falls on the woman,” says one of our survey respondents, “maybe even by her own choosing.”
Rose has a demanding job in TV and a deeply involved husband who handles as many diapers and feedings as she does. “When we are at home together we are equal, but when we go to work, I’m the one who tends to worry. Like when it’s raining outside, I worry about how the nanny is going to get our kids around town. I make the doctors’ appointments, Mark goes. I get the preschool application, Mark helps me fill it out.
“Mark would do more, but usually I want to do it. I want to be part of everything my kids do when I can. I guess it comes from the model of a family you hold in your head,” says Rose. “I like to complain about how hard it is. But I’m not complaining about Mark. I’m just complaining about the strain on me.”
How do you build a life that looks different from the one you knew growing up, where you feel good about yourself as a mom but let your husband enjoy the freedom to be a parent in his own distinctive way? This is a challenge for many of us.
“Having the right mind-set is really important,” says Sara, who learned this when her husband, Jamie, retired from his career in sales to spend more time with their kids.
“A lot of women say, ‘Well, my husband helps.’ What do they mean ‘helps’? It means that the women still feel accountable. You really have to let go of ownership. If we tell men they have to do it our way, or correct them all the time, that’s not going to work.
“When Jamie first started staying home, I was treating him like the nanny. I’d say, ‘Here’s the plan, go follow it.’ Jamie just said, ‘Wait a minute. I have my own way I do things.’ I had to step back.”
We all need to embrace the idea—and encourage our husbands to remind us—that sometimes moms just need to get out of the picture. If 50/50 is going to work, when it’s your husband’s turn, you need to gracefully butt out. Unless you’re successful at fighting the “I’ll just do it myself” urge, you have to make a conscious effort to give your spouse some breathing room, especially if he’s as new to parenting as you are or if he’s taking over a new task. You may intervene if the baby’s diaper is slipping down to his knees, or if your husband mixes bleach and ammonia while cleaning the bathroom, but every time you correct your spouse’s “errors” or criticize his way of doing something, you’re dealing a blow to 50/50.
What do you think? Do you need to “gracefully butt out” when your partner is in charge of the kids? Have you tried?
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Check out my new book! MAXED OUT: American Moms on the Brink (Sept. 2013)