In the past couple of years, our homes have become a key battleground in the fight for gender equality. Who plans the dinners? Folds the laundry? Schedules the doctor’s appointments? Probably mom. Who’s not particularly happy with this situation? Probably mom.
Even as women have taken on more work outside their home, they’re still doing the bulk of household chores and childcare at home. Dads, to be fair, are putting in more time than their dads. They do roughly three times as much childcare, and more than two times as much housework as fathers in 1965.
But at the end of a long day — breakfast, drop-off, work, dinner, cleaning, bedtime — few women have much interest in contemplating generational shifts. What they want is a partner who knows that the soccer jersey needs to be washed before tomorrow’s game, and they want a partner who knows that now, without being told.
Why don’t men help more around the house? In many cases, laziness plays a role. Why worry about soccer jerseys when you know someone else will do it? But to focus only on the lazy factor is to miss the widespread, and deeply entrenched, cultural and structural forces that are behind gender inequality at home.
Complaining about the unwashed soccer jerseys is a reasonable, and often cathartic, response to this imbalance, but it’s not likely to incite much change. The fix needs to be bigger, ambitious and strategic. Couples need to understand how they ended up in this situation and then coolly, and collaboratively, find their way out.
Take history into consideration
For much of human history, men and women were both heavily involved in the running of the home and family business, explains Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families and author of “The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap.” Don’t confuse this for gender equality: Broadly speaking, men still had authority over women. It’s just that men didn’t get this authority because they earned money outside the home, while women tended, wage-free, to the kids and the cleaning. Instead, men got their power from hierarchical social institutions, such as religion.
Before the 19th century, fathers tended to be heavily involved with domestic activities like feeding the wood stoves, fetching and carrying water, teaching their children to read, and maintaining ties to extended family and neighbors. In other words, they did a lot of what we today consider “emotional labor.” Meanwhile, women were often in charge of the financial and marketing side of their family business, which was often agricultural.
Then waged labor outside the house became the norm and fathers were the ones more likely to take these jobs. Women, the breastfeeders and baby gestators, were seen as better off staying at home and, with time, all things domestic began to be seen as feminine. Moms took over the job of educating children, maintaining social relations, and making sure the home stayed clean and everyone was fed. Some women did this themselves; others oversaw a team of domestic workers to take on these tasks.
“Around the early 19th century, men took on this special role as providers and protectors, and with that came a whole ideology. Men began to embrace a masculine identity that was based on not doing women’s work,” Coontz said. “Women also began to embrace a new identity, unheard of in colonial days: We are the family expert. We know how to raise kids. We know how to change diapers. Institutions began to be organized around this idea.”
Thus set-off a culture of gendered expectations, and a legal system to reinforce these expectations, that is still with us today.
Childcare and paid leave are considered unnecessary because mom is assumed to be home watching the kids. The incompetent dad became a mainstay of popular culture — the more incompetent, the more laughable and ultimately loveable — because who could really expect a man, of all people, to care for his children? Girls were hired as babysitters and taught to cook, while the independence of those rough-and-tumble boys was fiercely guarded. Such training was considered necessary to ensure success as adults for both genders.
Considering this past teaches us two things. One: Dads aren’t constitutionally incompatible with domestic life. Two: Our current situation is the product of deeply entrenched cultural and legal systems designed around the single, and male, breadwinner model. The catch? The vast majority of us no longer live in the single, and male, breadwinner model. We need new systems.
Start with paternity leave
One of the most important policies for creating equality at home is paid parental leave for everyone. Studies have found that paternity leave can have lasting effects on father’s involvement with their kids. For example, men who take paternity leave tend to have closer relationships with their kids, are more-involved fathers in the long term, and are more likely to equitably divide chores with their partners. Paternity leave is also tied to lower divorce rates.
Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit and a paid-leave advocate currently working with Dove Men+Care and PL+US in the Fight for Paid Family Leave, said paternity leave was crucial to the well-being of his wife and daughter. Ohanian’s wife, tennis-player Serena Williams, experienced labor-related complications that put her on bedrest for six-weeks postpartum. It also helped him figure out how to be a dad.
“I did not have children around me growing up, and I hadn’t held a little baby until Olympia. I am a big dude. She was a little baby. It was nerve-wracking,” he explained. “That hands-on time really normalized it. I overcame my most primal fears and concerns about parenting in those early weeks.”
Ohanian said of all the challenges he has taken on in his life, nothing compared to the pressure and responsibility he felt to do right by his daughter. When he realized he could handle it, he felt both more confident and humble than he had in the past. He had, in short, a new perspective on life, and has since observed that other fathers who took time off during their children’s first year often feel the same.
This is how structural changes, things like laws and workplace policies, lead to cultural changes, or how we think and feel about an issue. Today, Ohanian makes a point of discussing fatherhood in the workplace as much as possible. He wants everyone to stop acting like men aren’t parents too, and make it okay for dads to acknowledge the fact that they sometimes need to take a break from work in order to parent. This might mean taking paternity leave, or an afternoon off for a class field trip or to care for a sick kid. He also wants to help colleagues better understand how who they are as workers is informed by who they are as parents, and that this can be a point of pride.
“It’s foolish to think that when we are working we are separate and distinct from our home lives. Our home lives give purpose to what we do at work,” Ohanian said.
Despite the near-alchemical magic of paternity leave, only a tiny minority of American men take more than a few days off following the birth of a child. This is largely the result of the fact that the United States, unlike nearly every other country in the world, does not have a national paid leave policy. It’s also a result of the lingering stigma surrounding men who take time off of work to parent, a stigma Ohanian and a small but growing number of men are trying to undo.
As promising as a universal, gender-neutral paid leave policy is, it’s not, unfortunately, something any of us can count on tomorrow. Nor will it help all the men and women who already had kids. For these parents, the fight for systemic change will have to be matched with changes at home.
Don’t get mad, get negotiating
Would it be wonderful if dads stood up in the face of injustice and demanded to do more meal-planning and play-date arranging? Yes it would. But barring a miracle, it remains up to both parents to work together and find a way to more equitably divide domestic work.
Eve Rodsky, author of the new book “Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live),” said she understands the instinct to get angry. A working mom, she knows firsthand what it’s like to have a million loose threads hanging in one’s head, and once pulled over to the side of the road to sob because her husband texted her during an extremely busy day to ask why she didn’t get blueberries. Still, she doesn’t think anger will bring us closer to a solution.
“I’ve heard stories of women shaming their husbands, going on strike, acting helpless, saying the only solution is divorce. I can’t,” Rodsky said. “I am an organizational manager and a mediator. Hearing this is exactly the opposite of everything I stand for.”
Instead, Rodsky suggests that couples sit down and talk, task-by-task, about what needs to be done and who should be fully responsible for it—conception through execution. These conversations give both partners a chance to recognize everything that has to happen in order to make their household run, and talk about why one of them might do too much of one thing, and too little of another. They also give couples a chance to discuss their values, and articulate their expectations for family life. The end result doesn’t have to be a perfectly equal division of labor, but a mutual sense of fairness.
“What leads to change is context. In my research, I’ve found that when men understand context, they feel empowered to take the lead, and they do more,” Rodsky said.
During the first few years of parenthood, I made the mistake of bringing up the domestic work imbalance whenever I witnessed it in real time. I griped about remembering birthday presents, nagged about cleaning dirty toilet bowls, and complained about making holiday travel plans.
This was worse than ineffective, it was counterproductive. My well-meaning, if not always fully aware, husband – a husband who came of age in an era when men were expected to do very little around the house and thus wasn’t trained for this – felt attacked and would get defensive.
It was only when we left the specifics behind, and began to think of the bigger picture of our household, that change happened. We discussed our priorities, including everything from how often we wanted homecooked meals, to how we would celebrate holidays.
We saw where we needed to compromise, and where it would be up to one of us to make something happen that the other person just didn’t feel was necessary. We also realized our individual strengths in housekeeping, and made the most of it. He prefers regular activities, such as nightly dishwashing, as well as thorough organization projects every couple of months. I’m more into to taking on the atmospheric chaos around the house on a regular basis.
Sure, parenting involves a lot of drudgery and busy-work. But there’s also a lot of magic. Holding a child’s hand during a doctor’s appointment, or helping them build a diorama, can be rich and rewarding, as long as making it happen doesn’t come at the expense of a parent’s sanity.
In the end, my husband began doing more to benefit me, and to benefit himself.
Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.