Here, We Will Discuss The (Often Heated) Issue Of Who Does What And How To Share The Load Fairly
Good solutions to daily problems
In this series of columns, we discuss how a mother and father can be a strong team in the great -- and sometimes amazingly difficult! -- undertaking of raising a family. The results include well-adjusted children, a sense of harmony between their parents, and good solutions to the practical problems of everyday life.
Past columns have explored effective ways a mother and father can communicate and negotiate with each other; the previous one covered how to "parent from the same page." Here, we will discuss the (often heated) issue of who does what and how to share the load fairly.
The amount of mental and physical work that comes with children is staggering. It ranges from figuring out what color to paint the new baby's bedroom while you're pregnant to -- 18 years later -- helping him pack for college.
This work comes in three essential forms:
The consequences of your decisions can be monumental: literally, the health and welfare of an innocent child. Yet the nature of parenting is learning on the fly, scrambling to deal with one weird situation after another that you've never seen before. No wonder you want a true partner, someone to bounce things off of, someone you can lean on from time to time, someone who takes it all as seriously as you do.
Who carries it?
These days "the village it takes to raise a child" often looks like a ghost town, without the supportive networks of relatives and neighbors that helped families in past generations, the social context in which humans evolved to raise children over several million years.
As a result, the work of making a family today falls mainly on the shoulders of just two people: Mom and Dad. (Or even worse, onto just one parent, a single mother or father.) That's already more than they are meant to carry, pushing them out of Condition Green into Condition Yellow even when they have a strong partnership. The best they can do is to find ways to swim skillfully upstream against the currents of modern life that push pervasively against the needs of their family.
And if either does less than his or her share, the other one is shoved toward Condition Red: more things to do, less sleep, more stress, less time to eat right, more health problems, more guilt over not keeping every single ball in the air every second, more loneliness, more dismay and resentment and anger. Compounding things, the parent who is dropping his or her end of the log may have the audacity to wonder, "Why don't we ever talk/go to the movies/make love any more?"
Many couples share the tasks, stresses and responsibilities of making a family evenly and fairly, swimming upstream with tenacity, skill and grace. But that's the exception. Unfortunately, the rule tilts mainly against mothers:
Tasks -- The average mother works altogether 15 to 20 hours more per week than the father of her children, whether she is drawing a paycheck or not. It's not hard to get there: an hour in the morning, an hour at night, a few hours on each weekend day . . . it adds up pretty fast.
Stresses -- Tending to young children, hour after hour, is more stressful than most jobs, as shown by the fact that mothers who stay home generally have worse health than those who place their kids in child care and go off to the workplace. Therefore, if Mom stays home while Dad goes off to work, her day is usually more stressful than his, unless he does something like air traffic control or undercover police work.
Even if both parents spend about the same amount of time doing tasks, the mother typically does high-stress things that are emotionally charged, constantly interrupted, require juggling several balls at once, and deal with factors that are often outside her control such as a child's health.
The father, on the other hand, often gets to do more peaceful tasks that he can schedule at will and carry to completion.
Responsibilities -- It is striking that, for all the advances for women in the workplace over the past 30 years, little has changed at the "Board of Directors" level in most families: it is still usually Mom, not Dad, who does most of the worrying, planning and problem-solving where the children are concerned.
It's lonely at the top of the typical American family, particularly since there is rarely a community of supportive mothers who can fill some of the vacuum of leadership left by many fathers.
Sometimes a father will work 60 or 70 hours each week, including business travel, and then (in the best case) help as much as he can on evenings and weekends. The problem is that his job is like an elephant in the living room, crowding out his children or wife. Then everyone loses.
Children grow up with a subtle sense of fatherlessness. The dad misses out on a special time that will never be repeated, trading it for career pushes that could be postponed a few years in most cases. The mom becomes a de facto single parent. And if this goes on for more than a year or so, some spouses may be able to maintain a deeply intimate marriage, working around the elephant, but frankly, we've never seen it.
The issues around sharing the load are often so charged that the best place to begin is by clarifying the facts. Then you have a solid foundation for establishing clear principles and agreements.
If you and your partner disagree about the facts, we suggest that you simply track, for at least a few days and ideally for a week, who does what and for how much time. Just jot down each day how you each spent your time, compare notes, and (presumably) agree on the facts of that day.
Obviously, if your partner suddenly becomes an angel once the spotlight is on, you can comment on that. You could also suggest continuing to track time for a month or two, which would have one of three outcomes, all of which are good: (A) you might discover that you've had a better partner than you thought, (B) his or her true colors would be revealed over time if he/she could not sustain the miraculous transformation, or (C) what started as an exercise in looking good could become a habit.
You could each also make note of the stresses you experienced that day as well as the sense of responsibility you felt for planning, worrying, and problem-solving.
At the end of the period, compare notes. Try to agree on what the basic facts are. If you can't, and the issues are significant, consider involving a third party as a kind of "tie-breaker."
At bottom, the issues of sharing the load are moral ones. Here are some of the central issues, raised as questions, with some answers as points of departure for you to come up with your own:
Over the years, we have heard various objections to sharing the load fairly that we would like to anticipate and address. It's unfortunate, but when it comes to inequities, there is no way to avoid talking about views expressed mainly by fathers, thus the gendered nature of these sample conversations:
Once you come together on basic principles, agreements about practical actions usually follow. It's pretty straightforward when you share a similar outlook.
For example, it took a while when our kids were little, but we
finally realized that we had to check in with each other about how we spent
our time. We created a basic schedule that guided our week even if we never
stuck to it perfectly. And we made some loose agreements about who would
generally do what. We still became ticked off at each other sometimes, but
we kept hammering away at our differences and resolved most of them over
time. Many, many parents have done just the same.