True Parent 9
When I explain to people my parenting situation—that my husband travels a lot for work, and that I do most of the school drops-offs/pick-ups, doctor appointments, dinner prep, bedtime, and middle-of-the-night puking cleanup for our two small children—a look of mixed horror and pity often washes over their faces.
“How are you coping?” they ask, wide-eyed. “Don’t you get resentful?”
The truth is, I love it.
I’m not saying there aren’t pain points. (I swear getting two children out the door, dropped off at school, and arriving on time to an 8 am meeting should be an individual Olympic sport. Except that no one would be crazy enough to participate.) But having tried out the alternative—wherein my husband and I tried to split all duties straight down the middle—I’d take this arrangement any day.
We didn’t talk much about division of labor before we had kids, but as fairly typical Gen X’ers who labeled ourselves as progressive, we both assumed that parenting and domestic responsibilities would be divided evenly between us. That was the plan, anyway.
But things got messy when we brought our daughter home from the hospital six years ago. We essentially approached this new child-rearing responsibility as a job-share—splitting decision-making and labor equally and fairly, right down the middle.
The problem with this arrangement is that trying to negotiate that level of minutiae with another person is hell—especially if you’re a person who, like us and many of our generation, waited to have children until already establishing a career. By the time we had kids, we were used to enjoying a certain amount of autonomy and mastery over our lives and schedules.
Let’s take, for example, feeding the baby. Despite the fact I was the one producing the milk, my husband and I felt strongly that both of us should share feeding responsibilities. In theory, if my husband bottle-fed our child on certain night shifts, it would free me up for more sleep, give him a sense of satisfaction, and provide equity in our roles.
But the difference between theory and practice is vast. As anyone who has fed a newborn knows, monitoring a baby’s eating schedule can be a complicated math problem with variables including ounces drank, hours passed, weight gained, and relative exhaustion level of parents. Trying to share that exercise—in addition to our baby’s preference for actual nipple, rather than the silicone version, the incredible strength of a baby’s lungs, and my general new-mom mania during those first few months—resulted in zero additional sleep for me. After several weeks we gave up. Doing it myself was just easier.
Look, I’m not arguing that men shouldn’t have parental duties, or that they shouldn’t be involved in feeding their babies. I know lots of situations in which the dads share in feeding or even take the lead. What I do think is worth recognizing is that in the case of most responsibilities—domestic or otherwise—it’s just straight up easier for one person to be in charge, rather than try to strike the complicated balance of co-ownership.
For us, it started making more sense to divide and conquer. And there is some evidence suggesting that people who divide and conquer duties within a marriage—rather than prioritize equal ownership—are ultimately happier.
In a study “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” put forth by the American Sociological Review in 2013, researchers found that the more couples equally shared certain domestic duties, the less sex they had. The study doesn’t treat all chores equally, however; it’s only when men are engaged in the more “feminine” jobs of vacuuming, dishwasher loading—i.e., the jobs that are shared between them—that couples were found to have less sex. When men engaged in more “manly” jobs like fixing the car, the woman’s sexual satisfaction increased.
Marital satisfaction isn’t entirely based on sex, of course—the study also noted that the overall happiness of women generally increased when men engaged in any chores around the house. Overall, the message communicated in this study fr om women to their husbands seems to be: “I’m happy when you contribute to the household, but I am even happier (and also want to have more sex with you) when you do your own chores, and I do mine.”
I have seen this play out in my own life. After several years of stumbling along, trying to figure out how to juggle our two roles, my husband and I have been forced in the last few years to divide our duties after he took this new job.
I’d be a jerk if I didn’t also admit that part of this story is about economics. The new job came with more money, which allowed us to up our outsourcing game and diffuse my workload, essentially giving me the authority to hire some of the help he’s not providing on a daily basis at home.
Because of all those things, having the autonomy and freedom to inhabit our own independent, intellectual, and domestic spheres has been liberating. Lately when my husband comes home on Friday night after being gone all week—it’s almost like we’re dating again. For one thing, talking is far less boring when you haven’t been standing next to each other washing dishes for 30 days straight. Compared to the feeling I had two years ago of being trapped in a small spaceship co-piloting with him on an 18-year mission, it’s pretty great.
As we all know, parenting is the single hardest job in life—and let’s face it, no one really knows how to do it. But I do think that as post-modern parents, we owe it to ourselves to rethink the party line. And that may include running our households in a way that may or may not fall along typical—or newly sanctioned “non-typical” gender divides.