Couples have lofty ideals.
When we first get together, we assume we’ll run our home equally. “It’s the 21st century,” we’ll say, and promise one another that both will share equal work, make equal sacrifices, and that no one will carry more than his or her fair share of the weight.
Then the kids arrive.
Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, says both men and women suffer from three ideals pulling them in different directions:
- The Ideal Worker
- The Ideal Mother
- The Provider Father
How does this affect your home?
Mothers are pressured to fill the role of the Ideal Mother: She breastfeeds from day one until at least a year of age. She tends to every nighttime waking and tracks each milestone. She gathers craft items and pins sensory activities and starts Pancake Saturday traditions. She takes the kids to every doctor’s appointment and attends each school function.
Fathers meanwhile face the historical role of providing for the family. Only in modern times have fathers stretched away from the distant dad whose sole duty is to work and earn income. Even though women now make up a majority of the work force, fathers still feel pressured—financially and socially—to work and provide. So that should a mother actually earn more than her husband, he still clings to the role of Provider Father and continues to work despite potentially not even wanting or needing to.
This is only the beginning: The Ideal Mother also struggles with the role of the Ideal Worker. This is the person who faces scrutiny when she has to leave at the “early” hour of 6:30pm to tuck the kids into bed, lest she is branded as less ambitious. And as the Catch-22 couldn’t be more ironic, the more ambitious a mother—or any woman—appears, the less her colleagues like or respect her.
Mothers aren’t the only ones who struggle with work life balance: Men are actually more stressed with wanting to fill their role as fathers and their role as the Provider Father. Taking longer paternity leave—even when offered and allowed—would mark him as not a “team player.” And while he wants to limit his hours to 40 a week, the extra pressure to perform keeps him in the office far longer than that.
Why are we talking about this? Because it affects how our homes are run, and who does what:
- Moms want to be the Ideal Mother and in so doing, automatically assume all nurturing and parental roles: She assumes she will be one to take the day off when a child is sick and attend school plays and doctor’s appointments. Meanwhile, dads are either pushed out, uninformed, or not challenged to assume the same duties. We don’t even think to ask dads why he should also take the longest paternity leave available or to schedule play dates.
- Dads meanwhile fill the role of Provider Father and assume their careers take precedence and priority over their wives’. The question of who should work and who should stay home isn’t up for discussion: Mom will stay home and Dad must work. Taking their kids to appointments might mean they’re not dedicated to the company. Recovery time aside, perhaps this is why men typically only take a week or two of vacation or paternity leave compared to mothers who take several weeks.
Clearly, we aren’t always egalitarian—that 50/50 division we assumed we’d have before the kids came along.
That may be why I hear so many moms wondering how they can get their husbands to help around the house. Or why moms are overwhelmed with work and parenthood that resentment towards her husband inevitably bristles and explodes. Or why we are just so, so tired.
We can define our roles more equally so mothers don’t bear all parental duties, especially when they don’t always want to. And where fathers can be just as involved and informed in their children’s lives as mothers are.
How? How can we make our households feel and function more equally? Parents don’t need to do the same roles. In homes where one parent stays home while the works, the parent who stays home will likely attend school functions and tend to doctor’s appointments—that’s just more practical.
Still, moms and dads can share parenting duties, so that both feel they’re engaged and involved in their children’s lives. So that one parent doesn’t feel overwhelmed with his or her role whether at home or at work, with no end in sight. So that both parents feel like a well-oiled team rather than a rusty duo with increased resentment towards each other.
Stress research is finding that when women come home from a long day at work, their stress hormone levels fall if their husbands help with the chores. But how’s this for a twist? The study found that husbands’ stress hormone levels fall only when their wives do all the housework and they are relaxing.
Men are happy when they’re relaxing. Women are happy when men are doing chores.
I’m not the only who has huffed and puffed around her house, heaving sighs of frustration and annoyance at her husband for not reading her mind. Why is he on his computer while I’m washing dishes? You might say to yourself. Shouldn’t he get the hint and do some chores so that I can relax too?
Um, no. Your husband will not read your mind. This is where communication is key. One thing I love about my husband is that he doesn’t understand sigh-heaving as a legitimate means of communication. And so I’m forced to reveal my feelings, the ones he can’t read from my mind, and we are able to discuss more openly and effectively a better way for both of us to run our household and yes, relax.
Don’t assume that childcare is solely yours.
I get it. Moms are the ones who give birth. Moms are the ones who breastfeed. Moms’ bodies are wired to their babies’ needs.
But after that, dads are parents too. Not babysitters.
Moms shouldn’t assume child care duties fall solely on our shoulders. How?
- Don’t be a gatekeeper. Let your husband take a crack at soothing your fussy baby, even when you have nothing else to do. Even when it takes him longer to comfort her (doing so is the only way your husband and your baby will learn how to comfort and feel comforted).
- Loosen your standards. Your husband didn’t fold the kids’ clothes the “right way”? Don’t redo the job. Let it go and let him have a say in how clothes can be folded.
- Take turns with child care and household duties. Do you pick the kids up from school? Maybe your husband can drop them off. If you cook, he can wash dishes. Did you wake up to check on the baby? Now it’s his turn. (Or alternate nights: You wake up for nighttime feedings tonight while he does it the next.) Dads can get up for nighttime feedings, too.
- Work together as a team. While you bathe one child, your husband can gather pajamas, books and milk. Then he can bathe your other child while you dress and read to the first one. This avoids delegating (a boss/employee relationship isn’t exactly the kind you want with your husband).
- Print a chore list. Make a list of chores you’d like done on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Then, alternately write your names after each chore. After two weeks, print it out again and switch the names. Hang this on the fridge so you both know who needs to vacuum and clean the bath tub.
Support both careers.
Gender expectations (men go to work) and financial facts (one person makes more than the other) aside, both parents’ careers should be supported equally.
Don’t assume your husband’s career takes precedence because he’s the father. Nor should someone’s job necessarily be more important than the other because he or she is paid more.
Because job importance doesn’t rely solely on paychecks or gender. Some of us love of our jobs, even when it doesn’t pay much. Or some jobs bear more impact on our community. Some jobs aren’t even paid.
So it’s only fitting that both you and your partner support both jobs. Some ideas:
- Designate one parent as the one who stays home for sick days while the other one stays home for doctor’s appointments.
- Compromise on child care pick up and drop offs.
- Mark special days on the calendar where one parent will need to be at work more than usual (tax accountants around April, government workers and politicians around election time).
- The parent who works while the other stays home shouldn’t expect to simply lie on the couch. Staying home with kids is work, and if the stay-at-home parent isn’t relaxing on the couch just yet, the other one shouldn’t either.
- Fathers should take advantage of his work’s paternity leave. Fathers who took extensive paternity leave, especially when alone with the baby, bonded with their babies more and therefore built stronger relationships with them down the line.
Both parents should parent.
Imagine taking a weekend off to be with your girlfriends. Your husband will be home with the kids. Would he know what to do?
Each parent should know the kids’ routines down pat, even if he or she doesn’t always do them on a daily basis (either because the other parent stays home, or because he tends to do other tasks).
Because each parent should have some time for herself or himself. A few hours to grab lunch or attend to a meeting. A night to have dinner with friends or hike with coworkers. One parent shouldn’t feel tied down to the kids because the other one would flounder if left alone with them.
A mom recently described on a parenting board the struggles she had with disciplining her young child. It seemed like she had tried everything—from following the advice of her child’s teacher to common discipline tactics. Then she mentioned her rocky marriage, one peppered with insults, imbalanced responsibilities and contradicting parenting methods.
No wonder the little girl was acting out.
Achieving a healthy balance between both parents—one that both people happily agree with, not necessarily an equal division of labor—is crucial for a balanced home life.
Your turn: How important is equal parenting to you and your partner? How do you balance career ambitions (yours and/or your partner’s) with home and child responsibilities? Do you struggle with the Ideal Mother and the Ideal Worker? Let me know in the comments!
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