August 5, 2014 — Most young men and women today want—or at least claim to want—egalitarian relationships. When asked, most college students will say that when they get married, everything, from child-rearing to household management, will be shared 50-50.
Yet when confronted with the realities of work and family, women and men alike often succumb to the same gender norms they once vowed to avoid. Even when both partners work outside of the home, women are still far likelier to take on the lion’s share of housework and child care.
While I knew these patterns well, I never thought they’d apply to me. My mother loves to tell the story of how, at age seven, I scolded her for pressing my father’s shirts, as she often did. I told her that unless he returned the favor, she shouldn’t be doing his laundry—she worked too, after all.
There was no way that I, a feminist from such a tender age, was ever going to have a less-than-equal marriage. But becoming a mother was a humbling experience, in more ways than one. I was in love with my son—but not so in love with how parenthood had shifted the balance in my marriage. Suddenly, the equitable division of labor my husband and I had strived to achieve was in jeopardy.
How could this have happened to us, even though we’d always said we wanted something different? I think there are three main reasons:
Women project confidence. We often assume that the more confident parent is the more competent one. Even when I had no idea what I was doing, I acted like I did and my husband would often go along with it. Women are assumed to be natural parenting experts, while men are portrayed as oafish and inept. Maybe if we treated men like they could handle child care, more of them would rise to the challenge.
Men lack support. Women discuss parenting with their friends and relatives; men often don’t have anyone to talk to. It’s easy for men to feel isolated and clueless when they don’t know where to turn for advice—and to defer to their spouses, simply because mothers seem to know what they’re doing already.
Women don’t ask for help—and have a hard time accepting it. Over time, in part because of points one and two, I began to take the lead on many decisions related to my son’s care. I would sometimes get annoyed when my husband voiced an opinion, especially if I disagreed. But certain decisions should be made together. If you want to share the work of raising a child, you have to share the decision-making as well.
I don’t blame myself, nor do I entirely absolve my husband, for letting equality slide in our early days as parents. Having a child is a profound lifestyle change for both men and women. But by paying closer attention to our own patterns, we were eventually able to regain our balance as a couple—and become the equal parents we always dreamed of being.