By Marc and Amy Vachon and Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan
For most of the 20th century, Father’s Day celebrated men’s role in providing for the family but reinforced their secondary role within the family. Just think of the two most popular Father’s Day gifts: The classic has always been the tie – something that men wear at work, not at home. The second most popular has been a grill or barbeque accessory – something a man uses outside the kitchen, and only occasionally.
As we celebrate Father’s Day 2011, the 1950s assumption that men take care of tasks outside the home while women take care of tasks inside the home is clearly out of date. In many metropolitan areas, women in their 20s earn more than their male counterparts. At all ages, the percentage of wives out-earning their husbands is growing rapidly. And as women take on a larger share of breadwinning, men have been taking on a larger share of household tasks. Fathers now average at least 9.5 hours of childcare and housework activities per week, up from less than 7 hours in 1965. In 1965, fathers did 5 percent of the cooking in families. Today, they put in a third of the cooking time, and in growing numbers of homes men do the majority of the cooking or cleaning.
New research shows that contemporary men are actually happier when they pitch in around the house. And the majority of young couples – both women and men – rate a relationship based on equality at home and in their careers as their ideal lifestyle.
Yet a new family model has not fully taken hold. Overall, men are still expected to be the primary providers, and to settle for being second-string parents and “helpers” around the home. Here are three myths that perpetuate these outdated arrangements, standing in the way of the equality most modern parents want.
Myth #1: Good dads “help” Mom with the kids and chores.
Our cultural vocabulary often suggests that Mom should ask Dad for help when she feels overwhelmed with the dishes, diapers and dusting, or that Dad should volunteer to help without being asked. But this “manager-helper” dynamic turns men into domestic subordinates who must perform at a superior’s bidding – often without warning or buy-in. And it hands women a never-ending supervisory role that keeps them critical of their partner’s work yet requesting it over and over.
The key to true equality is to let go of watching over your spouse or expecting your spouse to watch over you as you take on your chosen responsibilities. This requires men to take full ownership of their household duties, moving beyond cultural excuses about their inability to multitask or braid hair or pick out a toddler’s clothes or remember the milk. It requires women to share their ownership, giving up the claim to special expertise in childcare or cleaning while rejecting their own learned helplessness about traditionally “masculine” chores.
Don’t know how to operate the washing machine or the lawnmower? Read the manual, surf the Web, or ask your partner! Then take responsibility for getting good at the task and enjoy the fact that you can do it your own way rather than exactly the way your partner does it. Conversely, appreciate your partner’s different way of doing the task instead of criticizing it.
Myth #2: Partners who share the child-raising and housework evenly have more conflict than those with a traditional labor division.
Some proponents of a “traditional” division of labor between men and women point to recent research showing that a father’s increased involvement in childcare may lead to more conflict between partners. As assessed by analysis of videotaped sessions of couples interacting together with their preschool-aged children, parents engage in more undermining of each other and less supportive behavior in families where fathers report themselves to be more involved in childraising tasks (as opposed to simply playing with the kids).
Actually, however, these findings show why Myth #1 is so pernicious. They come from families in which women still hold the power at home – families still stuck in that “manager/helper” dynamic. So even as men step up to take on the dish or bath duty, they have their hands tied or their decisions second-guessed when it comes to how these are done.
The resulting conflict comes not from sharing the childraising tasks, but from doing so while maintaining Mom as household manager and primary parent. Once a man becomes fully competent in caring for his own children or preparing their lunches, he’s bound to grow tired of his partner’s direction on these matters and assert his right to equal say, raising the risk of conflict if his partner is not ready to share this power.
Myth #3: Sharing the chores means scorekeeping and an exact splitting of every task.
Many couples assume that the alternative to the manager-helper organization of parenting is to insist on an artificial, onerous sharing of every household task down the middle – each partner washing exactly the same number of dishes or spending the same number of hours on the laundry. Nothing could be farther from the truth! A relationship spent tallying and dividing every chore is destined for misery.
Equality is about gifting oneself and one’s partner with the things we value most – time with our kids, time to nurture a career or job we love, connection with each other – so that neither misses out on large swathes of these joys day in and day out. Equality does not mean that each partner does half of every chore every day but that both of you get to live a balanced life, with the security of knowing you have a partner who can walk in your shoes — who understands what it means to work for the family paycheck, keep the house functioning, feed and bathe the kids, and tend to their physical and emotional wounds.
Some couples split some chores down the middle (we’ll take turns doing the laundry by week). Others assign some chores to one parent almost exclusively (I’ll be chief cook, you be chief dishwasher). Still others handle some chores as a team (let’s make Saturday mornings “family cleaning time”). In other cases, each partner may handle his/her own responsibilities (we’ll each iron our own clothes). And don’t forget the beauty of outsourcing the job (let’s get take-out tonight!).
The Pay-Offs of Shared Parenting
Research and survey data show that couples who share the load have higher relationship quality and a lower divorce rate. Other data show that children with an equally involved mother and father are more likely to view men and women as equals, no small advantage in today’s world. Providing children with two equally involved and capable parents also affords them a close-up look at two different ways of handling everyday life, compensating for the imperfections of either parent and giving them the security of two deeply invested adults on whom to rely.
About the Authors
Marc and Amy Vachon are co-authors of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents and operate the website www.equallysharedparenting.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan is Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Science, Ohio State University. Phone: 614-688-3437; E-mail email@example.com.
For Further Information
On how equally shared parenting works in various populations and models of career/home balance, contact Francine M. Deutsch, Professor of Psychology, Mount Holyoke College: firstname.lastname@example.org 413 538-2107; author of Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works.
On the importance of power sharing in equal partnerships, contact Carmen Knudson-Martin, Professor of Marital and Family Therapy, Loma Linda University: email@example.com 909 558-4547 x47002, or Anne Mahoney, Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of Denver: firstname.lastname@example.org; 303-504-4299; co-authors of Couples, Gender and Power.
On the preferences of young men and women for gender equality and balanced lives, contact Kathleen Gerson, Professor of Sociology, New York University: email@example.com 212 998-8376; author of The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation Is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America.
On maternal “gatekeeping” behavior or the level of stress in relationships with low and high paternal involvement in childcare, contact Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Science, Ohio State University; firstname.lastname@example.org; 614-688-3437.
On how expectations of of the marital and parenting division of labor have changed in the past 50 years, contact Stephanie Coontz, Professor of History and Family Studies, The Evergreen State College: email@example.com; 360 556-9223. Author, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s and Marriage, a History.Topics: Parenthood: Motherhood/Fatherhood