by Susan Eaves
So many of my friends with young children complain about an imbalance of parenting and household chores between themselves and their husbands. They complain that they do 90 percent of the parenting, and 90 percent of the housecleaning and upkeep, while their husbands do next to nothing. This happens with my stay-at-home mom friends as well as with my full-time working mom friends. Why is this? Is it because these dads are all deadbeats who would rather drink a beer and watch TV than help out? Is it because all of these dads are negligent and don’t care about their children or their households? Are these men, who were great husbands before the kids came along, suddenly changing and becoming people who don’t want to put their time into their families? I don’t think so.
This will likely be a very unpopular point of view, but I believe that we women are sabotaging ourselves and creating this situation of parental imbalance. We are doing this by creating a situation both before the baby comes and immediately following where we do most of the work, thus making it hard to change from the status quo, and by not speaking up enough and telling our husbands what we need from them.
When newly married, many women decide to take it upon themselves to clean the house, cook the meals, and generally take care of the household. We do this for various reasons. We do this because we like a clean house and we think it’s easier to do it for ourselves. (“If you want something done right, do it yourself,” right?) We do this because we want to be good wives and we think this is what a good wife should do. And we do this because we enjoy doing it. We like cooking or we use cleaning as a stress reliever (yes, many women do). We enjoy making our house a home and we enjoy making new and exciting dishes to enjoy with our dear husbands.
When we move into the stage where we are expecting a baby, we women nest even more. It’s a hormonal thing as much as a choice we make. We enjoy decorating the baby’s room. We like figuring out what we’ll need for our new baby. We get excited thinking about how things will be when the baby arrives. Our dear husbands do not have the hormonal drive we women have. Often the imminent arrival of a baby does not even seem real to them. After all, they aren’t the ones who feel the baby moving inside them at all hours of the day. They aren’t the ones who have to watch what they eat for the sake of the baby. They don’t have their lives turned upside down … yet. Also, in many cases, women have more experience with babies than men do. Women have watched their sister’s kids, or have talked in detail with their close friends who have had babies, or have done tons of research to try to learn what to expect.
I don’t believe men talk about babies all that much with their buddies. If they happen to be uncles, they are more likely to have spent time playing with their niece or nephew than changing diapers. So we expectant moms start running around getting ready for the baby and the dads are often left wondering what all this is about. And, more importantly, they see that we moms-to-be have things often happens when we get ready for our wedding. Sometimes the hubbies are involved but more often, we women run around trying to make everything perfect and the men, whether through their choice or ours, get left behind in the planning. What we are doing here is establishing a situation where our dear husbands understand that this is something we will take care of. And, as with weddings, they will show up when needed and do what they’re told.
Let me just step back here and say that I realize this is not the case in all relationships. In fact, my dear husband was quite involved in our wedding planning as well as in planning for the arrival of our baby. In fact, he knew more about babies than I did before we had our little joy. This is, however, an observation on how I see many couples around me interacting.
Once the baby comes, there is the initial learning period, and period of strong motherly hormones kicking in. During this time, we moms often get very protective and very possessive and we want to hold our babies all the time. A common pitfall many new moms fall into is not letting the dads have enough opportunity to bond with the new baby. The first few weeks is time when we learn how to take care of our babies, and if we don’t do this jointly with our dear husbands (often because our husbands don’t have the time off work to be around full-time the first few weeks), then we wind up figuring out our own way of doing things, and our protective instincts tell us that any other way of doing things is wrong. This often further alienates the dad, who is already incredibly scared of doing something wrong with this new, fragile little person.
If we moms forget to be patient with the dads and to let them learn on their own, but instead tell them how to do things, or, even worse, tell them their way of doing things is wrong, dads often wind up feeling too nervous to do anything for fear of doing something wrong. On top of that, they see us taking care of the babies and think that everything is under control. So, the combination of these two things can make dads step back and not participate as much in the care of the new baby.
The problem comes when the baby reaches four or five months old. At that point, we new moms realize that we never distributed out the housework, and we realize that our babies take a whole lot of work. Plus, we realize that we cannot keep living in a disaster area. We hear “no one expects you to clean the house for the first x months of the baby’s life.” I have heard this number being anywhere between three months to a year. But we all have our limit. At some point, we try to go back to our routines that we had pre-baby, and that’s when we realize that we can’t do it all.
Now here is where the secondary problem kicks in. How many of us women actually go to our husbands at this point and say, “This is too much for me. I need you to help, and I need you to do x, y, and z”? Based on my experience, I’m going to say not many. I don’t think this is the style of most women. We tend to complain “I can’t get all this done,” and then get mad when our dear husbands don’t offer to help. Or we suffer in silence and wait for our dear husbands to notice the incongruity and to start helping. Or, if we do break down and ask for help (at which point we’re already highly annoyed that it has come to this), we are not good at clarifying exactly what our husbands can do to help.
Another thing I want to note is that my friends are all highly educated career women who have (or have had) good career jobs and who have lived on their own successfully for a period of time before marrying. These women are used to being independent and in control. I think that it is extra hard for women who are used to being completely in control of their lives to admit to themselves, as well as to their husbands, that they can’t do it all. When there is a baby in your life, being in control is a thing of the past. Your life is completely run by the needs of the little one. This is particularly hard to bear for an independent career woman.
So at this point, we have set up a situation where our husbands are used to us doing the housework and taking care of the baby, where they don’t know how to help, even if they think of helping, while we moms suffer in silence, getting more and more angry that our dear husbands don’t know that we’re suffering and do something about it. We have done this to ourselves. That doesn’t mean that this situation should be easy to fix. Breaking the status quo is much more difficult than setting things up evenly from the start. I do believe, however, that our husbands generally want to be good husbands and good fathers. I do believe that they are trying to do what seems right for their family. But they cannot read our minds, and they are not able to sense when we reach that point of getting overwhelmed.
For that matter, they are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed as new dads as well—more so because they don’t know what to do with this little one. No matter how much they want to support us and their new babies, they don’t necessarily know how to. What we need to do is to be very patient and understanding, and, of course, to communicate clearly and effectively with our husbands. Hopefully in the end, we will come out on the other end of this more confident and more fulfilled than we were before. And our dear husbands will come out of this feeling like good, hands-on fathers.