Image: Acrobats, Sydney, 1930s/Sam Hood (via State Library of New South Wales)
I’m dedicated to being a good parent and a good spouse. I imagine most married people with kids feel the same way. However, the way each of us translate that dedication into the mundane tasks of daily life is a different matter. And by many accounts, men are not doing their fair share of housework and parenting -- even when they’re unemployed.
As a husband and father, until recently, I always thought I did an equivalent share of parental and household duties. That might even have the virtue of being true. After our son was born, in the midst of a sleep-deprived haze, my wife and I forged a flexible division of labor that has worked for us over the years as our schedules and commutes have changed, and as our kid’s activities have evolved. It helped that neither of us had 9-to-5 desk jobs for most of those years.I am a professor, and much of my schedule is flexible. My wife works in museum education, and often is busy with evening and weekend events. We’ve mostly been able to plan around those schedules. Looking back, I pronounce success: We supported one another’s careers well, and were not horribly neglectful parents.
At home, we’ve allocated labor equivalently. I’ve tended to do more shopping, cooking, maintenance, and parental things that crop up during normal business hours. My spouse has tended to laundry, cleaning, and a lot of other stuff. As I’m a field biologist, I am away for weeks at a time, a couple times a year. My spouse has been supremely supportive by stepping up during those spells. She travels for work, but not as often. I’m grateful for her double-duty.
Our happy stable division of labor began to change when my wife began looking to leave her job. A change in administration in her office meant that she was expected to continue running events outside regular business hours, but without flexibility in the regular workweek. Her employer cut back her department’s staff, but not its responsibilities. She was doing the work of at least three people, while being micromanaged by someone who didn’t know how to manage tasks or people. The situation deteriorated to the point that she felt it necessary to quit before finding a new position.
While she searched for a new job, it was important that I continue to do my fair share of domestic work. Job hunting can be a full-time task unto itself, and I did not want my wife to feel like I was taking advantage of her sudden “free” time. She was busy networking and interviewing for positions.
Nevertheless, during her unemployed months, my wife found herself with even more opportunity to take care of our household needs. And our division of labor began to shift. While I would normally do the grocery shopping on my own whenever I found the chance, my spouse ended up going to the store more often than she used to. She started doing more of the pick-up and drop-off kind of parenting duties. Those were not precipitous changes, but clearly her share of the workload at home increased whereas mine dropped off.
About a month ago, my wife started a new position. For the first time in her professional career, she has a job in which she is expected to work a traditional schedule -- 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday. That is mighty great for our family life on the weekends. For example, we’ll have a lot more opportunities to go camping. But her new schedule is not without its parenting challenges. For one thing, dealing with a sudden afternoon medical appointment for our kid just got a lot more complex. I have a 1.5-hour, round-trip commute which means it takes a while for me to get home. And while my wife’s new job is right by our house, she can’t easily take off during the workday.
In finding a way to share parental responsibilities, it’s the details that matter. Who’s taking time from work to make an appointment? Who is going to sneak out early to get the child to soccer practice? Who’s going to schedule the summer camps, and around whose schedules? Who’s going to keep the homework/bedtime routine on track tonight?
When we both had flexible schedules, we had an equitable parenting arrangement. Now we’re struggling to find a new equilibrium. Our middle-school-aged kid can be self-sufficient for many things, and we live in a supportive community, so we’re making this work. But how would we do this with multiple kids? Could we pull this juggling act off with a baby? What would we do if we were new in town and didn’t have supportive friends? Single parenting, of course, would be even more of a challenge.
In the short term, our shift in routine has made getting through the week an accomplishment of its own. Equity in our schedules feels more like a luxury. And that’s precisely why men don't pull their own weight as parents: In the trenches of scheduling the messy business of a shared life, we too often accept the lack of immediate disaster as a win. My wife and I managed “equitable” with a newborn baby, but only because we both had extraordinary levels of flexibility at work. Now that we lack that flexibility, equitable feels more elusive. But if we don’t change our mindset to identify an equitable division of labor, it’ll be a net loss.
We can’t allow our home be a microcosm of the disadvantages that women experience in the workplace, caused by an unfair division of labor at home. In my experience, the only way to do that is with a shared and consistent focus on equity. Especially when it’s not easy to find.