When my wife and I had only been dating a few months, I crashed with her for two weeks between apartments. The first day I returned from work, I found my clothes folded—lovingly, I felt—and stacked on her bed. When we later moved in together and then tied the knot, the fact that the detritus from my pockets never made it to the trash and that I rarely operated a broom caused minor skirmishes. This is my second marriage, so these disputes weren’t exactly surprising, but this time I was trying to do better: cooking the odd dinner, making sure the sink was empty before watching TV and regularly shoving all my dirty clothes into my corner of the closet. Back then, my wife, who relies on tidiness for her peace of mind, mostly put up with me—a semi-hoarding slob with good personal hygiene.
But a few years later, when our baby arrived, the housework quad-rupled while the amount of time in which we had to do it was shaved to a sliver. When we filled our first four-foot-long diaper pail bag, I proudly held it up like a trophy marlin—but that was definitely the last moment of triumph when it came to post-baby drudgery. While trying to keep up with the incessant, daily laundering of onesies and change pad covers, I once wore the same pair of socks for an entire week. And although we were so exhausted at the end of the day that the last thing we wanted to do was sweep dust from the corner of every room, our newly crawling son, who used to cry at the sound of the vacuum, left no floor untouched. Our responses to this new normal diverged: My wife’s orderliness moved toward OCD, while I began to wonder if it was worth doing anything when there was so much I could never do. In short, our child, who is now three years old, has provided a continuous stream of gasoline for the fire storm of our household’s gender inequity.
Sharing the project of raising our newborn did renew our bond as a couple, which is a good thing, because the daily grind of parenting—feed, crap, wash, repeat—many times threatened to tear us apart. During my wife’s mat leave, I spent most of the week at my job while she had to face the housework constantly, and it was always on her mind. In retrospect, her resulting anger and resentment shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Those emotions are not new—articles by mothers commenting on inequality when it comes to division of domestic labour are as steady as the seasons. While times have changed and men are more involved in the home—with both the housework and taking care of the kids—women are still doing more, even if their careers are just as demanding. That’s no doubt incredibly frustrating, but what makes it even worse is that in your average heterosexual relationship, women are still the ones doing all the organizing and “project managing.” They’re the ones who, on their lunch hours, are reading reviews of tear-free shampoo. They’re the ones who are thinking ahead to swimming lessons and booking milestone appointments with the doctor. Having a kid produces a never-ending to-do list, and for the most part, mothers are the ones taking sole charge of it.
Although the balance between my wife and I did improve after that first year, and I now do more cleaning and picking up around the house than I ever have in my life, my wife’s primary planner-researcher role has definitely stuck. And while our arguments happen less often, they are still among the most horrendous fights we have. Nothing in particular seems to spark them, but it’s as if the accumulation of grit (soap scum on the sink) and stuff (loose change on every surface in the house) finally becomes too much for her. Whole Saturdays can be laid to waste by hurt feelings and defensiveness. Sometimes, I have successfully convinced her to let it all go, to just let the crumbs on the counter be, and that blissful state (in my mind, at least) can even last for a few days. As I’ve found, though, the comedown from those laissez-faire stretches are harsher the longer they last. And my wife is always the one to bring us back to the ground, which needs to be mopped.
I want things to change—I want to change. And yet, I clearly don’t. For three years now, I’ve promised to take some of the mental burden from her. I’ve said I’ll make a chore schedule to take that management off her plate, and I will take over weekly meal planning at least half the time. I have yet to do either of these things. Meanwhile, once each fight ends and we get the place back in order, everything just returns to the way it was. So now I’ve moved onto the logical next step: shifting blame. I should have enough motivation to change and yet haven’t, so what made me this way?
In the middle of our fights, my wife often refers to housework as “invisible labour,” since it produces the absence of something (mess and dirt), along with the absence of anybody else caring. But it’s possible, I’ve learned, that mothers are the ones who care most about the state of our homes and children because they’re the only ones rewarded, or judged, for them. Some women may laugh at the “rewards” half of that, having never seen any, but I’m sure we can all agree that when things are not in good order and blame is laid, it’s never put on us fathers.
According to Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and author of The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework, when it comes to domestic tasks, we focus most on the ones that we feel are more key to our identity. “Mothers have a higher identity cost if friends come to the house and it’s a mess, or if little Johnny shows up and has a rip in his clothes,” he says, explaining that this fact serves to make women more anxious about these things and thus more on top of them. Fathers are given a pass on that stuff but, in turn, suffer from a different assessment: “A guy who isn’t providing enough for the family may feel a greater sense of shame than a woman might.”
While that equation may sound dated, Coleman says even couples with progressive ideas of gender often revert to more traditional roles once they have kids. He supports couples finding a system that works best for them, but he points out that the stress and uncertainty parenting brings can make us seek a more familiar landscape: “One value of those more traditional roles, however problematic they are, is that there is clarity to them. Today’s egalitarian households require more and better communication, negotiation and compromise.”
I realize now how naive I was throughout my twenties with my first wife—I used to argue that we didn’t need to clean up before dinner parties because friends and family should care only about hanging out with us and should overlook the state of the apartment. “But I care,” she used to counter, followed by lots of yelling and tears.
Having learned that lesson, in my current marriage, I’ve stopped fighting for universally lowering the standards, and I schedule some intense cleaning time before anyone comes over. But no matter what gains I’ve made on this front, there’s always a host of things forgotten by me and done by my wife. She’ll make sure that the downstairs bathroom has hand soap and that guests don’t have to wipe themselves with Kleenex. She brings out the nice serving spoons (from which cabinet, I’m not sure) and the cloth placemats.
There are a few grey areas, though, like when we moved last summer and needed some new furniture and a living room rug. She pressed forward with that hunt, while I tried to delay the purchases until I could get my head around how to pay for them on top of a higher rent; one of my own pieces of invisible labour, along with taking care of our car, is keeping track of our budget. Subconsciously, she may have known she wouldn’t be blamed for us being in the red, while I was OK with putting off the task indefinitely because, as a man, I’m not on the hook for that. Both of these roles are necessary, of course, but it was hard to value each other’s contribution when, on the face of it, they seem opposed. It occurs to me that while this type of household specialization worked in the past, it no longer makes sense now that women are present in the workplace as much as men.
Nonetheless, these roles can become so entrenched that, sometimes, women even guard their tasks from their husbands—something sociologists call “gatekeeping.” Over the past several years, I’ve witnessed this take place between my friends Jean and Chris. While these parents of two daughters under six both share housework and parenting, Jean is the one keeping track of what needs to get done, delegating tasks and doing most of them. “I plan and buy the Disney on Ice tickets, and I wake up at seven in the morning to register the kids for swimming,” Jean says. “I plan the entire summer schedule, which involves multiple spreadsheets and has to be done in February.” This fall, to take something off her plate, she put Chris in charge of signing their eldest up for skating lessons. When he didn’t do it right away, she reminded him a couple of times before doing it herself.
Chris paints a somewhat different picture. “On the whole, the accusation is fair—I don’t think about anything in terms of organizing our lives,” he said, but pointed out that the average person could not keep up with Jean. “She’s five steps ahead,” he told me. “I would have gotten those skating lessons booked. We had a gazillion years to do it, and she just isn’t comfortable with not taking care of something right away.”
Although Jean agreed her desire to immediately check things off the list is indeed part of her personality, one also has to wonder whether both of them are just too close to the situation to see that they’re ultimately motivated, or not, based on the expectations of their gender.
My friend Tracy, who has a five-year-old son and works part-time, knows very well how the professional expectation on men can affect a father. Her husband, Carey, holds a senior position at his company, is paid handsomely for it and, according to her, is always on the clock even when he’s home. As a result, when it comes to tasks around the house, she does 80 percent of the mental planning for them and all the actual doing of them.
“When we’re done with dinner, he only cleans his own plate. Or if we’re going out, he gets himself all ready and stands at the door, asking me why our son’s shoes aren’t on,” Tracy tells me, explaining that he regularly takes responsibility for only one person—himself. While she keeps in mind the highly demanding nature of Carey’s job, and admits he’s mentally weighed down by stresses she can’t imagine, she says the imbalance is just too much.
Recently, before heading off for a week-long trip to visit his parents, Tracy asked Carey to pack the family’s suitcase—something he had never done, not even when it was just the two of them. Carey said she should do it because she already knew what they needed, but she explained to him that that was the point: He needed to be responsible for their trips going well, too. “I know too much,” she told me, by way of an overall statement about their life.
The suitcase remained in the living room, unpacked, for an entire week. Tracy even wrote a list and placed it on top, but Carey didn’t put one item into it until she insisted for the 10th time. “I don’t think he ever figured out why he had to pack it, but he saw a look in my eye and realized he should just do it, and he did.”
The trip went fine in the end. And it’s a good thing, because, Tracy says, without a doubt if something had been missing, her in-laws would have blamed her.
The other reason it’s hard for men to carry their weight in regards to what we used to call “women’s work” is this: We’re new here.
According to a Statistics Canada survey, while one in three dads in 1986 was directly involved in their child’s care, that proportion increased to one in two by 2015. But while we’re improving on this front and breaking free of the old roles, that shift hasn’t always been welcomed, and stay-at-home dads can still feel lonely among the throngs of moms. When my son was 18 months old, I began working part-time, and the first time I took him to circle time at the local library, I was surprised to find I was the only father there. Nobody intentionally made me feel out of place, but it’s an oddly off-putting experience nonetheless. I didn’t go back, telling myself I just didn’t like the format—everyone forced to stare at everyone else—but I know I would have felt different if there’d been at least one other guy present.
Andrea Doucet, a professor of sociology at Brock University and author of Do Men Mother?, has interviewed hundreds of couples and stay-at-home dads to document their experiences. One of the parenting roles she examines is what she calls “community responsibility,” the linking of the household to the larger networks that are crucial to raising kids: schools, extracurricular organizations and other parents in the neighbourhood. While a lot of this organizing can now be done on social media, the ground zero for these connections is still the playground or the play group, and in this regard, Doucet says, mothers start with an edge. “If she takes all or most of the parental leave, women end up having the advantage because then they have the networks,” she explains.
When you think about it, a lot of that mental household planning work is accomplished through these almost exclusively female channels—we rely on them to figure out which daycare to put our kid in and, later on, which summer camp and which university. We also use them to suss out which of those baby shampoos and sunscreens to buy. In this respect, a glitch occurred in my family, because my wife is not on Facebook, so I had to join a mom group in order to ask some of these questions. I’ve ended up using this resource on our behalf dozens of times, but I can’t help feeling like an interloper.
Doucet is encouraged by the ongoing trend of fathers increasing their involvement in these community networks and particularly pleased to see stay-at-home dads formally organizing their own groups. But she also hears tales similar to my library one—that their time as a primary caregiver can be isolating. Rather than being welcomed by other moms, she says dads often feel watched, and the assumption is made that they’re just filling in. In one worst-case scenario she encountered, a mother in a mom-only play group went back to work and wanted the dad to keep bringing their child. When one of the women objected to having him join, everyone took a side, and the conflict almost dissolved the group.
In addition to the necessity of actively welcoming men into the daytime parenting fold, if we want things to balance out more with housework, we have to undo some of that gatekeeping. If you asked my wife (as I did recently) why she’s never taken me up on my offer to plan meals, she’ll admit she’d rather do it. She’s never said out loud that she doesn’t think I’m as capable of organizing healthy meals for our family as she is, but she doesn’t have to—we both know it’s true. But just as Chris needs Jean to take a leap of faith and trust he’ll pull off one organizational task, I’ll never learn to do meal planning unless I start doing it.
Coleman agrees that if women really want to start sharing that mental heavy lifting in the home, bars have to be lowered—temporarily, at least. “Negotiating standards is critically important,” he says, adding this one twist: “If the partner is open to feedback, you can certainly provide it, but not everybody wants it. Men are more sensitive to feeling micromanaged—it’s tied to feelings of masculinity.” (Guilty as charged.)
Before I incite a fight in your household tonight, couples should keep in mind that, to some degree, neither of you is at fault—and there are larger gatekeeping forces at play. While on maternity leave, my wife, who once taught an introduction to feminism course to university students, used to blame her utter exhaustion more on the lack of societal supports for families than she blamed it on me. Stupidly, instead of taking that as an opportunity to stand on the same side of something, I used to argue that we both knew what we were getting into so we should just accept our parts to play and stop complaining.
But she was right, of course. Melissa Milkie, a University of Toronto sociologist who studies families, says men and women are both kept in their places by the lack of affordable daycare and inflexible bosses who don’t accommodate parents’ needs. “Mothers find the workplace less friendly or, as some argue, are simply pushed out of it,” she says, explaining that this conflict results in the polarization of gender roles. In a paper Milkie co-authored this year, the researchers illustrated the stress this situation can put on marriages, specifically women. When employed parents taking on larger share of child care were asked about the quality of their relationships, the ones who felt it affected them the most negatively were women who wanted to work more but felt they couldn’t. “This indicated they might feel trapped,” she says. “And it shows the incompatibility between paid work and raising children.”
But look, I’m not going to abdicate all responsibility here. I know I still have to be an agent of change in my own home, and I’m trying. A transformation is occurring. Gradually. My wife is still doing the meal planning, but I no longer make such a huge mess when I’m cooking—something that had caused her to occasionally push me aside in order to avoid more of that damn invisible labour. I can proudly say I’m now one of those adults who puts things away after using them, and I often take an hour to lovingly fold and put away all nine loads of last week’s laundry. Maybe most importantly, I do actually take things off her plate (rather than just put mine away). For instance, when our new place came without a dishwasher, I took it upon myself to spearhead the search for one.
I’d be remiss, though, not to mention that a vanguard of families out there has long ago flipped the script or come up with a unique arrangement that suits everyone. My friend Alex is in one of these couples. I talked to him about their division of labour during an afternoon when his wife had stayed home with their sick three-year-old in the morning, and he’d switched with her later because she had an important meeting at work. He summarized their situation this way: “My wife has a cup of tea, and the teacup is on the counter the next morning, whereas mine goes in the sink. On the other hand, she mops all the floors. I’m tidier, but dirtier.” And as to all the planning? “We’re both bad at it. We’ve never grown up and have no systems in place, and so when we get anything done, it’s because we did it together.”
Alex’s story illustrates well something Doucet told me—that ultimately, the balancing of housework and child care is extremely difficult to capture in any one sweeping statistic because the division of duties unfolds between a specific couple within the particular, but always shifting, context of their life. When she revisits a family years after initially interviewing them, she often observes a transformation. “Things change a lot, even month to month,” she says, adding that she remains optimistic that change will continue to occur in the bigger picture as well.
If I’m being honest, though, I wouldn’t suggest mothers hold out hope that they’ll see a dramatic transformation for themselves—for both genders, these habits are hard to break. But for the sake of my son, I’d like to at least keep making enough improvements over the next decade so he will notice the difference, witness a happier balance and carry that forward into his own relationships. Ideally, my wife will eventually feel like she can let go of some of that mental burden, trust I’ll pick up the slack and spend more carefree moments playing on the floor with her boy.
Until that day arrives, though, I’m still doing a ton of stuff around here, OK? And also, I’m sorry for everything.
This article was originally published online in March 2018.