How angry are the moms in your Facebook Parents' Group? A little bit furious, no doubt. We love our jobs, we're raising progressive kids, and we've chosen mates who are empathetic and evolved. So how did we become resentful 1950s housewives?
If you’ve ever felt, as a busy working mom, that your partner, who also works full-time, doesn’t do enough around the house, then I sincerely hope he doesn’t break his leg. Because if he did, you’d find out just how close your daily life is to going completely off the rails. It might be the dead of winter. The coldest, snowiest one in years. You might have to schlep the kids to daycare and school, getting to work almost on time, and then do it again in reverse, leaving early enough to be noticed—as well as handle all the groceries, meals, playdates and housework. His biggest accomplishment on a Tuesday might entail scuttling on crutches from the kitchen to the couch with a mug of hot tea (only three spills!). While any victory for you would amount to not breaking a limb of your own as you do absolutely everything else (including mopping up sticky tea spots on the floor). I’m not married to a bum. With tibia and fibula intact, Scott has been my perfect partner for 17 years. When we moved in together in our mid-20s, there was no negotiating over chores. Things just seemed to get done—there was a whole lot less to do back then. A decade later, everything is bigger: our careers, home, family (two kids, ages five and eight), stress levels. Chores are divided fairly evenly; I handle most of the cooking and laundry, while he plays more with the kids, does the groceries and general maintenance. He’s caring, involved and hard-working. Like the majority of parents, we’re always hustling, trying our best to get by. It’s a precarious balance, and any nudge—a kid with a cold or a husband in a cast—can throw it off, sometimes way off. Most days though, we push through, we laugh, we try our best not to slip up. How nice and harmonious, right? For the most part, yes. But every 40 days or so, no. I’ve not charted it to interest rates or lunar cycles, but what I do know is that I pretty regularly break down every six weeks, and it always looks the same: I’m doing too much; you’re not doing enough; you’re not noticing everything I do; and how do you not know that we’re out of cat food or where we keep the kids’ swim towels? (They’re in the closet with the towels.) It’s always on a weeknight after the kids are in bed, always with tears (mine) and then silence (his). I wouldn’t say a whole lot changes as a result of these outbursts. I’ve come to think of them as my reset button. It can feel lonely—all the meal planning, rushing and worrying—but I’m not alone. Pan out to my circle of lady friends, my colleagues and the 2,200-plus moms in the three Facebook parents’ groups I belong to, and you’ll find many frustrated, furious women out there. To be clear, I’m looking at this through the lens of a middle-class, heterosexual couple, in which the division of chores and parenting often seems to revert to 1950s-style stereotypes as if by default. (Same-sex couples don’t generally experience the same gendered expectations—research shows they’re better at communicating and negotiating, and more likely to divide chores based on preference and ability.) We chose smart, sensitive, empathetic partners and rewarding careers. But once kids arrive, we find ourselves surprised by how bogged down we feel, doing way too much with too little support. Are our expectations outsize? Did our rosy dream of equality really involve near-daily loads of laundry and waking up before dawn to snag a spot in Toddler Swim? We are ragged with exhaustion. Our resentment simmers just below the surface. Why, even with our lovely partners, are we so pissed off? You probably don’t need stats to confirm what you already feel—harried, stressed and sweaty—but there are numbers to prove it. Parents are doing more than ever. Since 1965, mothers have almost tripled the amount of paid work (their jobs) they do, as the time they spend on chores and child care has dropped, while fathers have more than doubled the amount of time spent on housework (from four hours a week to almost 10) and tripled the time they spend with their kids.
Data from the Pew Research Center shows that while fathers are spending a lot more time doing housework and child care, mothers are still doing almost double the amount.
Even with those huge gains, women are still doing double—double!—the amount of unpaid work. That’s according to data from 2003 to 2015 (the most recent available) from the American Time Use Survey via Pew Research Center, a Washington, DC-based non-profit demographic research centre. On average, dads spend more time than moms at work, while moms spend more time on child care and household chores, Pew reports in Modern Parenthood, an analysis from March 2013. However, it continues, “when their paid work is combined with the work they do at home, fathers and mothers are carrying an equal workload.” The study also shows that when both partners work, they manage to divide things more equally than couples in which only one spouse works outside the home.56% of working moms say it is somewhat/very difficult to balance the responsibilities of their job and their family. 50% of working dads say the same.
I get this. When one kid wakes up puking, there’s a thick silence between Scott and I as we strip the bed and wait for the other to utter the words, “I’ll stay home with him.” On many workdays around 4 p.m., texts fly between us as we jockey for freedom from school pickup. We’re both busy and yet the subtext is always I am busier. My meeting is more important; I’m the one who’s closer to the edge. Fine, it’s not a competition. But if it’s not, then why do I short-circuit and berate my husband 9.13 times a year? Am I winning? Or losing? You’d be forgiven for struggling to define the problem, because it’s invisible. Those Pew numbers don’t tell the whole story; statistics can’t capture this stuff. Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at the Occidental College in Los Angeles, says it’s the thinking, worrying, organizing and delegating—the mental-emotional burden—that’s dragging women down. “Both parents are working more hours than they used to, but it’s pretty much equal, which is why it’s so interesting that women are consistently more dissatisfied with the division of labour in their partnerships,” Wade says. In a study from the Journal of Marriage and Family, only 11 percent of women married to men say the division of labour in their households is fair, whereas 45 percent of men married to women say so. “The numbers look fair, but a substantial number of men recognize it’s not, and the vast majority of women believe it’s not.”
*Fathers and mothers seem to experience their free time differently.MOTHERS: 25 HR/WK VS FATHERS: 28 HR/WK
MOTHERS TEND TO SPEND MORE TIME MULTI-TASKING (THAT IS, YOU MAY BE SITTING AND WATCHING TV, BUT YOU’RE FOLDING LAUNDRY AT THE SAME TIME). This all feels terribly consistent with the clichéd unhappy housewife: nagging her husband to take out the garbage every time he kicks his feet up. “I often cringed at the sound of my own voice and my dramatic, aggrieved tone,” Dunn says. “It can seem so silly to get upset because he leaves his dirty dishes in the sink rather than the dishwasher. But day after day, it then defaults to being my job. And when I tell him that I wish he wouldn’t do that, because I already have too much to do, and he chooses to ignore me and does it anyway, it’s demoralizing. I don’t want to be his mother—I’m already a mother. I want a partner.” Except it’s not about the dishes. Or the pomegranates. It’s the little things, day after stressful day, that can eat away at a relationship and have real consequences. We are all one norovirus/science fair/toddler tantrum away from total burnout. “To me, the larger message he is giving me when he does this, over and over, is that my time and energy are less valuable than his. And also that even if something clearly upsets me, it doesn’t bother him enough to change his behaviour,” Dunn says. “It chips away at my goodwill.” Dunn told Tom that if they didn’t get therapy, their marriage might not survive—a mission that inspired her book. Scott and I are nowhere near this crisis point. We adore each other and always want to be together (some friends might say annoyingly so). It doesn’t mean I don’t get angry, that we don’t feel frustrated. Scott doesn’t want to see me this way. He isn’t happier with his wife in the kitchen (well, he is, because I’m a really good cook), and he doesn’t want me to be overwhelmed by it. He wants me down on the floor beside him, with the kids in my face and Lego all over me. “You absolutely do too much,” he says. “Sometimes I wish you would just let it all go, even for a few minutes. But you never want to, because you just want to get it done. But there’s always another job after that and another after that.” These aren’t make-work projects—if I didn’t pack the swim bag or cook meals ahead, we’d be more rushed and stressed than we already are. This pain is for our long-term gain. Scott insists he’d happily do more if it meant I could pull back (and be less not-so-quietly resentful). I just have to ask. Ah, yes, the “Just tell me what to do!” defence—like nails on a chalkboard to female household managers everywhere. The idea of deputing tasks or asking for help implies you’re still the one running the show. Delegating is just another bloody job. I have a confession to make: I’m not super comfortable about giving stuff up. I like to do things a certain way; I get off on feeling indispensable; I want to own parenthood. And I’m not the only lady who balks at pulling back. “It’s really easy to put your foot down on feminist issues when you don’t have a child involved, but this isn’t like deciding not to wear makeup,” Wade says. “It’s an entirely different situation when you feel it might be your child who’s paying the price for your feminist protest. I fully understand the incredible pressure women are under to be highly involved parents and then to also feel incredible guilt that they’re failing to be good wives, good workers and good mothers all at the same time.” So what gives? It may take recalibrating your idea of what good parenting is, she tells me, as I break into a sweat. Or how clean the house is. “We could all probably get away with a lot less,” she says. What we need more of, Milkie and Wade agree (because they’re both sociologists), are social supports: fewer work hours and better pay, tax credits, affordable child care and healthcare, education, communication and community. It’s more than one couple can accomplish, but we can nag the people in power, which, in this resist-persist climate, might just work. In heterosexual marriage, with so much incredible change over the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and dads’ roles at home increasing and more women entering the workforce, the stats aren’t going to converge much more, Milkie says. It makes sense; we’re already at our limits. She cites a 1999 study—almost 20 years old but just as relevant today—called Ask the Children: What America’s Children Really Think About Working Parents, conducted by the Families and Work Institute, a New York–based non-profit that provides research on changing workplaces, families and communities. When kids were asked to make a wish list for their families, only a small group wanted more time with their parents, but around 30 percent wished their parents had less stressful lives. It occurs to me that even though my kids sleep through my sob-racked weeknight breakdowns, they no doubt feel my crackling, impatient energy and pay the price for my exhaustion every day. Too often, I’m short-tempered and impatient. I’ve actually taken to lamenting out loud—and I cringe to share this—that “I am boring, mean mom; dad is the fun one.” I also make a point to issue random, regular reminders that women are strong—women are capable! I do this cheerfully as they munch their Cheerios, but my girl-power campaign crumbles as they watch me flagging. “All my daughter saw was me scrubbing stuff or folding stuff,” Dunn says. “I thought: She’s getting a bad message that women don’t deserve to do anything fun for themselves. I was being too much of a stagehand instead of a participant.” This idea of being a participant in my family life as opposed to spending most of my time conducting it—like that dead-on laugh-or-you’ll-cry Onion headline: “Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties in Closer Proximity to Ocean”—is what jolts me. I need to lie on the floor. Except that if I do, I’ll last maybe six minutes before I hop up (and freak out about being six minutes behind). So I have to flee the situation. Get out of my never-ending project of a house and leave my to-do list behind. Scott can tend to that. He’s entirely capable and not on crutches. Things won’t fall apart if I take a breather. I may not achieve ukulele-level lightness, but I can certainly try.
Step away from the toilet brush. It might not be easy or comfortable, but these tips from Tara Caffelle, a relationship coach in Toronto, can help reduce the resentment, diffuse fights and maybe even get you holding hands.
1. START TALKING Sure, communication is key, but harping on whose turn it is to clean the bathroom or change the next diaper doesn’t count. Take a moment to recognize how stressful the whole working-parent thing is—for both of you. “Share what you’re feeling,” Caffelle says. Tell him you’re exhausted, and recognize he’s also doing what he can, she says. “Sometimes hearing, ‘Hey, you’re doing a lot and this is a big deal,’ is often enough to validate our experience.” 2. TAKE A DIFFERENT VIEW If you’ve decided that your husband is a domestic deadbeat, then the resentment you feel will obscure any contributions he does make. You don’t have to congratulate him for changing the toilet paper roll, but making an effort to look on the bright side can help defuse fights. “Contempt is sort of like sulphuric acid to a marriage,” Caffelle says. “When we choose to focus on what is positive in our partners, we nurture our fondness and admiration of them.” 3. ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED It’s a mistake to expect your mate to read your mind. “You would never walk into a Starbucks and expect them to know what you want to drink,” Caffelle says. “We are explicit in our order—so why can’t we do this for our partners? I don’t understand why we expect this ability from someone just because they love us.” Being explicit is good for everyone; you have to make your expectations clear. 4. PICK YOUR BATTLES Big picture: Your partner needs to help out more—don’t give up on that. Little picture: The way he hangs the dishcloth bugs you—you may have to let that one go. “Some of our idiosyncracies will always stay around,” she says. Remember you love this person. When you share a life, a house and kids with a person, there may be some things you just have to tolerate. 5. GET CLOSER The root of many conflicts, Caffelle says, is lack of connection. “You don’t feel seen, your partner doesn’t appreciate all you do, you’re exhausted, you don’t feel valued or heard,” she says. “Usually, my answer is this: Create more intimacy. And I don’t mean sex. Hug each other, notice each other, spend time together. When you’re snippy you need to connect.” But holding hands with the man you were just shooting eye daggers at is tricky, if not impossible. Spend time consciously remembering what you do like about your partner—make a list if it helps or opt not to complain to your girlfriends. And spend time together out away from the kids. “I’d also recommend just saying it out loud and owning that you’re pissed,” she adds. “Say ‘I need to be honest with you: It really made me mad when you forgot XYZ and it’s making me not want to be around you right now. Can we talk about it?’ When we start a conversation in a gentle way, communicate openly and without being defensive, then I can almost guarantee it’s going to end with both parties feeling a little more intimate.”
Laura and James just moved to a new town. Laura commutes to her big job in the big city, which means she leaves before James and their two-year-old son, Henry, wake up. James, who works from home, often feels cooped up, while Laura wishes she could spend more time with Henry and do more around the house.
Being the default parent
James: When Henry is sick, that falls on me. When I have a deadline, I have to work more on weekends. Being the stay-at-home parent, I sometimes feel Henry takes out his rebelliousness on me. It comes with the territory; I’m the guy who tells him 200 times a day he can’t have another snack.
Laura: It’s hard not starting the day together—we only really get a couple of hours in the evening. When we first moved, Henry was dealing with change, and I’d come home and he’d be like: “No mama” and he just wanted to be with James and that was really painful.
James: It’s natural at times for each person to feel like they’re the one who’s making the most sacrifices or not being…what’s the word…honoured enough, or given enough credit. I’m certainly guilty of that, feeling like I’m at home, no one cares about me, I’m just the stay-at-home dad. But we’ve been really good about bringing that out and speaking honestly to it, which helps.
Laura: We’ve had some blowups along the way, but we’re definitely doing things better lately.
Chores before kids
Laura: In fairness, I was a bit of a slob and it would bother James.
James: And I am not a neat freak!
Laura: Before we had Henry, James warned me that if we had a baby and I kept leaving six mugs of tea all over the apartment, we were going to end up divorced. And I was like uh, whatever. But then we had Henry and I was able to understand much more where he was coming from. It’s so easy for things just to get out of control.
James: I could tell whatever room she’d been in—it would be marked with a new mug of tea. You can’t refill a mug.
Laura: You need a fresh cup!
On Leisure time
Laura: I don’t feel like I get enough time to myself, but I think part of that is just because we’re in a new city. The move has been disruptive in that way. But on weekends, James will work on Saturday mornings and I’ll sleep in on Sundays—to me that’s like the ultimate leisure time. We’ve talked about trying to map out our weekends a bit more so we’re not meandering and suddenly run out of time. Maybe I want to go get a coffee or get my nails done—I don’t want it to fall off the radar because it’s not a priority. Of course, it is a priority, but it’s not as much a priority for me right now because I don’t get to see Henry that much. My priority is hanging out with him.
James: Laura tries to make sure I get some time away. Because I work at home three days and I’m with Henry the other two, I don’t really go anywhere. Sometimes it’s actually Laura telling me “You need to go somewhere. Go meet a friend!” I just get used to it and then realize gee, I haven’t seen another adult except for Laura for like four days.
The Sticking Points
James: I sometimes feel like my life is uniquely exhausting because of what I have to deal with daily: the added child care, the lack of adult interaction. On a bad day, I feel I’m not being acknowledged enough and that not enough credit is being given to how hard I work and how noble my suffering is—ha! And I think maybe Laura feels the same way: She commutes three hours every day, her job has a lot of stress and we’re very reliant on her income. Each of us feels that our particular struggles are sometimes invisible to the other person—and I know this because we’ve certainly had arguments about it. But in the end, the arguments have been fruitful.
Laura: We’ve definitely had the competitive pity party argument. Things don’t immediately get better, but eventually we work it out.
Stay-at-home Dad Status
Laura: I’m incredibly lucky. I get a lot more support than a lot of other women I know. James is a wonderful dad, but the fact that he does the cooking and the cleaning up is such a huge thing; nobody else I know has that.
James: Laura has to go to work every day. That’s just the nature of her career—she makes more money. So it’s what we’re doing right now. It’ll change. I like working at home. As Henry and, possibly, another kid move toward their school years, I’ll be doing more paid work and it’ll become 50-50 again. They’re just roles; we’re not hung up on the gender side of it. We both have things to do.
Just as Anna was getting ready to return to work after her second maternity leave, her husband, Anton, lost his job and started to freelance. It completely upended their household.
Anna: One day I realized I was doing about 90 percent of the work—chores, meals, child care, etc.—and I was frustrated. Before kids, we never had these stereotypes. We fell into them gradually. On my first mat leave, I figured since I was at home I should handle all the household duties so he could focus on work. I didn’t even let him help me with the sleep stuff. Over time, those roles became entrenched. He offered to help, but I knew what had to be done: I was already doing it and it was faster if I just did it all. I ended up feeling hyperstressed and resentful.
The Sticking points
Anton: Sometimes it felt like Anna and I were roommates, just passing each other in the night. I wanted an extra hour every day just to spend with her.
Anna: When we would be trying to leave the house, Anton’s first priority was usually himself. I’d get everyone and everything else ready while he’d be checking his sideburns in the mirror. When he was laid off, he realized the full scope of what had to happen.
A new plan
Anton: I didn’t want to see Anna that stressed and overwhelmed, and I wanted to find a way we could make it work, but there was never enough time, even just to think.
Anna: I did an audit of my time and realized I was actually budgeting more hours than there were in the day. So Anton and I sat down and made a plan. We now have schedules for daycare pickups, cleaning and meals—and he does half of it. At first, I felt removed and out of touch, like I was missing important moments. Anton and the girls now have this little world that I’m not involved in.
Anton: I’d say that now the kids and the house take up 75 percent of my brain space. I now know how to braid hair; I know what their favourite snacks are.
Anna: Before, I micromanaged every little detail and knew everything. Even though I was annoyed, I liked that ownership. Now he’s as capable of taking care of the kids as I am. It doesn’t all have to be on my shoulders. And the thing is, it’s actually much more enjoyable to share.
Avery and Gabe have two kids, Mateo, who’s four and a half, and Mia, who’s two. Avery is a lawyer who works part-time, while Gabe runs his own business.
A Typical day
Gabe: Avery will get up with the kids and start getting them fed and ready for school. I’ll go shower and get myself ready. Then I’ll take the kids to school two-thirds of the time. So then Avery will start work, and she’ll usually get off early, get the groceries and the kids and start dinner—unless it’s the summertime.
Avery: He’s been waiting to add this part! He barbecues every day, he does all the cooking in the summer, apparently.
Gabe: No, no, it’s different. If it’s summertime, the roles are totally reversed. I do all of the grocery shopping, well 75 percent of the shopping and I probably will do 60 percent of the food prep and cooking. We’re out at the cottage. It’s an important thing to understand and acknowledge, because I think it balances out in the summer. There’s no question in this house that Avery does 90 percent of the dinner prep.
Avery: The cottage has been a bit of a contentious thing in the past. When Mateo was a baby, it was a lot of work for me to pack. We didn’t have laundry out there, so we wouldn’t go for large stretches of time.
Gabe: It was back and forth, back and forth.
Avery: I’d spend a lot of time packing and unpacking and being in a less-than-optimal environment with a small baby, and I was getting stressed and resentful about it. I also spend full days cleaning the cottage. When we first open it, I will leave here in the morning and drive out there and I will spend the whole day cleaning with every Slovak gene in my body. It takes me full days, I spend six days every summer cleaning that cottage. I’m looking at the beautiful weather and I’m counting the minutes, I know what I have to do. I only have six hours before I have to drive back to town and pick up the kids. I haven’t eaten, I haven’t showered, I’ve only cleaned. It’s kind of an intense thing. So that’s my contribution to our summer experience.
On doing it all
Avery: Before kids, I worked at a big-city law firm where your ovaries would just shrivel up the moment you stepped off the elevator. When I pictured what my life would be like with kids, I envisioned carving the pumpkins and knowing the names of all the kids in their classes. But I also knew I couldn’t stay home—I tried. I felt isolated and a bit depressed. As soon as I went back part-time, I became a lighter person. So I wouldn’t want to not be the person picking out the birthday gifts: Partly because I’ve always wanted to be engaged in my kids’ childhood. And some of it is just being a control freak. I’ll say to Gabe, “Oh, that’s what you picked for the gift?”
Gabe: All of the idea things, the emotional things, the extracurricular activities—Avery has probably done everything. But I take them to the lion’s share of their activities. That’s a lot of running around. I also sign him up for baseball, for hockey.
Avery: You did not sign him up for swimming, and this is the first year that you signed him up for baseball.
Gabe: He’s only been playing for two years. This year I signed him up for baseball and for hockey.
Avery: And last year I signed him up for baseball. And you don’t know how to do the swimming registration.
Gabe: It’s equal on that front. I take him to most of his stuff.
On the division of labour
Gabe: I’d say that Avery’s brain is 2/3 or 3/5 focussed on the kids and home…
Avery: Can we do it as a percentage?
Gabe: OK, between 66 and 75 percent home and kids for you, and mine is 66 percent work and 33 percent kids.
Avery: That’s very, very sound.
Gabe: In the normal parts of the year yes, in summer it’s different.
Chores before kids
Avery: When we first got together, I was going to stay home and take care of the babies (laughs). But when Mateo was six months old, I knew I had to go back to work.
Gabe: She has too much talent not to work, but we thought more on a temporary basis that if she wanted the option to stay home with her children, which we thought in our naïve minds that might actually be…
Avery: Palatable… When we got married we had a pretty traditional idea of how it would go. As far as chores, it was very harmonious. I had a cat, so by virtue of the fact that I brought the cat into the relationship, I unwittingly or not committed to doing all of the housework, because all of the mess was created by the cat.
Gabe: There was nothing to do except clean up fur!
On Finding balance
Gabe: Being married is simple until you have kids. There are certain points where I’ll pick up some of the slack, like doing the laundry or meal prep. You need to adjust every now and then.
Avery: There are only a few things I’d love to off-load. I try very consistently to get Gabe to get up at night. Mia still wakes up about 60 percent of the time. That’s something I feel I have to be assertive about to not feel too beaten down over it.
Gabe: Yeah, otherwise she’s the default position.
Avery: Also, I feel like I never get a sick day. I feel like the word is…jealous. I want to wake up in the morning with my cold and be like, “Sorry, I’m so sick, I’m not getting out of bed.” But instead I’m super sick and I still get the kids ready, take them to school and maybe I’ll get three hours to sleep before I have to pick them up, make dinner and get them into bed. When Gabe is sick, he just disappears and we don’t see him—and he could do this for two days. Everyone should have the ability to do that.
On feeling invisible
Avery: I think we both feel that. When we argue about chores, it isn’t that we’re arguing for one person to do more.
Gabe: It’s the recognition.
Avery: We’re both just looking for appreciation.