It’s no secret that the pandemic has left many moms feeling
stressed, besieged and utterly on their own. In surveys, moms say this is because they’ve been left to handle most of the burden and logistics of caring for and educating out-of-school kids — even when working full time themselves.
Dads, next year, you should do your fair share of the child care, domestic work and emotional labor in your homes.
The pandemic has certainly made things much harder for working moms like me, but this is hardly a new problem. When American women who have male partners work outside the home, they also do 65% of the child care, while men take on 35% — and these numbers haven’t changed in 20 years, clinical psychologist Darcy Lockman notes in her 2019 book “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers and the Myth of Equal Partnership.
“Women also tend to take on the largely invisible burden of what freelance journalist Gemma Hartley calls the “emotional labor” in our homes in her 2018 book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward.”
This includes tasks like arranging child care, scheduling doctors’ appointments and play dates, buying presents, upending our own schedules when things go wrong, and (nicely) reminding our male partners what they’ve promised to do.
On top of all this, women also do the majority of the housework, according to the
Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2017 report by
the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development identified the “unequal sharing of household tasks between men and women” as one of the most urgent gender equality issues the world faces. Is it any wonder women are overwhelmed and exhausted?
So, in 2021, it’s long past time for dads to share these burdens equally with their female partners.
But they’re not the only ones who need to change.
Employers also bear a significant part of the responsibility for this inequality. Lockman notes that “the gender wage gap is really a motherhood gap. Women without children earn just barely less than men.” But because the labor market pays a premium to people who perform so-called “overwork,” which means working more than 50 hours per week, many dads end up significantly outearning moms. who often can’t put in that kind of time at work.
If more employers were to recognize that both men and women need reasonable hours so they can care for their families and offer gender-neutral policies to support working parents — like parental leave when babies are born and flexible schedules — then dads would have an easier time doing their fair share of at-home labor.
Social expectations also need to change. When family members, friends and even strangers witness men taking care of their own kids, they often praise these dads effusively for “helping,” or “babysitting.” As Hartley notes, “no one asks where the kids are when a father is out in public.” As a mom, I can assure you that the reverse is not true.
Indeed, one of the biggest shocks I experienced when I became a mother last year was how forcefully family members and friends try to enforce their gendered expectations.
I’m fortunate to have a husband who tries hard to do his part, though because of job differences — he’s an emergency medicine physician who often works nights and weekends, I’m a professor — it’s also the case that I often do more than half of the child care and household work in our family.
However, my husband makes most of our major meals. This is a source of endless astonishment — and concern — to many people, who like to remind me frequently how “lucky” I am that my husband cooks.
An actual topic of conversation at a party to which we were invited was the fact that I “don’t cook.”
Over the course of my career in the United Nations and Obama administration, I have traveled to more than 70 countries, worked with numerous heads of state, a Saudi prince, a Jordanian queen and Togolese mangrove farmers on issues like ending global poverty and supporting the Arab Spring.
But the most fascinating thing people found to discuss about me at this party was that I don’t do all of the domestic labor in my home while also working full time. Clearly, when Lockman described this problem as “the most widely accepted form of cultural misogyny,” she was right.
Why do people’s retrograde views about women’s and men’s roles matter? People make policy. People vote. Until we have universal understanding that the yen to cook and clean is not “a woman thing,” but instead a matter of practicality and equity that knows no gender, our societies will not move forward. And this begins in the home — how about in all homes for 2021?
One other good reason to upend these gender expectations? Happiness. In his TED Talk
“Why Gender Equality Is Good for Everyone — Men Included,” sociologist Michael Kimmel notes that when men and women share the work of caring for their kids and homes fairly, it’s not just the moms who are happier. The kids and their dads are happier, too.
I like to hope that some same-sex parents might not face these same gendered social expectations, though of course they’re up against many of the same other parenting challenges, like the expectation for overwork, on top of other social prejudices. Meanwhile, of course, things are even harder for single parents because they’re entirely on their own.
It’s shocking that it has taken a pandemic for people to realize that working moms with male partners can’t also do all the work inside our homes.
But now that we have your attention, it’s time for dads to step up their contributions, for employers to make it possible for fathers to do so, and for the whole world to rethink their expectations of women. If they do, we’ll all have a happier New Year.