So I just want preface this by saying I’m not complaining about my own life. I’m not saying any of this about any specific person. If you’re a man or a very happy wife, don’t get defensive. Don’t argue. Just read it, internalize it, mull it over, and really think about it before reacting. I know this is kind of a hot-button issue for a lot of people. Also, I feel like I’ve written some kind of term paper for a women’s studies class. Sorry about that. My sources are at the bottom if you care to look into it further.
I listened to a show on Wisconsin Public Radio several months ago that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. It was about how children learn to devalue women from their parents. I’ve read many of the studies (ok, more the highlights… there are few things I hate reading more than actual “study” literature) that were referenced in the episode, and the whole thing just doesn’t sit well with me.
And then, a few months ago I was seeing a therapist because I was feeling depressed, overwhelmed, dissatisfied and underappreciated. (spoiler alert: you have to make your own happiness – cue the recent changes to my work schedule, the second job, the blog, the side business, and a resurgence of my latent homesteader tendencies). Long story short, my therapist was a big proponent of “Every woman I see is unhappy with their husband’s contribution to the household, but you can’t change him, so you need to either lower your standards or just accept and make peace with the fact that you’re going to do it yourself.” That also didn’t sit well with me. At all.
Did you know that statistically, even when moms work full time outside the home they still do 65% of the household work as well? And according to a multitude of studies, when you ask men and women if their household duties are fairly split, and then actually account for which chores each person does, both men and women think that men only doing 30-35% of the work at home is “fair.” Of course, I don’t have to tell the women reading this, but men think it’s fair because they think it’s actually split 50/50, while women think it’s fair because “I’m just glad he helps at all.” How is this still normal? A big part of the problem is that a lot of what women do is invisible. We plan childcare, plan meals, make appointments, call for repairs, fill out paperwork for school, meet with teachers, pack lunches, etc etc etc. That’s on top of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, dishes, childcare, and all the other things that traditionally fall to women. Don’t get all defensive here, guys. We know you help. You might even think you do half of the household chores. Heck, maybe you actually do. That’s awesome! But social science research shows that you don’t (not you specifically, but most of you).
So how does this affect kids? What do they think when they see mom working and dad relaxing? Mom gets home from work and makes dinner, does the dishes, does a load of laundry, and cleans the living room. Dad gets home from work and turns on the TV or sits on his phone. Obviously I’m generalizing here. No, this is not a rant about my own family life. There are days when I do the same thing. This is a societal issue.
I know it’ll sound like I’m making something out of nothing or overreacting (typical woman, right?), but this unequal distribution of labor makes children view women as subservient to men, which means they’re undervalued as people. Hear me out here. No, this doesn’t mean that children don’t value their mothers. Obviously. But when dad’s comfort is put above mom’s (which is clearly the case when mom is still working after a full day of work and dad is relaxing), then how else can a child interpret it than to assume that dad’s comfort is more important than mom’s, therefore dad is more important than mom. When this happens, men aren’t even usually aware of it. It’s probably happening more often than either of you actually realize. A dentist appointment is clashing with your vacation – who calls the dentist to reschedule? Most of the time, dad doesn’t even know there was a conflict because he relies on mom to take care of it. Did you know that, on average, women with young children enjoy half as much leisure time on weekends than their husbands? When women talk to men about this problem, men often get defensive and are quick to point out that they’re doing better than their own fathers, so what’s the problem? Here’s the problem. Women compare men to themselves, and men compare themselves to their fathers. We are using completely different benchmarks for what is “fair” and “normal.”
So how do you avoid falling into the trap where mom does everything and dad does (comparatively) very little around the home? For many families it’s a problem that gets worse over time – the more you do, the more is expected of you. For parents, it frequently starts with the birth of their first child. One of the only biological differences that’s been actually proven between the genders with regard to parenting “instincts” is that while men and women are equally responsive to the pain cries of infants, women are biologically more responsive to fussiness cries than men are. This seemingly small difference snowballs over time into women being the first (and therefore the primary) parent to respond to any need of a child that’s not perceived as “urgent” by the father. Which means, over time, that most things fall to mom. Even in this supposed age of equality, where women can “have it all,” mothers remain almost solely in charge of the endless managerial care that comes with raising children: securing babysitters, filling out school forms, sorting through clothes that no longer fit. We need to stop confusing cultural habits with nature – it’s holding us back. It’s not a mom’s natural instinct to sign permission slips for school. It’s learned behavior for both parents that mom will take care of it. This has a long-term impact on kids and how they view women, both at home and in society as a whole. Don’t get me wrong – men have their own traditional household chores as well: household repairs, oil changes, lawn mowing. But the traditional “manly” chores need to be done weekly, monthly, yearly – not daily. Women are placed in charge of the ongoing, never ending work of the home. Millennial men tend to have loftier goals of equality in their home lives, but statistically they just aren’t sticking to those ideals once they have children.
Most women (again, every family is different, but we’re talking about the statistical “norm” here) will report that while they’re cleaning, folding laundry, washing dishes, he’s just sitting there. We know he’s not doing it on purpose. He has no awareness of what’s happening around him. We might ask him about it and he gets defensive. What are kids supposed to think when their dad is playing on his phone while mom scrambles to put everyone’s shoes and coats on? It’s not hard to predict which parent’s person-hood those children will conclude is more valuable. Current research actually shows that its men’s attitudes about marital roles, not women’s, which are ultimately internalized by both their daughters and their sons. This finding is a testament to kids’ ability to identify implicit power, to identify whose beliefs are more important, and therefore worth adopting as their own. When power issues are raised between couples, studies have shown time and time again that they’re most often framed not in terms of how husbands need to change, but rather how wives do (“You didn’t ask me for help” “I can’t read your mind” “You should be more assertive”). This is the domestic equivalent of “She should have dressed more modestly.”
We need to, as a society, be more aware that male dominance is still our cultural norm. Our culture’s devaluation of “women’s work” has left men with little incentive to shift into less-traditional roles at home, even as women have become more successful outside of the home. The only way to overcome it is to acknowledge and examine male privilege in the household. Privilege is invisible to those who have it, which is what makes it so difficult to change. So I’m asking you to all make an effort. Look at your spouse. Both of you. What are you doing? What are they doing? Chances are, if you’re a man, you need to make a conscious effort to increase your participation in the more laborious and chore-like aspects of family life. Men can pack backpacks and suitcases, they can find backup babysitters, they can restock groceries, plan meals, purchase birthday presents, and schedule doctors appointments. Don’t get defensive if she’s mad that you’re not helping. If your response is “If you needed help you should have just asked!” then you need to check yourself. If she has to ASK you to do it, it means that YOU EXPECTED HER TO DO IT. That’s the problem.