In most families, household and childcare logistics fall to Mom. The complexity of scheduling everything, from doctors appointments to play dates, is more laborious than you think. Stress, from juggling impossible schedules and the always-on mental to-do list, becomes oppressive. By the time we realize it’s unsustainable, we’re exhausted and desperate for relief.
Eventually, the epiphany that one person needn’t ‘own’ all of the kid and household planning in a two-adult family, brings hope. Until then, trying to renegotiate with our spouse, kicks off an unexpectedly draining and emotional chess match. Love for our kids is unconditional, but the spousal bond is different. We trust and commit with strings. We expect mutual support of our dreams and well-being.
“Even mothers who work for pay are still doing twice the amount of housework and child care as fathers,” writes Brigid Schulte in Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love & Play When No One Has The Time. This imbalance has been consistent despite the rise in responsibilities for Moms. In Tiffany Dufu’s book, Drop the Ball, she cites studies that mark a “…steady decline in women’s happiness and health.”
Most surveyed* Moms (80%) admitted that the stress of carrying an uneven mental load is harming their relationship with their partner. More equal sharing of childcare and household responsibilities at home has life-changing potential for partnered Moms. However, many of us struggle to get this right with our partners.
I spoke with authors Tiffany Dufu and Brigid Schulte to learn how they navigated the sensitive obstacle course to create equal partnerships with their husbands. Although the process took time and patience, unfolding amid life’s pressures, they emerged with happier, healthier marriages.
Why Inertia Is Not Okay
Women initiate the majority of divorces in heterosexual US couples. When asked why, author of the study Michael Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University told Science Daily, “…marriage as an institution has been a little bit slow to catch up with expectations for gender equality…Husbands still expect their wives to do the bulk of the housework and the bulk of the childcare.”
Even if the lack of equity were not concerning, the stress of even trying to balance the scale is detrimental. In Drop the Ball, Tiffany shared results from an economic study of working Moms, “Those who report work/family conflicts are more likely to suffer from allergies, migraines, fatigue, mood disorders, anxiety, dependence on drugs or alcohol, hypertension and cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems.”
Ask For More! The Equal-Partnership Roadmap
It’s hard to request help when society, and the voice in our heads, tells us it’s all part of the ‘Mom job.’ Whether working in or outside of the home, or both, your bright future rests on how your time is allocated. To thrive, we need some discretionary time. Even if your partner has a demanding career, more equal systems can be developed. In Tiffany’s book, Drop the Ball, she explains that once their system was in place her husband continued to maintain his 50 percent of the effort during an overseas work tenure. That’s right. From another time zone, he arranged sitters and paid bills, providing her with much needed space for self-care and growth.
After delving into the details of how Tiffany and Brigid made this challenging negotiation work in established marriages clear patterns emerged.
Change Your Inner Story…Now!
After reading Tiffany’s candid account of how she overhauled routines at home, I asked her, “Is there anything you wished you had done differently on your journey to all-in partnership with your husband?” She smiled, “Yes, lots of things!” She admitted, “I would have told myself a different story about him sooner. I had this story in my head that he was useless related to running the household or childcare. We have a strong marriage, but…the stories you tell yourself come out in your jabs (and) what you give credit and praise for.” She added, “Adult men retreat from this. I had to shift my narrative to change things.” Sigh. Noted.
Create a Safe Space for Open Dialog
Heated battles about the to-do list aren’t good for anybody. Many choose the civility of silence, over the fraying nature of conflict. Yet this silent space is where the resentment can build and shut down discourse altogether. When anger subsides, the work of restoring trust, collaboration and solidarity with your partner begins. Brigid approached her husband like a journalist. “We started going on long walks, I took a notebook and asked questions. I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you take paternity leave? Did you know I was angry with you for 15 years that you didn’t?’ ‘Do you understand how that shaped everything – my career, your career, our family dynamics, our relationship?’ She realized they both had agreed to be equal partners when they got married, but didn’t have any role models, weren’t sure how to do it and easily slipped back into the traditional gender roles. They took the time on walks to see how they’d both contributed to the imbalance, to imagine how they really wanted their shared life to be, and then set up experiments and systems to help get them from their unequal present to their shared vision of a fairer future.
Document & Divide
“There was so much invisible work I did – the carpool arrangements, the summer camp planning, the doctor appointments. (I first had to) help him – and me – see how much I did, and how much work it took to run the house and family, before we could begin to divide the work fairly.” They decided to throw out the gender script, like man = yardwork, woman = cooking, take a page from same sex couples and divide chores based on what they like doing. Now, in the morning, she empties the dishwasher and he loads. In the evening, he cooks dinner and she cleans up. They take turns bringing the kids to the doctor and dentist – and making appointments. She does laundry and he grocery shops. “I’m more of a home body and he likes being out and about. Sometimes, he forgets (to buy) stuff. I used to shop behind him…then I stopped.” She admitted, “I realized, my always rescuing him was a choice. And if I wasn’t the responsible one I could begin to make a different choice. I could start to value and honor my own time. Now, if we run out of toilet paper, or food, it’s his job to deal with it!”
Agree to Standards
“We needed to automate systems, agree to the ame standards and hold each other accountable, because if you delegate, then your spouse is still a ‘helper’ and you’re still carrying the mental load. And I really wanted to stop feeling like I was nagging all the time. It’s just not who I am or who I wanted to be. Now, last person out of bed makes the bed.” Brigid said, if he didn’t put pillows on the bed, she’d text a photo and just say ‘really?’ I laughed! It’s surprising how subjective the definition of ‘done’ can be. She and her husband then established mutually acceptable benchmarks, including, “…what is a ‘made bed,’ clean counter, or healthy meal.”
Tiffany discovered her husband’s hidden strengths, “I realized that the benefits of diversity and inclusion I would preach about at work were not being practiced in my own home. That people with different perspectives can apply different lenses to problems and generate new solutions.” A wise reminder.
Tiffany went on to explain, “As a ‘ball dropper’ I discovered he is better at certain things than I am.” She said after thanking her husband for giving up sleep while she was traveling promoting her book, he said ‘thank you but I didn’t give up any sleep.’ She had to find out how he woke up at the same time and still got the kids to school on time. She said, “He wakes up, goes into the kids’ rooms and then sets a timer for 45 minutes and tells them that they need to be downstairs, teeth brushed, backpacks filled, dressed and fed before the timer goes off. And they do it.” Amazing! She realized her kids were capable of things she normally does for them. “They may not be going out the door exactly as I would have them, but they’re getting it done. That happens consistently when I don’t leave detailed instructions.” Brilliant!
Feel. The. Love
Brigid was married 20 years before moving to this model. She said, “It’s a work in progress but (it’s) so much better than it was! (Now) there’s time to recalibrate. Each person has space and the relationship’s changed…defensiveness falls, nagging ends (and) you do stuff you really want to do together.”
Brigid said she interviewed a woman, whose husband asked what, she wanted for dinner on his night to cook. “She said ‘not to have to think about it.’” Beautiful! Isn’t that the real gift Mom’s need? Sharing parenting and household responsibilities fully creates camaraderie and much needed mental space. Brigid wisely states, “Things do need to change, not just for women. Men and women need time for caregiving…(it’s) wonderful and makes life worth living.”
Let’s continue the discussions, at home, even when it’s hard. If the balance isn’t right, speak up. Although this process takes time, unequal systems anywhere – in work, communities or our homes, tend to flounder.
* Results from August 2017 MHN survey, ‘How the Mental Load Is Affecting Your Life’
Many thanks to Authors Tiffany Dufu and Brigid Schulte, for incredible books, research and inspiration!
Tiffany Dufu and her book Drop the Ball has been featured in The New York Times, ESSENCE, O, The Oprah Magazine, and on NPR. She was named as one of 19 “women who are leading the way” in the Huffington Post. Learn more about Tiffany and her book, Drop the Ball on her website. To keep up with her adventures, follow her on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube.
Brigid Schulte is an award-winning journalist; author of the NYT best-selling book Overwhelmed: How To Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time and is also Director of The Better Life Lab at the nonpartisan think tank, New America, which is dedicated to redesigning work, transforming social policy and promoting gender equality so people and families can combine their work and life in meaningful, fair ways across the arc of their lives. Their vision: better work. Better care. Better life. The lab also runs it’s own Better Life Lab Channel on SLATE, where they explore the future of work, gender and social policy – with great stories and research to advocate a fairer, juster, more sustainable egalitatian world. Sign up for their biweekly newletter, follow the lab on Twitter and become part of the solution. You can keep up with Brigid’s adventures on Twitter, Facebook and by signing up for her website’s newsletter.