My husband is really awesome. He does dishes. He does laundry. He handles bath time. He is the epitome of an involved father, completely taking on 50% or more of the domestic chores without so much as a harrumph. He never complains about needing to help out. And yet, any time my husband makes dinner or takes my daughter to gymnastics or vacuums the floor, I find myself rushing to thank him, and then feeling slightly guilty that he had to help out with the “mom work.” Is it really an equal partnership?
When we debate “the parenting gap” and the amount of work mothers are still expected to do when they get home from a long day at the office, we sometimes miss an important part of the equation. It’s not so much “the parenting gap” as it is “the responsibility gap.” Even when women have amazing husbands who are more than happy to pull their own household weight, we still feel like we’re the ones responsible for the work. What’s more than that, we feel a little resentful that when a husband does the dishes, he’s “helping,” but a woman washing dishes is just doing what needs to be done.
I am not saying this responsibility gap is men’s fault. I’m not saying that my husband should somehow make me feel less guilty about our situation. For me, the guilt I feel over having a husband who folds the laundry and takes over playtime is all personal. The only one who can fix that problem is me.
That being said, I don’t think that I’m alone in this issue. I think there are lots of moms out there who spent their lives hearing that they needed to be all things at all times, an amazing mother and a successful careerwoman, and we carry around this shame anytime someone has to step in and help us.
In a recent New York Times‘ ‘Room For Debate,’ Bruce Feiler and KJ Dell’Antonia discuss co-parenting and why so many moms are still the primary caregiver, while husbands take a backseat. They suggest that the real problem is women who don’t want to give up the power of being in charge of their families. These “Mean Mommies” are shutting the dads out, refusing to let the poor guys be in charge of anything.
I think it’s possible that there are different motivations these two are missing. Maybe it’s not that women don’t want their husbands to step up and take an active role. Maybe they’re just like me, feeling guilty anytime they fall short of superwoman-status. Even when we aren’t the ones doing the cleaning or the childrearing, we inherently feel like those duties are our responsibility.
Have you ever heard a woman say, “My husband is babysitting the kids today”? He’s their parent, but he’s not the one who is normally responsible for the kids. No husband would ever say, “My wife is babysitting the kids today so I can watch the game with my friends.”
If I leave my husband home with our daughter to go do something for myself, like getting a massage or getting my hair done, I thank him when I get back. I walk in the door and say, “Thanks for taking care of her while I was out.” My husband would never consider thanking me for being home with our daughter while he was out with friends. (I’m not saying that he should.)
Women still feel responsible for the childrearing, even if their husbands or partners are picking up 50% of the slack. And I think it’s this gap in responsibility that continues to cause strife for lots of co-parenting couples. I’m not sure how much we can do to change it, other than make sure we raise our children to understand what parenting is always supposed to be a partnership and that they should expect equal effort from each partner, no matter what their gender. Maybe once a generation grows up with this idea in their heads, we’ll be able to stop debating so much about “the parenting gap” and where it’s coming from.