Seattle blogger Melody Todd grew up in a traditional home. Her dad was a land surveyor during the week and in the Navy Reserves on the weekend. Her mother, who’d been a teacher, became a teacher’s aide when Melody was born. Melody’s husband, Scott, grew up much the same way.
So, when they got married and had children, Melody was adamant. She wanted a 50/50 division of work at home, mainly because they both worked outside their home. “I wanted him to understand the importance of the equal distribution of work for the family,” she says.
Unfortunately, the irony is that while women now make up almost 50 percent of the workforce, they still do most of the household and child-care chores at home. A 2020 Gallup poll showed that women are primarily responsible for doing the laundry (58 percent), cleaning the house (51 percent), and preparing meals (51 percent). Men, however, were still doing traditional “manly” chores such as yard work (59 percent) and maintaining the car (69 percent). Has anything really changed?
Talk to any couple today. Spouses may want a 50/50 split, but if they are honest about it, that split runs more like 60/40 or more depending on who’s employed or stays at home. What studies have found is that perception plays a significant role in how men and women view the division of labor, especially when both work outside the home.
Depending on each parent’s employment situation and earnings, men will say that they do the bulk of the work, and mothers will say they do. While Todd may want to achieve an equitable split, the real issue is whether it can be accomplished. Still, as Todd will tell you, she is a parent just as much as her husband is a parent, so at least child care should be equal. Though that 50/50 sweet spot sounds good, why is it so challenging to achieve this balance?
LaTrobe University Research Fellow Beatrice Alba argues that our unconscious biases may dictate how we perceive the breakdown of work in the family. Or that personal views on equality skew how we think gender equality is defined.
But Nancy Kay Luke, a Pennsylvania State University professor of sociology and co-author of a study, Happy Moms, Happier Dads: Gendered Caregiving and Parents’ Affect, believes it is mostly a combination of ideological/cultural and structural/socioeconomic factors.
In our society, says Luke, some men and women might believe that certain tasks are “women’s work” or that some women may see their home and children as a reflection of their own identity. Other constraints, such as long work hours, split shifts and disadvantages in the labor market, may influence our ability to achieve the 50/50 split. Still, modern parents try.
Patrick Holen believes that as a dad, he needs to be a good role model for his kids when it comes to the house and child care. Holen is the band director at Issaquah High School in Issaquah, Washington. His wife, Anna, is a psychiatrist. With two kids, he views their division of labor has a team effort, though that division is not always equal. “I do way more than my dad ever did,” says Holen. His attitude: It is not a women’s job alone to keep the house.
While the physical workload was closer to 50/50, the mental/managerial load was more 90/10, with mom bearing the brunt.
Todd echoes this sentiment. She and her husband split chores, though the split is not always even. “I also work hard all day outside the house. It shouldn’t mean that I have to do everything else, too.”
One woman I chatted with over Facebook Messenger (and who chose to remain anonymous) shared that how tasks broke down were often revealing. For instance, she felt that while the physical workload was closer to 50/50, the mental/managerial load was more 90/10, with mom bearing the brunt.
Breaking down this workload into who does what, why and how they feel about it was the subject of Luke’s recent research. In the study, she and her colleagues examined data on 4,486 child-care activities, who performed that activity and the person’s corresponding mood. What they found was that fathers, in general, were happier caring for their children than most moms were. Why? A father’s child-care activities were more likely to be recreational, such as taking the kids to the park, doing a puzzle, playing video games with the kids and other fun activities.
Whereas for moms, who were less happy and more tired, they were doing the activities that created stress such as “putting out fires”-type activities. Moms spent more time with their kids, but that time was more fragmented, broken into managerial-type activities such as scheduling dentist appointments, transportation to and from activities, planning birthdays and family events, or attending school conferences — activities Anonymous categorizes as “mental load.”
So, even if moms and dads attempt to achieve that 50/50 balance, the question becomes for most parents how to allocate those responsibilities so everyone is happy — or, at the very least, less stressed.
One way to solve these issues is to really concentrate on communication between partners, especially at those busiest times. Pat Holen and his wife hold weekly meetings during which they coordinate their weekly work and child-care schedules and plan menus for the week. Emphasizing that it is an ongoing process, Todd shares that she and her husband spend a lot of time communicating about what makes sense for them and how they can be respectful of each other’s time and time off. “We have been married for almost 20 years," says Todd, “and we are still working on the communication part.”
Sometimes realizing that no schedule is ever perfect and that life can sometimes get in the way is valuable. Anonymous recently moved, but her family is still transitioning from one place to the next. For weeks when she is still at their old home, her husband stepped up and did more than his share of the load.
Holen, as a band director, often travels or has evening football or basketball games. When he is gone, his wife takes the helm. During the summers, when he is off, he takes the helm.
For Todd, it means setting priorities, sharing them with her husband and then making allowances when he too has other more pressing constraints on his time and schedule. Flexibility is critical, as respecting each other’s time or even considering who does it best when it comes to taking care of the kids.
While dads are happier (according to the study) and moms are more stressed and tired, things are changing. Holen doesn’t pattern his fatherhood after his dad’s. Melody Todd doesn’t model hers after her mother’s. These first steps matter. While the sweet spot may be unequal, working to achieve it is essential. Whether these attempts work or not, or whether they make you happy or not, well, only time will tell.