Every day, I read new headlines describing the wage gap and the lack of female leadership at companies and all levels of government. Women are bombarded with warnings of how hard it is to have both a career that progresses, fulfills and excites them while having a family.
Men rarely receive this message.
It’s even harder for women of color, and nearly impossible for those who lack access and opportunity to education or other resources.
But is motherhood really the problem? Or is it that most mothers are still doing a disproportionate and unsustainable amount of work in the home — and this limits their ability to achieve their professional goals?
The legal field, my industry, is a perfect example of this ongoing inequity. A recent American Bar Association study found the following of lawyers at large firms:
Across industries, even as women make more gains in the professional workplace, they continue to do the majority of work related to household management and child care. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2016 that women did an average of two hours and 15 minutes of household labor each day, while men did an average of an hour and 25 minutes.
No wonder we can’t even out the earnings gap with our male colleagues.
Even as saturated as my mind was with data about how kids would mean the end of my career, I didn’t realize the inequity that had crept into my own family during my maternity leave. I had zero paid maternity leave as a federal government employee, but had saved enough vacation and sick days for four months. My husband had only two weeks of paid paternity leave (and it’s lucky in this country to get even that much). For those first few months, my daughter and I were mostly on our own. I became the baby expert through a lot of trial and error. I also scoured many parenting forums online.
My husband and I had to be intentional about making a change. It’s taken a lot of conversations, multiple spreadsheets, a shared Google calendar and more conversations. It is way more work than I anticipated. But we’ve finally settled into a system that works for us (most of the time, with regular tune-ups).
I’ve found that most men in my generation want to be present and active parents, and the data backs that up. Chitra Akileswaran, chief medical officer of Cleo, a company that provides virtual support and services to new parents, tells me, “We’ve found that fathers are incredibly eager to share parenting responsibilities. Over 90 percent of fathers we support through Cleo take parental leave. Fathers comprise at least one-third of all Cleo users who are actively soliciting support on topics such as birth preparation, newborn care, breastfeeding and infant sleep. We’ve found that by acknowledging the importance of partners and fathers, even expecting their presence, we’re often met with enthusiastic participation.”
I wanted to investigate how young families are tackling the division of labor in their homes after having children. What’s worked well for them, and what hasn’t? Unsurprisingly, there’s not a single approach that applies to every parent or every family. But there are a few consistent themes that seem to cut across race, sexuality or career type.
Amira Choueiki Boland and Brodie Boland, parents to 2-year-old Rania and 2-month-old Elias
Amira and Brodie recently had their second child, and Brodie was fortunate enough to take eight weeks of leave. Amira tells me, “It’s been incredible. You’re doing the hardest thing that you’ve ever done, but you’re doing it with your best friend. You remember why you married this person. It felt so healthy for our relationship, and it’s set us up more strongly for going back to work.”
Brodie decided to take leave the second time around because his first child taught him that the time is fleeting. “I realized the things that everyone told me about parenting — both how hard it is and how precious each moment is. I was excited to be home, to support Amira in caring for Elias, but also to hang out with Rania, who was going through her own adjustment with a new baby in the house. It was just a really special time.”
The Bolands also figured out how to balance the work of breast-feeding, one of the hardest tasks for many new mothers. Amira says, “Every night, Brodie will wash all the pump parts and bottles. He’ll thaw freezer milk so everything is ready to take into work the next day. If I’m pumping, he’ll bring snacks or drinks or distract our toddler daughter. There is a workload the guy can do to support breast-feeding, and that’s the only way I was able to breast-feed my daughter for a year and how I’m doing it for my son.”
Gavin Logan, father to 1-year-old Kegan
Gavin, husband to my colleague, Ashley, told me that when he became a parent, one friend’s advice stuck with him. “Don’t let her change a single diaper, ever.”
Gavin took it to heart. It became an unspoken rule that in their home, if Gavin’s around, he’s changing the diapers.
But he ran into a recurring problem: “No men’s rooms have places for me to change the kid. I will end up going into the women’s room, and I’ve been yelled at, I’ve been cussed at. I try to explain there’s no place in the men’s room and I’m not going to change my kid on the floor. What would you do?”
I told Alexandra Sacks, a clinical expert on the development transition to motherhood or “matrescence,” that I never realized there weren’t changing tables in men’s restrooms, because it never occurred to me that my husband would change a diaper when we were out. We both just assumed it would be me, and I never thought otherwise before talking to Gavin.
As I told Sacks, I’m just more comfortable with it, and my husband might get stressed out if he had to improvise a public restroom diaper change. Sacks pointed out, “This is basically the Malcolm Gladwell ‘10,000 hours’ situation. If he spent the same amount of time that you have spent changing diapers outside your home, he would feel just as comfortable.”
For the partner who doesn’t get pregnant, doesn’t go through delivery, or doesn’t breast-feed, it can feel like there’s no role for them. Their uncertainty gets worse if every time they change a diaper, try to bottle feed, or dress the baby in an outfit that may or may not match, they are told they’re doing it wrong. If they don’t have the space to learn in their own way, they will never get to their own version of 10,000 hours, and they’ll never feel comfortable in their new role.
“Yes, it’s my job as the male in the house to make everyone feel safe," says Gavin. "But as my wife’s husband, I have to figure out what she needs to feel safe. For her, that is not financial. It’s that she never has to worry if Kegan is okay, because if she’s not on it, I am.”
Svetlana Durkovic and Alma Selimovic, mothers to 2-month-old Sofia
It was Durkovic’s idea that she and her wife have children. Durkovic was the first to attempt getting pregnant through IVF, and went through multiple tries. Ultimately, Selimovic ended up successfully becoming pregnant. People assumed that everything concerning the baby was connected with Selimovic.
“We went through six attempts to have her, some of which were mine. But when people gave us things for the baby, they would always be directed toward Alma. They only wanted to speak with Alma. It was like Project Baby was hijacked from me, because I’m not carrying her and she’s not genetically mine," says Durkovic.
Durkovic encourages partners not to settle for being on the sidelines, even when our culture pushes you there. When you jump in and integrate yourself into the hard work of child care, the rewards are immense. “All you have to do is be present, and you’ll learn along the way. It’s like cleaning your house. It takes hours to clean, but then you can enjoy it, and you also enjoy that you did it. You’ll enjoy your baby more and connect with her differently when you work for it.”
Selimovic shared how the couple now works regularly to rebalance the household labor and child care: “We created a time in the week to sit down and catch up with each other, and express how we feel about things. Sometimes you exclude someone but not on purpose. It’s important to voice problems. It’s much easier to figure it out after you say it.”
Merin Guthrie, mother to 11-month-old Isla
Guthrie and her husband took their management skills from the workplace and put them into practice at home. They created a spreadsheet of activities, prioritizing health care and child care, and including tasks like laundry, dishes, and food preparation, divided between them close to evenly.
My husband and I went the spreadsheet route too. There is something very stress-relieving about getting all the tasks and activities out of your head and onto paper, where they feel more tangible and doable.
Treating these issues like a work project also helps to remove some of the emotional tension. Would you ever tearfully tell your coworker, “You forgot to send that memo to the client so you must not love me!”
No, you’d say something more like, “I know you have a lot on your plate, but it’s important that we meet our deadlines. How can we do better as a team next time?”
Guthrie has learned a few key lessons along the way. First, even the best laid plans can be thwarted by the unexpected. Guthrie was unexpectedly hit with postpartum anxiety, exacerbated by her daughter’s chronic nursing challenges. Normally a rapid-fire decision maker (and the CEO of her own startup), she suddenly couldn’t seem to make any decisions.
“I had a friend meet me at a CVS because I couldn’t find the specific probiotic our pediatrician recommended. All I wanted to do was lay in the aisle and give up. My husband and I had a really effective and rational approach, in theory. But with all the other cascading things going on, the level of crazy is so much more than anticipated. And the level of support is so far below where it needs to be," she says. “We always joke that if only we had a third spouse, everything would work out.”
Guthrie also cautions that couples shouldn’t create a detailed system and expect it to self sustain. Modern parents need a more agile, iterative approach: “You can come up with a spreadsheet and a system, but there has to be a regular process to check in and ask, is this working? Are we still sane? Are we remotely happy, or are we just struggling?”
I recently blew up at my husband at the end of a unusually busy month at work. Every day, I was scrambling to get myself and our toddler ready in the morning, working a 9-5 day, doing daycare drop-off and pick-up, and taking a quick break for family dinner before logging back on for hours to try and get out from underwater. I kept feeling like I was doing everything, and that my daily schedule and the constant demands of our child and my job were punishing. It felt like someone was always nagging and needing something from me.
In turn, he reminded me about all the things that he was doing. He gets our groceries, cooks or otherwise procures dinner, and cleans the kitchen every night. When our car was recently broken into, he got the window replaced the same day. He called five roofers and finally found one to fix a leak, days before Hurricane Florence was to hit the East Coast, and stayed home from work to make sure our home would weather the storm.
He re-caulked the bathtub. He manages our finances, pays our bills and makes sure that we are saving for the house with a backyard that we are dreaming about for our toddler. He does a whole bunch of stuff I have absolutely no interest in doing, but that is critical to our family’s safety and well-being.
Why had I been so sure I was doing much more than he was? Because we are both currently doing a lot.
For most of human history, parenting was not a one or even a two-person job. It was a multi-generational, village-wide effort. We have to adjust our expectations accordingly.
My husband and I are trying to be more intentional about lifting our heads up from the mess and appreciating what the other is doing on a daily basis. It’s good for us as a couple, and it’s good for our daughter. I want her to see that her parents’ marriage is an equal partnership, and know that she can absolutely have the same for herself.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story refers to Chitra Akileswaran as CEO of Cleo. She is the chief medical officer. We regret the error.