Chores, Mental Load, and the Domestic Tipping Point

What Do You Expect? Fathers Can “Do It All” Too

My chosen partner in life is a quiet, humble, stay-far-away-from-the-spotlight kind of guy. He has declared he would NEVER go on a reality TV show, no matter the promised reward -- not even for the home of our dreams or millions of dollars. I start with this because I am about to unmask and potentially embarrass him, but it’s for the good of the people. He is doing what every partner should be expected to do in a busy family of kids and two parents balancing professional lives with domestic lives.

I have felt disheartened with the latest stream of articles sharing poll results and analyses showing how much more work women still do, most recently amplified by living through a global pandemic. I hear the dismal numbers (eg, half of men say they do half the household tasks now; 3% of women agree) and I feel almost like an outsider to the “wife” identity. Well, I guess in this poll, I would technically be in the 3%.  

The feminist part of me has resisted writing about my husband because he should not get a gold star for doing what women around the world do all the time with zero fanfare (in case an outdated negative connotation still nags at this “f” word, feminist means women and men should be regarded with equal value).

But therein lies the problem – women have come to EXPECT ourselves to do all or most, while not EXPECTING the same of our partners. And if we continue like this, we are modeling it for our children to keep up the same EXPECTING, which is not serving any of us well.

“What appears to counteract this negative pattern are a couple of ingredients: clear distinctions of roles and responsibilities that are known and mutually respected, and viewing running the household as a team effort by both partners.”

Before I dive in, I want to acknowledge the diversity of family structures and choices for how to exist in families. There are families who have quite contentedly and deliberately chosen the more traditional set-up of the man working outside the home while the woman primarily takes care of the children and household. I fully support whatever works best for each family, and I admire when people actually know what that is and can make it happen!

Then there are families with parents of the same gender, where hetero-normative stereotypes don’t fit. I will say, however, that I have heard from these family structures of the same imbalance of one person taking on a majority of the domestic load and the other person opting out. In my experience, this doesn’t work well, regardless of how gender roles and stereotypes may or may not be playing a role.

Back to my spotlight-averse husband. I’m not trying to romanticize or exaggerate what we have built in our household. It’s not perfectly balanced because that doesn’t exist: I still claim to carry the mental load characteristic of mothers; he gets burned out on taking more of the tasks requiring physical labor; our lives have also settled into a reality that I spend more hours of the day with our children and we have distinct relationships with them. (They have more meltdowns with me. Yay!) But I hear tales from other families on a regular basis about an imbalance that seems so tilted, I don’t know how they aren’t going to all fall off into a heap of broken pieces.

Household Chores

In the last two Pew Research Polls of married adults in 2007 and 2015, sharing chores has consistently placed third as a key to a successful marriage (behind intimacy, shared interests, and faithfulness).  

In pre-apocalyptic-COVID times, results of the 2015 survey showed consistently dramatic splits between who does more household chores, although these differences are not as big in households with two full-time working parents. In these households, 59% characterized chores as divided equally, 31% reported the mother did more, and 9% gave it to Dad.

Perception proves important, however, as in this same survey, fathers were more likely than mothers to represent chores as equally divided (56% v. 46%); 50% of mothers reported doing more, and 12% of fathers reported taking on more around the house. This compares to 32% of fathers who said the mother does more, while only 4% of mothers reported fathers do more.  

Mental Load

There’s no doubt that the typical modern father does more around the house than his father did. Gender roles have opened and flexed to benefit us all, but modern society doesn’t give us a break.

Chores, Mental Load, and the Domestic Tipping Point

Although national survey results show improvements in division of household chores in households with two working parents, this progress may be offset by the now mainstream recognition of mental load, carried predominantly by women. I would argue there’s more mental load than in our parents’ time because there’s more to organize with the normalized pace of overflowing family calendars. (Well, until this COVID19 “new normal” took the busy rug right out from under our feet.)

Recent stats indicate 75% of women with a child under 18 are employed full-time and 86% of moms with a job outside the home reported being in charge of all household and family responsibilities. A 2017 study found that women who were primary breadwinners were 3 times more likely than father breadwinners to carry the mental load.

Some of you may have heard from your partner, “my father NEVER did x” which is likely a true statement, that also truly doesn’t help you. Because that does not relieve your load, a load that I don’t believe our 80s mothers were carrying. The bottom line is we are all doing more as parents and workers than ever before, and with the same time allotment of 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Something’s gotta give.

While we wait on the very low likelihood that our systems will suddenly offer affordable, quality childcare, necessary parental time off of work (paid), and other resources that value the family unit, I worry how we bear the brunt as individuals, couples, and families. How do we keep our partnerships strong and stable as a bridge of support for our children, when the bridge may collapse under the enormous weight of our modern pressures?

What (Not) “To Do”

Some evidence points to what NOT to do in our partnerships. What’s called a “demand-withdraw pattern” has been found to be a sign of ineffective communication and later relationship distress. Although somewhat self-explanatory, this pattern involves one person in the role of “demanding” (criticizing, nagging, making a demand) and the other person in the role of “withdrawer” (avoids intimacy and/or conflict, withdraws in anger). The key here is not that these interactions never happen, but that it doesn’t become a pattern where the two partners fall into these roles almost automatically.

What appears to counteract this negative pattern are a couple of ingredients: clear distinctions of roles and responsibilities that are known and mutually respected, and viewing running the household as a team effort by both partners. In my observations of families, this is where the magic can happen. It’s not about perfectly alternating every chore for true equality, it’s having clear delineation of tasks in a way that is satisfactory (enough) to both partners.

The second piece of this role delineation formula cannot be overstated: “known and mutually respected.” When we feel unappreciated and under-recognized for how hard we work in the family, it’s harder to see what the other person is contributing, which then loops into both partners in a defensive stance of “you don’t even know what I do!” If we can take a moment to verbally recognize each other and explicitly express appreciation, this can interrupt that defeating loop that goes nowhere good.

It’s Possible – Expect the Unexpected

Although the pandemic polls looked bleak, I have read anecdotal glimmers of hope that this domesticity around the clock has forced some necessary change in at least some households. Hopefully, this can be an epiphany that lasts beyond COVID19.

If you feel, however, that the imbalance in your household is still tilting to the precarious point of breaking you, I encourage you that you CAN expect the unexpected. Here’s my own personal case study:

For starters, my husband cooks every night. He does most of the meal planning, grocery shopping, and food prep. He doesn’t love how much of this he has taken on and I attempt to offset it with my own contributions, but I revel in how our three children observe him as the primary meal person. Next, he does the laundry. More precisely, he and I tag-team the laborious laundry process, but he is often the one who initiates it, which is a far cry from the complaints I hear about husbands who don’t even pick up their dirty clothes off the floor. Incidentally, I think I can count on one hand the number of times I have ironed a shirt for him in our almost 12 years of marriage.

He plans activities to do with the kids that keep them out of the house for a couple of hours so I can accomplish non-household tasks (like writing this blog). He and I evenly split the intensive bedtime routine despite it sucking the life out of us during this pandemic with no date night break in sight! During crisis schooling, we divided the day down the middle: he worked until 12:30 while I oversaw “education,” and then I disappeared to see patients while he was solo educator and childcare person until we all reunited for dinner at 6. His job is important. My job is important. We used to argue about it in the early years of child-rearing, but we have found our center.

Is this a bit of a personal homage to my husband to celebrate Father’s Day? Yes. But I hope it’s also a beacon of possibility for any of you wishing for more balance in your household lives. Not only do you deserve it, so does your partnership, your children, and your entire well-being. Expect the unexpected now so your children don’t have to do this all over again when it’s their turn.

Resources

The Difference Between a Happy Marriage and Miserable One: Chores, The Atlantic

Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load, Pew Research Center

Let’s Share Women’s Mental Load, Forbes

New Research Shows the “Mental Load” is Real and Significantly Impacts Working Mothers Both at Home and Work, Businesswire

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