I Tried to Take Over My Wife’s Parenting Duties. I Failed.

Even when women work, they shoulder the largest share of unpaid household work. In an attempt to see what that feels like, I only succeeded in leveling the playing field.

When my wife went back to work after being a stay-at-home mom for five years, our family’s world changed abruptly. The shift was made even more extreme by both of our boys aged 5 and 7 years old starting classes at a new school together. Any routines we’d developed, any stability we’d achieved, was suddenly gone. Difficult? Sure. But I saw it as an opportunity to take on a more active role as a father, and bring more equity to our parenting duties. It was more difficult than I expected.

It’s not like I’m a bad husband. My wife and I had long ago agreed that my task was to earn a paycheck to support the family, and that her task was to take care of the boys and manage the home. I helped out after work, and on the weekends. Despite its traditional, mid-century aura, this arrangement always seemed fair to both of us, and for five years it served us well.

With my wife returning to work, however, a renegotiation was necessary. I work from home, so it felt only natural that I should take on more daily household duties, including helping the children transition from school to home life when they hopped off the bus. But I didn’t want to go into it half-heartedly — I wanted to take on everything that my wife had been doing. Not just for the benefit of our relationship, but for the boys. They needed to see that men help out around the house, too.

To that end, I resolved to cook more meals, help with homework, do some laundry during the day, get the boys a snack after school, help pack lunches, help schedule daily tasks, wash dishes, and do my equal part of weekend household chores. These are all things my wife did for years, and I tackled them with aplomb. Then, the responsibilities got the better of me.

Everything went to hell.

Laundry loads soured in the washer because I forgot to transfer them to the dryer. Dishes piled up in the sink because I failed to unload the dishwasher. I paced between laptop and Instant Pot, stressing out while I tried to work and also throw together an easy meal that was ready for my family by the time they got home. When my children stepped off the bus, I found myself distracted by requests for snacks and intervention in scuffles. Meanwhile, work deadlines ticked ever closer and my stomach tied itself in knots. When my wife would arrive home at 5:30, I’d be a ball of nerves and scramble up to my office to finish the day. After dinner, we would stand next to the sink together and finish up the dishes before guiding our children to bed. At that point, I’d sit down at the table and look through school notices and bills. It was miserable.

In time, things did get better. I found a certain rhythm that allowed me to use household tasks as meditative work breaks, much like stopping by a co-worker’s desk to chat for a minute or two (if that co-worker happened to be a bundle of carrots you needed to dice for dinner). Laundry and dishes got done. Dinners were prepped. The children found their own after school groove too, and began to require me less. I was feeling very good about the way things had shaken out by the end of the week.

But then I noticed that my wife had continued orchestrating domestic duties, behind the scenes. Here she was, guiding the boys through the morning — getting them dressed, making breakfast, helping them with unfinished homework and taking them to school. She’d text me during the day to arrange babysitters and repairs, or pay bills from her own office. At night, she’d make meal plans and created shopping lists, trying to schedule the weekend so things would run smoothly. All without complaint, as if it were just the way of the world. She was a mother, and she was doing what she felt mothers must do.

It was a sickening realization. I’d left it all on the field. But, clearly, I was not doing enough. She was still doing more.

I’ve always considered myself to be one of the good ones. I believe in balance and equity in parenting. I feel ready to step up and pitch in. But I now know that’s a flawed construct. Because pitching in implies that I’m merely helping — that the day-to-day work of a family is somehow not my responsibility. The lack of balance is on me. Therefore it’s on me to fix it.

So I’m redoubling my efforts, because that’s what my boys need to see their father do. My work in the family will help them build equity into their own families someday, an equity that we still lack. At least, that’s the hope.