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Too Many Good Dads Are Still Not Pulling Their Weight

Why are so many marriages still so unequal when it comes to child care and domestic responsibilities? Psychologist Darcy Lockman has some answers.

Flickr / Racchio

Before she had her first child, Darcy Lockman assumed she and her husband would split all the parenting tasks. But the author and psychologist soon found that household management fell squarely on her shoulders. She was the one who had to remember to bring diapers, sign permission slips, pack the supplies. Her husband worked. But so did she. And he failed to account for the small, invisible work that goes into running a household — the remembering to remember of things that needed to be remembered. She had to step up. And she wondered why.

After interrogating her own relationship, Lockman interviewed 50 mothers about the division of labor in their households. She found similarities: All the women said their husbands were good fathers, but that they left a lot to be desired in terms of the division of labor. Lockman wondered, Why do so many good husbands think they’re doing enough? Why, in dual-income households, do progressive dynamics become traditional when it comes to household expectations? Why are so many marriages still so unequal when it comes to child care and domestic responsibilities?

Her new book, All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership is a smart, necessary exploration into that question, as well as a look at modern parenting, marital expectations, and the blind spots even the most progressive couples have when it comes to striking a balance in household management. She dives into research and discovers myriad reasons why disparities still exist, including biological fallacies, societal pressure on mothers, and gendered socialization. It should be required reading for all modern couples.

Fatherly spoke to Lockman about martial inequality, what men need to understand, and what couples can do to interrogate the internal logic that causes such problems to persist.

You decided to dive into the division of household labor and the myth of marital equality because you experienced it firsthand. 

Yes. When my husband and I had kids, I was surprised by how much of the work of managing them fell to me. I grew up with the same story that I think women who are now having kids grew up with, which is that men are so much better now and fathers are so much more involved. And those are true stories. They’re very true. But they leave out a piece, which is that, as men’s parenting involvement climbed throughout the ’80s and ’90s, it also leveled off in the year 2000 without ever reaching parity.

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According to the tiniest studies from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men have reached about 35 percent in terms of how much they were contributing to the household labor — these are statistics for dual-income couples. So, the percentage of work done climbed and then leveled off without ever evening out. The story about really involved, great fathers was true. But it was about fathering, it wasn’t about co-parenting. And that’s where discrepancies lie.

And that’s how it went for you.

That’s how it went for us. When we had children, my husband and I both said we’re going to split the work. We didn’t even have to have the conversation because we just took it for granted so completely that that’s what would happen. But it didn’t. And I was doing much more.

In the beginning, it seems that a lot of couples say that they’re going to be more aware of splitting the household management. But then they say it doesn’t seem to last — or even start to happen in the first place.

Actually, that’s a little untrue. The couples who have the conversation are the ones who are more aware of it and they actually do the best. It’s when couples imagine, like my husband and I did, that it’ll just work out that way. That’s when people get into some trouble because things do tend to default to mothers without explicit conversations.

One interesting fact in your book is that even progressive, modern couples who see themselves differently default to a partnership with the woman doing most of the household management when they have children. 

Something that I learned in the research that was really interesting is that attitudes don’t predict behavior. It almost doesn’t even matter if you’re egalitarian. I mean, there are couples that decide to live in more traditional ways and that’s fine when it’s an explicit decision. It’s when there’s an assumption of equality and it’s not met. That’s when couples, the research shows, get into trouble in terms of martial happiness and stuff like that.

So, per your research, why do you think men still aren’t helping out as much? Where do the assumptions come from and where are these blind spots occurring?

One reason is that, while we can all say that, of course, in a dual-income earning household, the responsibility of domestic life should be shared, people do still really believe that mothers are the ones who are biologically primed for this. We think of men as nice helpers. But, actually, that’s untrue. Men are biologically primed for parenthood as well. It seems to be an important part of our evolution because men’s hormones actually shift when they spend time with and have intimate contact with a pregnant partner. The hormones that rise in women also rise in men.

They certainly do. On this, you write about the idea of the maternal instinct, which forces women into these roles because they are assumed to have this innate child-rearing ability. But that’s not true. 

Human beings don’t really have instincts. Primates don’t. We have a neocortex. There are animals that rely primarily on instinct to survive. Human beings are not among them. We have a more developed brain and we require learning to survive, which has made us more able to adapt to our environment. So, parenting skills are learned, not innate for males as well as females.

But, what throws couples off is that even when they are egalitarian, there’s this assumption that, biologically, mothers are really in a better position to be the better parent. That’s the first part.

I’m assuming some form of societal pressure factors into the next part. 

Well, there’s a lot of societal pressure on mothers to perform what has been called “intensive mothering” — really putting your child’s needs and considerations first all the time. So, fathers are not held to that standard. The bar is different from the get-go for men and women, and we could really question how intensively mothers have been encouraged to parent for the past 25 years.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff that sociologists have written about it. One thing they note is that expectations for mothering kicked into ever higher gear the more mothers were in the workforce. So when working mothers peaked in the labor force in the mid-’90s, that’s when the mothering standard started to rise. People who write about this — these aren’t my ideas — talk about how there was a really profound cultural anxiety around what was going to happen to kids now that mothers were working. Well, the anxiety seemed to be allayed by the idea that mothers were going to try even harder.

Today, full-time working mothers spend as much time with their children as stay-at-home mothers in the ’70s, which is crazy. And they do it by cutting back on their own leisure time, personal care, and sleep. That’s how they manage it. There’s very little of this parenting pressure on men. Fathers can show up and be amazing. But if you’re a mother and show up without water and snacks and band-aids and an extra pair of clothes, you’re a villain. I’m exaggerating, but not much.

That double standard does exist. Men are often heralded for doing the bare minimum and being present.

Yeah. Men are often told that they’re doing such a great job by being there and accept that, while ignoring any blind spots.

So, we have biology and intensive mothering that contribute to imbalances in households. What’s the last piece of the puzzle?

The third thing would be male privilege. Girls and boys are raised so differently, even if not necessarily in their homes. We inhabit really different worlds. Girls learn to be communal and think about others all the time; boys learn to put their needs and priorities first. Once a man and a woman are living together, having been raised with these different imperatives, they have different degrees of attention as to what needs to be done for other people. So, and again I don’t think it’s on purpose, but you learn to live a certain way in your gender without so much as realizing it.

There’s stuff that my husband, who I love, does that just makes me go, “Wow.” Sometimes when he’s home, he’ll be laying on our bed. And he’s really tall and he lays lengthwise across the bed, and I’ll come in and he won’t move. It’s such a little thing, and he’s not being an asshole, but he just doesn’t think to move until I ask him to. As a woman, if someone comes into the room and I am taking up extra space, I will automatically make room for them.

It’s almost startling to take in what cultures girls and boys are molded by. It’s 100 interactions every day over the course of a lifetime. So, it’s not my husband’s fault. We’re oriented very differently by our genders. For instance, another wife complained that her husband doesn’t know when it’s spring break and that they’ll need child care and so on and so forth. Women are constantly in charge of the thousand little things like that. It’s always the managing in the head that the woman is doing. That’s hard to split.

It is. So what’s the goal men need to recognize? 

I think the thing is this: It’s not the 50-50 split of household management that is the goal. It’s more of a shared awareness of what’s going on in the home. People have other obligations and other things that will result in it being a fluid split. I only used the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers earlier to illustrate a point. It wasn’t to say that couples must divide everything down the middle with a hatchet, but rather to highlight this lack of awareness that is so easy for men to have around this stuff that takes place in the home. It really is the problem most of the women I spoke with had.

A woman online recently wrote to me saying that she and her husband were in couple’s therapy and the therapist told her to write down everything she did throughout the course of the day because her husband had no idea all that she was doing. She was a full-time working mother as well. And once she wrote it down, they were able to kind of do a better job of divvying it up. He said he didn’t realize what was going on.

Now, people don’t like thinking about their romantic relationships in that kind of parsing-it-out way. But I really like that the therapist asked her to do that. It seemed so affirming. And the woman said she really got a lot out of it and you know her husband did as well. That won’t work for everyone, but it can be good to do.

As you said, shared awareness is the most important part here. How can couples reach that a-ha moment and ward off the resentment and burnout that can fester when such big imbalances are present? Read your book?

Well, they can read my book [laughs]. But there’s no three-step plan or anything like that. I really think couples, on both ends, really need to interrogate their internalized sexism and think about how they want to live with each other. I had one dad message me: He said that everyone’s always telling him what a great dad he is, and in the back of his mind he always had this nagging thing that his wife does way more than him, and he kind of just ignored it so as not to have to think about it. But he said my recent Times op-ed really helped him articulate to himself how he had been living in this way. He saw himself in the story. So I think if you can see yourself in what you’re doing, you can catch it.