How Can I Encourage My Partner to Be a More Hands-On Parent?

It can feel impossible to find balance between parents, especially in the early years of raising children. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says the key is to keep communicating and make changes until you find a system that works for both of you, even if a truly equal 50/50 divide may never happen.

Illustration of mom holding baby while workingand dad walking by
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

Mama on strike

My partner and I have a 2-year-old son and we both work full time. When we are both home, most of the parenting responsibilities fall on me. He doesn't bathe our son, he doesn't clean up after our son, he has never trimmed his nails, he has never brushed his teeth, he sometimes makes him lunch but usually expects me to do it on my lunch break. At this point I'm becoming so burnt out and every time I talk to him about it, it doesn't change or changes temporarily. My partner plays with our son and is great with him in that way, but most of the work falls on me. How can I encourage him to do more?

—Mama on strike

You likely know you are far from alone in your dilemma, as this very scenario fuels the many think pieces in recent years about the caregiving load carried by mothers specifically. As women's hours working outside of the home have increased over the decades, so has our time with our children, while fathers' caregiving time has not increased at nearly the same pace. Even the most forward-thinking co-parenting couples who reject traditional gender norms experience this surprising lack of balance once parenting becomes a reality.

I venture to guess that showing your partner a pile of articles about this societal pattern either has not been effective, or you know it will not be. In the confines of your home and family, it does not really matter what is happening in all the other households. You have the problem and you need a solution that does not rely on waiting for society to make seismic changes in attitudes and infrastructure.

Keep Talking

I'm not sure how you have approached the talks you have already had with your partner, but there's no way around the need for continued communication. You mention that either no changes happen after talking, or they are temporary changes, so it sounds like there are barriers to his behavior change that you two haven't yet uncovered. The first step is to keep talking, to keep digging at what continues to get in the way of lasting change.

One common underlying barrier to keep in mind is the partner feeling criticized or second-guessed by the primary caregiver, usually the mother. In the research, this is studied as "maternal gate-keeping" and is a known factor in the father (typically) not taking on more caregiving responsibilities. Another potential barrier could be his own fears and insecurities that he has not communicated due to embarrassment; many men lack role models from their own fathers to parent according to more modern, hands-on standards, and feel unequipped for their new role in a way they do not know how to manage. If either of these possibilities is true, you need many conversations to figure out how to move forward instead of spinning in the same frustrating loop.

Delegate Tasks

In the field of family therapy, a family system has been compared to a machine operating in an automatic way that everyone is used to, whether healthy or not. To change an unhealthy way of operating, one person needs to start the change process, which then kickstarts the rest of the machine to run differently. Consider where you could make the first change, like announcing you are no longer going to take charge of lunches. This requires communication so he knows what to expect, and possibly problem-solving for how he will get the lunches done, but the reality is you may need to stop doing so much to get him to do more. For many high-functioning mothers, this also means checking your own anxiety about backing off on parenting tasks. If this is the case, pick a caregiving task that is easy for you to surrender so you set yourself up for committing to making the change.

Keep Changing the System

For her book Fair Play, Eve Rodsky spent years interviewing couples and collecting data about household management that resulted in her creation of an innovative approach to make change in division of labor at home. You can read the book for more guidance, but the take-home point is you and your partner need to work together to create a structure of clear expectations for each person's contribution to taking care of the home and your child.

The first step is to be very clear about all the tasks that make up running the household, including childcare. If anything, looking at all the daily and big picture tasks required of keeping up a home and raising a child, reinforces why it all feels so hard! Making these lists together can also help each of you see what the other is doing that you may not see right now because you are so overwhelmed. The next step is to decide who takes responsibility for each task so it is clear who is in charge of what. The whole process of identifying all the tasks and then splitting them up in a mutually agreed upon way can help move you toward a more balanced system.

Acceptance: It's Not Fair

It has taken me years of co-parenting and raising three children to accept an important truth that I tell my children daily: It's not fair. My children relentlessly pester me when I attempt to work from home; they do not do the same to my husband. I take charge of all school forms and medical appointments; he steps up for any home maintenance problems that arise, from replacing light bulbs to navigating home insurance from storm damage. My husband and I have made tremendous strides from those totally disorienting years of raising young children when I felt similarly to you. We have struck more balance in our domestic duties, but part of finding a sense of peace with it was accepting that it's not going to be an even 50/50 split. Parenting and life is simply too messy for that to be possible.

The Bottom Line

You are only two years into being parents, so you are also a bit like toddlers in your stage of parent development: some grown-up tantrums are expected and allowed as you learn this new, complicated set of skills! The keys to continuing to develop confidence, and even some calm, however, are to keep having the tough talks with each other, keep trying new ways to make it work better, and accept a certain level of chaos and lack of balance. Parenting is a seesaw that never stops tipping one way or another, but if you keep working at it, you can at least enjoy the ride with each other.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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