As I write this story, my 4-year-old’s preschool has been closed for two days due to a snowstorm. So she’s home on a weekday, along with her baby sister. But I’m squirreled away in our home office, typing furiously, while my husband, Dan (currently on paternity leave), changes diapers, supervises art time, and makes the nap schedule happen. When the roads are finally plowed, he takes the girls to the grocery store to replenish our dwindling supplies from the shared list we sync on our phones. When they’re back, I pop down to do lunch so he can shovel our steps and grab a shower. “Three people told me I was a hero,” he reports of their shopping expedition. We laugh. We both know nobody has ever congratulated me—or any mom—for being with my kids and buying milk at the same time.
This is the paradox of modern parenting. We’ve moved past the era of moms doing everything by default. Dads want to take a more active role: About two thirds of young fathers say they should share caregiving equally, according to research by the Boston College Center for Work and Family. However, only 30 percent of those surveyed are actually able to pull it off.
That’s because even when both partners are hands-on parents, moms still handle more of the “mental load.” We make the doctor’s appointments, research summer camp, and call the mom of that classmate who keeps fighting with our kid. “We can calculate the time spent on physical tasks like cleaning the bathroom, but it’s much harder to quantify how many hours go toward this kind of cognitive labor,” says Sheryl Ziegler, Psy.D., a psychotherapist in Denver and author of Mommy Burnout. Speaking as someone who recently spent half a day filling out kindergarten registration forms, I can say: It’s a lot. Why are these kinds of logistical parenting tasks so much harder to divvy up fairly? And how do we move the needle on this? To find out, I talked to experts and families who are already doing just that.
Katie and Jeremy Bower, of Loganville, Georgia, spent their first four years of parenthood with a fairly traditional setup: He commuted an hour each way to his job as an account manager, while she stayed home with their two sons and brought in a little extra income by writing her blog, Bower Power. But after Jeremy was laid off in 2013, they realized that if he started consulting and ran the blog’s business side to make it more profitable, that could support their family. “It was an eye-opener,” says Jeremy. “I didn’t realize how hard it is for whoever stays home.”
Like many less-involved parents, he hadn’t been able to see everything he wasn’t doing. And that wasn’t entirely his fault. “Our culture maintains this hazy misunderstanding about the difficulty of parenting and the amount of strategy and intellectual effort that goes into that work,” says Lisa Huebner, Ph.D., associate professor of women’s and gender studies at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. This is especially true of “mental load” tasks, like finding a piano teacher or Googling the best way to remove a stain.
But most chores have intellectual components as well—after all, someone has to decide when to start giving the baby solid food—and Jeremy admits it took a while for him to appreciate all the thought Katie had already put into figuring out how to do various tasks. And she says it was hard not to impose her standards on everything he did.
Now parents of five, the couple decided he would take over most of the morning duties—waking up with the boys and getting them breakfasted and ready for the day while Katie nursed their baby, Ella. “I write blog posts at night when the house is quiet, so not having to be up early with the boys anymore was huge,” she says. “But I had to let him run the mornings his way. I’ve realized it’s okay if the boys aren’t wearing ironed clothes or if he doesn’t load the dishwasher while they eat breakfast just because that’s when I always got it done.”
Katie struggled to give up that control because, as she says, “I was used to being the boss, and the house was my domain.” Researchers call this phenomenon “maternal gatekeeping.” It’s very common, but it’s also counterproductive, since the other partner is unlikely to embrace doing a chore if he thinks he’ll never get it right. Women are more likely to gatekeep when they feel their marriage is unstable or they’re struggling with depression or anxiety. However, it also happens because this is one area where we’ve experienced some kind of power, says Dr. Huebner. “Of course, this is a false sense of power because it can make you feel overworked, exhausted, and alone.”
What being the CEO at home really means is you’re the one who gets judged for any mistake. Fathers may get high fives just for making it out the door, but mothers are held to a much higher standard. “There’s both external and internal pressure,” notes E. Michele Ramsey, Ph.D., associate professor of communications arts and sciences and women’s studies at Penn State Berks.
“Am I a ‘bad mom’ because I’m letting him stumble through this process? What will the pediatrician think if I don’t go to every checkup? But men need to learn to muddle through the hard stuff and get better at it, just like women did.”
Many couples cite biology (and the belief that moms are innately better caregivers because we give birth and breastfeed) as the reason they get off on an unequal footing. It’s true that hormones play a role. “Oxytocin, the hormone that fosters bonding, surges during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding,” says Alexandra Sacks, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist at Columbia University. “This may explain why many women feel a pull toward primary caregiving, but studies have shown that oxytocin also rises in partners, such as during skin-to-skin touch with the baby.”
She and other experts argue that it’s less about who has the babies and more about how our differences are reinforced by social expectations and structures. Seventy percent of fathers take fewer than ten days off after the birth of their child, and only 13 percent are paid during that leave, according to the Department of Labor. However, research shows that when dads can take longer paternity leaves, they continue to do a more equal share of the household labor even after they return to work.
Dan and I were lucky enough to be able to take time off work after the births of both our daughters. Since we felt more confident the second time around, we staggered our leaves—and during those first three months, when I was home nursing around the clock while he went to work, I saw just how easy it was to fall into the traditional gender-role trap. “When you’re breastfeeding 18 times a day, you do know your child’s immediate needs better during that time,” Dr. Huebner acknowledges.
That’s something that Jen Sarafin and Erik Johnson, of Kenosha, Wisconsin, are also struggling with right now. “With our first kid, we had gotten into a good groove, but we’ve been feeling out of balance since the second came along because he won’t drink from bottles,” says Erik, who works 50 to 65 hours per week, with a 20-minute commute each way. It’s not just that Jen, currently on maternity leave, does all of the feeding. She ends up changing diapers and soothing the baby more often too. The imbalance has also affected their older son, who developed a strong preference for Dad since Jen was always busy with the baby.
“We let things get too specialized, so now we’re making an effort to switch off when Erik gets home from work every day,” says Jen. He handles the baby’s bedtime routine except the nursing part, which gives Jen time to reconnect with their toddler. And they’re also taking stock of how that one all-consuming role created ripple effects throughout their household: “I noticed the other night that I hadn’t done dishes for two weeks,” Erik admits. He says this wasn’t a conscious choice to dodge chores—just part of the “Jen’s been doing everything” creep.
Same-sex couples also struggle to find the balance. “Since Kelly is our daughter’s biological mother, I tried to overcompensate and do everything else in the beginning,” says Lacey Vorrasi-Banis, of Los Angeles. So while her wife tended to their baby’s direct needs, Lacey took on all of the cleaning, errand running, and dog walking, while continuing to work full-time. “I was insecure and frustrated that I wasn’t getting as much bonding time with Rory, and Kelly felt like she was trapped in the apartment and did nothing but feed.”
Their roles started to shift once Kelly went back to work—and Lacey lost her job. Luckily, by the time Rory was 4 months, they’d secured full-time day care. Now that Rory is 3 and they’re both working, their single-car family has a “group commute.” Spending that regular time together means both moms know the routine at ballet class or doctors’ appointments. “I love that Rory will grow up seeing two parents contributing equally,” says Kelly.
So how do you stop gatekeeping and start thinking of yourselves as equal coparents? The balance—and the breakdown of who does what—will look different for every family. But even if your current jobs or commutes make a true 50-50 split impossible, there are ways to even things out.
Shift to a “Shared” Mindset
This is often the hardest step because you both need to go from thinking of yourselves as “the household CEO” and “the direct report” to being a team. But if you agree this shift needs to happen, committing to it can end scorekeeping over who is changing more diapers or taking out more trash. If you’re the one used to doing everything, recognize that letting go is a process. “There is emotional labor involved in doing the work, but there’s also emotional labor connected to a decision not to do a task—like agreeing to send in premade snacks rather than search Pinterest for a crafty idea,” notes Dr. Ramsey.
Be Honest About Your Strengths and Priorities
Shared parenting works best when everybody can do all the jobs. But it’s okay to divvy up certain ones based on who enjoys them more or does them better—because if you value a task more, you’ll be more frustrated if it doesn’t get done. “You might care what the kid dresses like, and I might care that homework gets done perfectly,” notes Dr. Ziegler. “Couples need to have a discussion about what’s important to them as a family and what’s important to them individually.”
Accept You'll Do Things Differently
Whichever parent is managing a tantrum, fixing a snack, or vacuuming up crumbs gets to do it his or her way. You might worry that subtle differences in your styles will confuse your kids, but this is the norm when divorced couples continue to successfully coparent. “We split the week exactly in half,” says Petra Maxwell, of New York City, who shares custody of her son with her ex-husband. “His dad is much more playful, while I’m much more structured about when homework gets done,” she says. “It was frustrating in the beginning, because I felt I had to be the disciplinarian. But as our son gets older, I can see that he’s gotten a lot of great qualities from his dad and a lot from me.”
Make Peace With Your Choices
“Which emotions come up when you decide to buy those premade snacks?” says Dr. Ramsey. “Or to say, no, I’m not organizing the potluck this year?” You might worry that there will be repercussions from doing less—and, occasionally, there will be, though probably less often than you think. Still, it’s important to talk through it so you can let go of that stress.
Before Petra and her husband divorced, they fought about time management. “I needed time to get my manicure or he needed time to go to the gym. It felt like neither of us ever had enough time,” she says. “The divorce forced us to get better at checking in with each other and respecting each other’s schedules. I wish we’d had those skills earlier on.” The key is to remember there are enough hours to tackle joint tasks and still get time for yourself, because shared parenting creates more pockets of free time for each partner.
“Lacey and I will tell our daughter, ‘Here’s the plan,’ and then we’ll map out the steps of our day,” says Kelly. “It helps Rory know what’s happening next but also keeps us communicating about what needs to be done.” The couple swears by a shared to-do list and calendar (see “There’s an App for That!”), while the Bowers rely on a nightly check-in to go over plans for the next day and divvy up tasks.
Make Shared Parenting Visible
Dan and I realized early on that even though we knew he was an equally involved parent, the world didn’t get it yet. I get the calls about playdates; I’m the one teachers contact to discuss a concern; I’m the one the doctor talks to when he gives instructions about antibiotics. We take these situations as opportunities to highlight our team approach. We have a shared email (email@example.com) that forwards to both of our phones; we use that for all school and other household correspondence. And sometimes we make a point to have Dan be the one to text the babysitter or hang out on a playdate, just to subtly get people used to the idea that yes, he does all that too.
There’s no question that 50-50 parenting involves more compromise and communication than the old-school approach. But it’s also just more … fair. After all, nobody was born with an innate understanding of how to pack a diaper bag or a burning desire to clean the fridge. “We’re both learning,” says Katie. That learning makes us all better partners and parents. And boy, do I appreciate not having to take the kids to the grocery store in the middle of a snowstorm.