“Despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, I have not been able to answer . . . the great question that has never been answered: what does a woman want?” —Sigmund Freud
All Dr. Freud really needed to do was spend a day with a mother of two preschoolers and he would have had his answer: we want a partner, not a helper on the domestic front. We want the gender equality we were raised to expect in our marriages and our parenting. And we’d also like some validation from our husbands to go along with it.
Expectations about Equality
“We had our first kid and almost overnight I felt like I went from being an equal to being the lesser partner in my marriage.” —Becky, married 8 years, 3 kids
“Why am I the only one in the house who knows where the pacifier, diaper wipes, and sippy cups are? Where the hell has he been living for the last three years?” —Rachel, married 6 years, 2 kids
In the course of writing about this topic, we realized women tend to keep score more than their husbands. There are two very good reasons for this:
1. We are blindsided. No matter how much we love being Moms, it’s difficult to reconcile the first thirty (or so) years of our lives, which we spend pursuing education, careers, travel, and all manner of personal and professional fulfillment, with the physical and emotional reality of domesticated motherhood.
2. We wonder what happened to That Whole 50:50 Thing. We expect equality in our marriages, and are surprised when, after the kids arrive, the domestic and childrearing responsibilities, for the most part, fall squarely on our plates, whether we work or not. We feel like our husbands somehow pull a Domestic Bait and Switch.
Our experiences growing up in the swell of the feminist-minded ’70s and ’80s did not prepare us for what we encountered when we became mothers. Most of us grew up in homes where, even if we saw Mom doing most of the household stuff, we were encouraged to excel academically and succeed professionally. The message we got from home and from society was that we could do anything we set our minds to—in school, in sports, in the workforce, in family life. Few, if any, of us (and we say this as a statement of fact, rather than one of judgment) were raised to place much value on the role of housekeeper. While many of us looked forward to one day becoming mothers, we were often surprised to learn that the housedrudgery is inextricably linked to the babies. “Oh, you mean you have to cook for them and clean up after them, too? Well that sucks.”
What’s more, the playing field with boys was, for the most part, totally level. We viewed ourselves as equal to men from a very early age. As a second grader, I gave a third-grade boy a fat lip when he told me boys were better than girls, and that they should have different rules for flag football. Julia, at age nine, bought herself a T-shirt on a family trip to Washington D.C. that read, “A woman’s place is in the House. And the Senate.” Growing up, Cathy always asked for (and got) a biography of a trailblazing, force-to-be-reckoned-with type of woman in her Christmas stocking.
We’d spent our entire lives up to this point sharing basically the same experiences as men—in education and in seeking the challenge and reward of a profession. These experiences shaped our expectations about marriage and parenting. When the three of us met our husbands and got married, we felt like their equals, and our husbands viewed us as such (we asked them again, just to be sure). They liked it that we were independent and opinionated. Our marriages did feel like equal partnerships. We had attained the ideal.
But when we became parents, somehow, the ideal of equality came unraveled. Aside from the few exceptions who’ve achieved the nirvana of co-parenting, most women we talked to were disappointed that the post-child division of labor was not more equal in their marriages, and that the increased volume of work was not more obvious to their husbands. Women don’t understand why the sharing thing is not working out the way they thought it would.
The Working Mother: Having It All?
“I expected to have it all. I didn’t expect to be doing it all.” —Debbie, married 8 years, 2 kids
When a woman remains one half of a dual-income household after becoming a mother (which most do), she wonders why the parenting and housework “buck” stops with her. Most working mothers we spoke with feel, accurately or not, that they are the alpha parent and by default responsible for all things domestic. A far greater percentage of the work created by babies and preschoolers falls on their shoulders. They are ultimately responsible for the children’s day-to-day needs—selecting day cares, making doctor’s appointments, keeping the mental grocery list.
Working mothers feel that they have two full-time jobs: work and motherhood. The motherhood piece is often referred to as the “second shift.” Shift! That’s a euphemism. It’s a round-the-clock, day-in-day-out job. Men, on the other hand, have one full-time job: work, and one part-time job: fatherhood. If the milk supply runs out at dinner, whose fault is it? Hers. She didn’t notice it was running low, and she didn’t stop at the store on her way home. To women that just seems patently unfair. When both spouses are working, why does the lion’s share still lie with her?
Working mothers told us they feel enormously overburdened. Not only must they meet all of their professional and domestic responsibilities, they must also bear the weight of societal and their own personal expectations to “do it all” perfectly.
“If I leave work at 4:00 p.m. to go to a soccer game, people wonder if my desire to be with my kids is compromising my professional responsibilities. If my husband leaves work at 4:00 p.m., people say, ‘Oh, what a great Dad.’ ” —Holly, married 11 years, 3 kids
“The expectations are so high. We are expected to outperform our fathers at work and outperform our mothers at home.” —Pam, married 3 years, 1 kid
The Stay-at-Home Mother: Whiplash
Our friend Janice echoed the disappointment of many formerly equal-status women turned stay-at-home moms when she said, “It’s like his job is more important than my job. In a way, it’s like all this stuff is beneath him now. It’s ‘woman’s work’ and he can’t be bothered. I don’t think he respects me anymore, and that makes me feel awful.”
When a woman decides to stay home after becoming a mother, she often experiences Whiplash—the sensation of hurtling back to the 1950s. When her husband, her supposed equal, moans about having to help, or is constantly looking for the nearest escape hatch every weekend while she is up to her ears in kids and slimy, wet things, it feels like he is the one setting the dial and pushing the button on the time machine.
Most of us are shocked by the Whiplash phenomenon. It can feel like our lives have diverged completely from our husbands’. We may cherish the role of Mother, but we often do not cherish the “mind-numbing monotony” of domestic minutiae. Women tell us that they start to feel their husbands take them for granted after they stay home.
“Sometimes I feel like a stay-at-home slave.” —Brandy, married 8 years, 2 kids (Ouch!)
The Trend Is Our Friend
Over the last ten years, however, we have noticed a positive trend. There is definitely more equality on the home front. Women have been speaking up, and to their credit, men are hearing the message. It’s so important to open up the dialogue and talk about your division of labor and the best way to divvy it up. When you make an Everything List, everything from mopping the floor to earning a paycheck check, and actually see the mountain of work in front of you, it’s much easier to Divide and Conquer.
When it comes to Scorekeeping, it’s not like we’ve fully leveled the playing field, but at least we women don’t feel the need to dunk the ball every chance we get. Men are getting much better at picking up the ball and scoring some key points on their own. In an ideal world, we would do away with the fun and games of Scorekeeping, join forces, and play on the same team… Some day.