Sharing the Load

The amount of mental and physical work required to raise a family is staggering, whether it's painting your baby's bedroom or – 18 years later – helping her pack for college. Without supportive communities, the work of raising children mainly lands on Mom and Dad, pushing them into Condition Yellow even when they have a strong partnership. If either does less than his or her share, the other one is shoved toward Condition Red: more to do, less time to sleep or eat right, more guilt over not keeping every ball in the air, more dismay and resentment and anger. Compounding things, the parent who is dropping one end of the log may have the audacity to wonder, "Why don't we ever talk/go to the movies/make love anymore?"

Many couples share with equality the work of making a family, handling Condition Yellow with tenacity, skill, and grace. But that's the exception, and the rule tilts mainly against women, as the following list shows.

  • Tasks. The average mother works altogether 15 to 20 hours more per week than the father of her children, whether or not she is drawing a paycheck. It's not hard to get there: an hour in the morning, an hour at night, a few hours on each weekend day ... it adds up pretty fast. Even when a mother makes as much or more money than her husband, typically she still does more housework and child care. And he'd be hard pressed to say he's pulling more weight on the job: studies have shown that women usually clock more minutes on-task at work than men do.
  • Emotion work. This part of making a family may not look like much on the outside, but it is often the most draining. It includes settling squabbles between siblings, worrying about a fever that won't break, or comforting a child who's being picked on at preschool. Women do most of the emotion work in families, much as they do in relationships in general. For instance, when both parents are in the room, it is the mother who is more likely to be emotionally available to their child, rather than off in another world going over the bills, reading the paper, or watching TV.
  • Stresses. Tending to young children is more stressful than most jobs. If Mom stays home while Dad goes off to work, her day is usually more stressful than his. When both parents are home, even if each of them spends about the same amount of time doing tasks, the mother typically does the high-stress ones while the father does more peaceful projects he can schedule at will and carry to completion. And when there is nothing left for her to do, a mother often feels stressfully vigilant and on call at a moment s notice, while her husband is more likely to do his tasks and then relax.
  • Responsibilities. Children live in your heart and weigh on your mind. The consequences of your decisions can be monumental: literally, the health and welfare of an innocent child. For all the advances in the workplace for women over the past thirty years, little has changed at the "board of directors" level in most families: it is still usually Mom, not Dad, who does most of the planning, worrying, and problem solving about the children. It's lonely at the top of the typical family.

These inequities impact the children: Studies have shown that fathers who are less involved tend to have kids who are less responsible, less able to solve problems, less confident, and have lower self-esteem. Inequities also eat away at a marriage, reducing the satisfaction of each spouse. And they deplete a mother, increasing her stress, giving her less time to recharge her batteries, and lowering her mood; for instance, lack of help from the father exposes a working mother to more stress than any other factor. As one mother told Jan: I did all the planning and organizing for Sammy's birthday, thinking that Bob would help out during the party itself. But no, he stood around the whole time talking with his buddies while I raced around doing everything, except for when he cut the cake and then looked at me like he deserved some kind of reward! I want someone who doesn't need me to stamp my feet to get some help, who takes initiative with the kids and the house, whose mind is not elsewhere all the time. Somebody who does things because he wants to do his share, not just to get me off his back. I need to feel like I have another half.

Lapses in sharing the load aren't good for a father, either. Avoiding the nitty-gritty tasks of tending to young children - like getting them dressed - usually makes a father feel less connected, competent, or satisfied with parenthood.

It is fine to do different things, such as Mom puts in a load of laundry while Dad gives a bath. But significant unfairness poisons the well of a family. The why of sharing the load fairly is clear. The real question is how.


From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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