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Sharing the Load

Clear Facts
The place to begin is to establish what the facts are. You and your partner may already agree on how the load is shared, but commonly a father feels he is doing more than his wife thinks he does, which sparks recurring quarrels. For example, one study asked dual-earner couples how they handled child rearing tasks, and 43 percent of the men answered "fifty-fifty" - but only 19 percent of their wives agreed.

Therefore, if there is any question about what is actually happening, we suggest that each of you (or you alone, if necessary) track, for at least a few days and ideally for a week, who does what and for how much time. Each day, just jot down how you spent your time. One way to do this easily is on daily copies of a simple form you can create in which the rows are fifteen-minute intervals and the columns are different kinds of activities, such as interacting with a child or doing housework (or both at the same time!); you can create the form by hand or use a spreadsheet. Additionally, you could each make note of the stresses you experienced that day, as well as the sense of responsibility you felt for planning, worrying, and problem solving.

Alternately, each of you could simply list what you did with the kids or household that day. If even that would be overwhelming - since the typical mom does several hundred such tasks daily - make a list for an hour or for a specific part of the day, such as the morning or evening.

At night, compare notes, and see if you can agree on the basic facts of that day without nit-picking whether something took five minutes or ten. At the end of the period, try to agree on what the facts are, plus or minus ten percent. If you can't, consider involving a third party, such as a therapist.

If your partner suddenly becomes an angel once the spotlight is on, you can comment on that. You could also suggest continuing to track time for a few more weeks, which would have one of three outcomes, all of which are good: (1) you might discover that you've had a better partner than you thought; (2) his true colors would be revealed over time if he could not sustain the miraculous transformation; or (3) what started as an exercise in looking good could become a habit.

But in the usual case, people remain more or less true to form, and the results are eye-opening. Rick once worked with a couple in which the mom felt overworked, but the dad thought she was exaggerating because she was mad that he was putting so much time into his hobby of music. They tracked their time for a week and saw in black and white that he averaged one hour of sleep and two hours of personal time more than she each day. He couldn't ignore that difference or justify it, so he started spending more time with their child.

Clear Principles
Even with clear facts, parents can disagree about what they mean. Cultural factors influence our expectations about the proper sharing of roles after children arrive. In some regions of the country, or within certain groups, it is common to find support for a view of family life in which the woman does most of the child care and housework, even if she's employed, and she may defer to her husband in other matters as well.

Psychological factors also determine how we share the load. A father's active involvement with child care depends in part on his enjoyment of parenting, his beliefs about the importance of fathers to children, and his feeling that masculine men can be skillful with little kids. The amounts and kinds of housework he does are shaped by his ideas about the fundamental equality of the sexes. Your psychology influences him, as well, through your expectations and willingness to assert yourself. But speaking your mind can be hard if you:

  • Believe in traditional gender roles
  • Think that making money counts for more than child care or housework, or feel one down in the relationship because he makes more money than you
  • Fear he might leave you or take his anger out on the children
  • Feel guilty about pursuing your own career and try to compensate by going overboard on child care and housework
  • Are embarrassed about asking for help, perhaps thinking it makes you look needy, or that you should have already handled everything on your own
  • Think he'll do it all wrong, or feel territorial about your role

Biology plays a part as well. Men vary in their innate interest in child rearing, much like women do, but to a greater degree. For some perspective, consider that males do next to nothing for their young in ninety-five percent of the mammal species, including the primates that are our close relatives. "Mating effort" - sowing seeds far and wide - is in most species a more effective reproductive strategy for males than "parental investment," the strategy usually used by females for passing on their genes.

In this light, what is remarkable about human fathers is that they do anything at all. Our species seems to have evolved a mixed strategy in which both inclinations - mating effort and parental investment - interact with each other, and the relative weight of each varies from man to man. We make these points about biology not to let fathers off the hook, but to highlight the poignant reality that is the backdrop of many domestic disputes. That way, you can take your partner's natural inclinations less personally - wherever they are in the range of men - and have compassion and respect for the ways he's trying to work with them. The balance of power in a father between mating effort and parental investment is greatly affected by social and psychological factors. He can help himself by spending time with other dads who are deeply involved with their children, participating in groups that support engaged fatherhood - such as religious organizations, Indian Guides, or Cub Scouts - or reflecting on his ethical duty to his children and their mother. He could read about fatherhood, perhaps a book such as Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First by Suzanne Braun Levine. He could apply the same ideals of learning and competence that he lives by at work to his parenting. He might reflect on his relationship with his father, both what he gained from his dad and how he would like to parent in a different way.

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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.

To order this book visit amazon.


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