How modern couples can avoid the gender role traps after baby

It’s a surprise to many modern couples just how insidious traditional gender roles can still be – most especially after the birth of your first baby.

There you are, both working your own careers, paying the bills together, dividing up the housework, feeling pretty good about the equitable relationship you’ve negotiated for yourself.  Most of the younger couples I work with today expect this kind of marital arrangement – one that is not beholden to outdated ideas about what their gender prescribes.

And then the baby arrives.  Research clearly shows that upon having children, women still do more housework and childcare than men, even when they both work paid jobs (and even when the woman makes more money).

Wait… what just happened?! 

Nothing activates traditional gender roles like becoming parents.  There’s a lot to be said about why this happens, but let’s dive in now to what we can do about it.

(Research shows that same-sex couples tend to divide tasks more equally initially, but that once baby arrives, child and home-related tasks tend to be taken on by the lower earner.)

  1. Be picky about the habits you create early on

The habits you establish in the first months and years as parents will be harder to break down the road, so be thoughtful about these choices.  Yes, it may be easier in the short run for you to be the one to put your child to sleep, and maybe your child even prefers it that way, but is that an arrangement you’ll be happy about one, five, or ten years down the line?

Women don’t step in to do these things because we are inherently controlling.  Women are set up to do these things – by and large, women still spend more time on leave after the birth of their baby than men, so they naturally become more comfortable with and knowledgeable of childcare tasks than their husbands.

However, these are skills that anyone is capable of learning.  The first time your husband is in charge of bedtime, will it be more stressful for everyone involved?  Of course.  But you are investing in less resentment in the long run.  Make a conscious effort in the beginning to take turns, particularly with the tasks that are a repetitive, fundamental aspect of your lives such as bedtime, bath time, planning meals, and feeding babies and toddlers.  This way, you’ll both be equipped with the skills you need to create habits intentionally rather than by default.

  1. Empower your partner.

Hear me out.  Women’s experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum are unique, difficult, and deserve their own support.  However, our culture has come a much longer way towards empowering women to be leaders than men to be caregivers, which hurts us all.

Have you tried finding a “dads group” on Facebook?  There’s probably one for every city versus a moms group for every zip code.  Men get very little cultural support around becoming involved, attuned dads who are familiar with the mundane details of parenting.

This means you must lovingly and firmly insist on him growing those skills and look for ways to help (Note: I said help, not take full responsibility for).  Here are just a few ideas:

  • Make decisions together – this means anything from sleep schedules to when to introduce solids
  • In addition to alternating who does the frequent tasks of parenting, alternate who does the less frequent tasks of parenting (buying gifts or changing out summer/winter clothes)
  • If you’re breastfeeding, and if this works for you and your family, consider bottles as a way to give the non-breast feeding partner an opportunity to bond and take ownership over feeding
  1. Beware your own patriarchal thinking.

My second daughter spent some time in the NICU after her birth.  One day, I joked to my husband, “Now you know how I feel whenever we are talking to a contractor or salesman.”  Everyone in the hospital addressed information and questions to me. There was one chair available by her bed.  He was treated as a bystander even though he was actively involved in all decisions and spent as much time there as me.

I share this story to illustrate how patriarchal thinking (dividing the world between “women’s business” and “men’s business”) is sneaky and shows up almost everywhere.  We live and breathe it, and none of us are immune to it.

There are two different ways this can show up in relationships.  The first is when we don’t realize our own expectations are based on traditional gender roles (i.e., she assumes he’ll handle the yardwork).  The second is when we devalue our own caregiving due to living in a culture that does the same (i.e., he worked a long day today, so she feels guilty asking him to do bath time – even though her day with the kids was also long).

It’s perfectly fine if you want to handle the laundry while he handles yardwork, but make sure this is something you’ve decided actively together.  On the flip side, caregiving is an important, 24/7 job, and dads don’t “help out” or “babysit” – you both parent, all the time.

  1. Frequently re-evaluate your roles and expectations.

This is a constant, always evolving process once you become parents.  Frankly, traditional roles made dividing family life simpler.  It was clear who was in charge of bills and who was in charge of finding a babysitter.  Without traditional gender roles as a guide, the roles and expectations of family life have to be negotiated explicitly.  What works for you when your child is a baby will change once that baby is in middle school or when one of you changes jobs.

Many couples benefit from having time weekly to check-in both about who’s doing what and how well each partner is feeling supported.  This is a great way to combat benign neglect that can accidentally lead to resentment and disconnection over time.

Yes, traditional roles allowed us to bypass some of this tricky negotiating, but equitable partnerships are worth this effort – and our kids will benefit from the example we set.  If you’re struggling, please remember our culture sets all of this up to be very hard – be gentle with each other and we’re here to help when you need it.

Rebecca Freking, IMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. She received her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from The Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.

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