Years ago, I was sitting in one of my graduate psychology courses with a male professor who was roughly the age of my parents. He shared that he and his wife, married in the 1970s, had set out themselves to have an equitable partnership, but that after decades together found themselves with a pretty traditional setup. A “he takes out the garbage and she makes the meals” kind of deal. He wasn’t complaining (of course he wasn’t), but rather trying to make a point about the solidity of traditional roles in marriage. You can fight it, he seemed to say, but you won’t win.
I was dating at the time the person who would eventually become my husband, and I remember thinking that the man lecturing us was simply out of touch with how much things had changed in contemporary relationships. His generation had good intentions, I thought, but they didn’t have the progressive landscape that we had.
Even as a young girl, I never really questioned whether I would end up in an equal marriage. I wasn’t necessarily sure I wanted to have children when I was little, and so perhaps the concept of an egalitarian union seemed more feasible (and indeed research shows that it would have been).
What I observed in my parents was two humans who worked outside the home and seemed to be equally mired in the lower middle class stressors of the day. Never enough time. Never enough money.
My mom was the default parent, for sure, but that seemed to be her choice. And having been raised in third-wave feminism, I respected that she seemed to want to be the one to fill that role.
But me? No! I didn’t see being a default parent in my own future. If I had kids at all, I pictured a perfectly 50-50 division of labor. Our workloads would be balanced. Our kids would make requests of our time and energy equally. We’d alternate sick kid pick-ups and cook beautiful meals together in the kitchen, probably while singing songs from Miss Saigon or Evita.
Did I have a concept of how that would happen? Sure. I would just need to find a partner as committed to equality as I was.
I met my husband-to-be at a bar during graduate school. While he was raised in a fairly traditional household, he held progressive views and supported my loud feminist agenda. He was also excited to eventually be a dad, and my own perspective on having children had started to lean in their favor.
Perhaps I should have seen the start of an imbalance building from the time infertility treatments started. I would find myself taking a train and then a bus through the freezing Chicago winter mornings to get blood draws, ultrasounds, medication, and other unpleasant and immodest procedures done several times per week for months on end. He had to go in once or twice to get himself off to porn in the clinic’s special room. Now, I’m sure that this wasn’t the most pleasant experience of his sexual or otherwise life, but it somehow seemed unfair.
As one of infertility’s many costs, the experience took a toll on our connection. I was grieving, resentful, and exhausted from the process; he felt frustrated, sad, and totally helpless. By the time our first IVF baby made his way into the world, I was so grateful and anxious to have this baby in my arms that the only thing that seemed right was to take care of everything. Breastfeeding wasn’t working, and so I took it upon myself to connect with donors around the city who gave us milk. I’d spend hours and hours each week in this unique way of feeding our baby. It could have been something he could do, not requiring breasts and all, but it didn’t even occur to me that I’d not do this for my child. And so it went.
Lest I paint this man as a hapless or uncaring partner, I want you to know that that’s not how I see him at all. He, like the vast majority of his peers, was a really good guy with really good intentions who was – like me – a victim to patriarchal family life.
To be fair to myself and women everywhere, it’s important to say that he benefited much more significantly than me from our culture’s model of domesticity. But in the end, I’m guessing he would have traded some or all of those benefits for a happier partner and a better union.
The problem was that neither of us were really given the choice. We were raised to value the idea of an equal partnership, but left completely clueless about how to implement that.
We were swimming in the water of an old model, and so could barely see the way it was pushing us downstream. With no real tools for creating equity at home, we soon found ourselves with four children under six, two intense careers, and years of the toxicity of inequity chipping away at our connection.
To my chagrin, women in more traditional partnerships – and by that I mean woman as primary home and child caretaker and man as primary earner – tend to report more satisfaction. Before we go quit the jobs we love, let’s try to understand this phenomenon. My take is that while these women certainly don’t have an easy life, they have a life that at least somewhat resembles what they envisioned. They made the choice to have a more traditional arrangement and they remind themselves of this choice during the most trying moments.
What I hear from working moms I know is more like this: “This is not what I signed up for. This is not what I thought it would be like.”
Their visions of everyone happily together leaving for work and school in the mornings with still-warm mugs of coffee in hand have turned out to be no more than fantasies. They are finding themselves in the role they swore they’d never be in – that of the nag. They feel resentful, then guilty for feeling resentful, then irritated at their guilt. And then just fucking tired.
It’s not what how they thought life would be.
We’re starting – quite belatedly – to understand that equal partnerships don’t just happen. Just like in big companies, saying that you value equity and everyone just trying their best doesn’t actually cut it. To counter the intensive forces of millenia of patriarchal partnership, we have to have systems in place, and the tools to support those systems.
Conditioning is extraordinarily powerful, and to overcome it often means doing things that can feel extreme, at least at first. Couples who have much more equitable divisions of labor are sometimes seen as being radical. Because while we think that we know what equality looks like, when it’s in front of us we often mistake it for being “a lot.”
What do couples who have developed the tools for sharing the mental load do differently? While there’s no one formula, research and observation tell me that there a few practices that help a lot.
- They have an explicit system of dividing up household labor (including the “thinking and planning labor” that goes into it, and they hold each other accountable to that system. (FAIR PLAY is a gift to the world and a great one to utilize.)
- Male partners take parental leave – and not just a few days or a week – but an extended time of being alone with baby.
- Female partners work to address their own conditioning that ends up devaluing their partner’s contributions and making themselves the default partner or parent.
- They have the self-assurance to not let others’ opinions or the dominant culture throw them off track.
- They don’t allow weaponized incompetence to fly, recognizing that not knowing how to do it isn’t a reason for the other person to continue doing it indefinitely.
- They address neurodivergences and don’t use them as an “excuse” for perpetuating practices that aren’t working.
- They cultivate a partnership outside of domestic tasks so that they aren’t seeing each other simply as co-managers of a household, but as friends, lovers, and humans.
There are a lot of good guys out there. There a lot of good guys who have good hearts and good intentions. There are far fewer guys who have been empowered with the toolkit to create equal partnerships. If we care about marriage, mental health, or justice, we’ll help build a world where we all have these tools available.