How moms can share the parenting load — and why it’s crucial we do
As a stay-at-home mom, I somehow became the CEO of my household. This means I often make major decisions while also managing daily operations. Of course, my husband would be the first to say he’s happy to help, but the word “help” really makes it sound optional, doesn’t it?
It’s not unusual for moms to end up carrying the bulk of the load it takes to raise a family and run a household, according to Jancee Dunn, journalist and author of “How to Not Hate Your Husband After You Have Kids.” Moms often find themselves in charge of everything, including the job of delegating individual tasks to their partner.
Carrying all the responsibility and all the emotional weight that comes with it is exhausting, especially when your kids are little.
“You’re not sleeping. You’re not eating right,” says Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., former clinical therapist, neuroscientist and author of “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.” “You probably don’t have time or energy to exercise.”
This kind of physical exhaustion, says Barrett, can take a toll on mom’s mental and emotional health — which, in turn, can affect her partner relationship.
“We influence each other’s feelings and emotions in a myriad of ways,” says Barrett. “But if you have a supportive relationship, your partner can help you to avoid global despair in moments when you feel you don’t have the resources.”
So how can moms learn to ask for and, yes, even expect this kind of support from their partners long before their resources are tapped? We talked to experts about the most common ways we find ourselves overloaded. For each situation, they offer concrete strategies that can help us even out the parenting load.
Problem #1: Mom does everything
According to the Pew Research Center, the physical work of raising kids and running a household is more likely to fall on mom, even if both parents are working. A new study published in American Sociological Review found the same is true of mental load (what this team of researchers call “intellectual labor”). While men participate equally in making decisions, these researchers say, the invisible work of anticipating our family’s needs, identifying options for filling them and monitoring progress disproportionately burdens us mothers.
In my household, I often struggle to keep it all running smoothly. When I drop one of the many balls I’m juggling, I sometimes feel like a failure. When I somehow manage to do it all, I’m too tired to spend meaningful time with my family, especially my husband, who I can begin to resent.
The expert’s advice: Divvy it up!
Don’t assume it’s all your job or behave as if your partner is doing you a favor by “helping” when he swoops in at the end of a long decision-making process to offer his two cents. Instead, experts suggest both parents take responsibility for their own list of tasks, start to finish.
“In our house, Tom does the field trips,” says Dunn. “I take the kid when she's sick. He arranges playdates with half of my daughter's friends. I do the other half. It's not sexy to divvy stuff up in a businesslike way, but it stops resentment.”
Barrett agrees and adds that it’s important to have a plan for who handles what in advance.
“It’s hard [to regulate your emotions] in moments of duress,” Barrett says — like when the bake sale is tomorrow and no one’s looked up a recipe, bought ingredients or baked.
Problem #2: Mom always knows best
Ask any mom: Not only do we get the job done, but we get it done right. Of course, by assuming you’re the only parent who can do everything “right,” you’re also setting ourselves up to do everything on our own.
Dunn says “maternal gatekeeping” is when moms limit or close off the father's involvement.
“I rarely let my husband change a diaper or bathe our baby because I felt like I did a better job,” she says. “Well, I never allowed him to learn how! That was my fault, for sure.”
The expert’s advice: Hand over the reins.
Even if your partner doesn’t do the job the same way you’d have done it, as long as it’s done, says Dunn, that’s good enough.
“It doesn't take a Ph.D. to load and unload the dishwasher,” Dunn says.
And the same goes for most of the typical, everyday child care duties. In other words, trust that he’ll figure it out. If he’s in charge of replacing your child’s wardrobe, for example, “don't hover over him. Let him choose everything,” Dunn says.
While you may think women are simply better at certain tasks than men, experts like Barrett say this is untrue.
“The stereotype is that women are more emotionally intelligent than men,” says Barrett. “Women believe this, and men believe this, too. But when you follow people in everyday life, you don’t find sex differences. People are different, but there are no general differences between men and women.”
Problem #3: Mom never takes a break
The good news: According to Pew Research, dads are doing more parenting, nearly tripling the time they spent with their children from two and a half hours a week in 1965 to seven hours a week in 2011.The bad news is moms are spending more time with their children, too — up from 10 hours per week in 1965 to 14 hours per week in 2011. Those hours can feel even longer when your infant stops sleeping or your 3-year-old begins exhibiting challenging toddler behaviors, and you’re the only one dealing with these changes.
The expert’s advice: Try “strategic absence.”
In her book, “Forget Having It All: How America Messed Up Motherhood and How to Fix It,” journalist Amy Westervelt suggests “strategic absence” as a way of equalizing the invisible load that often falls on mom. The term, which originally comes from the work of researcher and motherhood expert Petra Bueskens, Ph.D., refers to periods of time when mom is not available.
“This is easier to do if mother has work that requires travel but can be planned, as well,” Westervelt writes.
For example, you might visit a long-distance friend, sign up for a weeklong meditation retreat or simply commit to a yoga class that meets several nights a week.
According to Bueskens, periodic maternal absences generate a “structural and psychological shift in the family,” shifting the default position typically assigned to moms and requiring fathers take on a much more active role.
“No longer simply following orders, fathers/partners found a new pattern of household organization suited to their own personalities and pace,” Bueskens writes.
Not only do periodic absences give mom a much-needed break, you’re also teaching your kids that domestic chores are not gendered. Westervelt writes that swapping roles ensures “it’s every bit as normal for dad to make a meal as mom, every bit as normal for dad to pick them up after school, get them dressed in the morning, make their lunches, give them a bath and so forth.”
Problem #4: Mom stuffs her feelings
At the end of a long day, the last thing you want is an argument with your partner — so moms may find themselves holding their tongue. But according to a 2018 study on parental burnout, intensifying frustration and irritation as a result of over-investment in one’s parenting role can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and loneliness, as well as intense physical and emotional fatigue, unbonding with one’s children and even a break with one’s sense of self.
The expert’s advice: Make time to open up.
“It’s very tiring and it feels like a lot of effort,” says Barrett, but developing the ability to articulate your emotions is crucial for our mental and physical health. “Practice in moments when you have more energy.”
In other words, rather than bringing issues up to your partner at 4:30 a.m. when your toddler’s refusing to sleep, table deep conversations until you can speak calmly with your partner — perhaps on the weekend and hopefully when your child is napping and you’re both more relaxed.
Dunn, too, recommends regularly scheduled family meetings as the time and place to air grievances in a productive way.
“I [feel] less stressed by asking [my husband] to help, delegating and having family meetings than I am silently fuming,” Dunn says.
The bottom line
Parenting is hard work. But if you have a partner, the experts say, you should not feel like you’re doing it all on your own.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and resentful because you’re carrying more than your fair share, Dunn suggests you start by exploring the deeper reasons for the conflict. First, ask yourself: “Are you not asking him [to pitch in], or does he not do it when you ask?” Then, Dunn suggests, “Sit down one Saturday and go over every single thing you do, from the ground up, and see what you can put on his plate.”
Barrett reminds overwhelmed moms to consider the big picture effects on your health.
“We tend to mentalize everything and turn it into a psychological event,” Barrett says. “Your brain is basically running a budget for your body and trying to keep the systems in balance to keep you healthy.”
When you’re physically worn down this creates an opportunity to make a lot of negative emotions, Barrett says.
“But sometimes you feel like crap, not because anything is psychologically or socially wrong,” she says. “There are times you’re just fatigued.”
To counter these effects, “Make sleep a priority,” Barrett says, “and show yourself — and your partner — some compassion.”
Barrett also says that during her daughter’s younger years, she and her husband made a commitment to be a team, share the mental load of parenting and respect each other’s boundaries. When things got tough, she says, “we were both in our misery together.”
Some days shared misery is what the role of parenting with a partner can be all about, and if you can weather those together, your relationship may be all the better for it.
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