optimistic tale of the modern, involved dad has been greatly
exaggerated. The amount of child care men performed rose throughout the
1980s and ’90s, but then began to level off without ever reaching parity. Mothers still shoulder 65 percent of child-care work. In academic journals, family researchers caution that the “culture of fatherhood” has changed more than fathers’ actual behavior.
Sociologists attribute the discrepancy between mothers’ expectations and reality to “a largely successful male resistance.”
This resistance is not being led by socially conservative men, whose
like-minded wives often explicitly agree to take the lead in the home.
It is happening, instead, with relatively progressive couples, and it
takes many women — who thought their partners had made a prenatal
commitment to equal parenting — by surprise. Why are their partners
failing to pitch in more?
answer lies, in part, in the different ways that men and women
typically experience unfairness. Inequality makes everyone feel bad.
Studies have found that people who feel they’re getting away with
something experience fear and self-reproach, while people who feel
exploited are angry and resentful. And yet men are more comfortable than
women with the first scenario and less tolerant than women of finding
themselves with the short end of the stick. Parity is hard, and this
discrepancy lays the groundwork for male resistance.
many men are in denial about it, their resistance communicates a
feeling of entitlement to women’s labor. Men resist because it is in
their “interest to do so,” write Scott Coltrane and Michele Adams,
leaders in the field of family studies, in their book, “Gender and
Families.” By passively refusing to take an equal role, men are
reinforcing “a separation of spheres that underpins masculine ideals and
perpetuates a gender order privileging men over women.”
interviewing working parents for a book on parenthood, I spoke with one
dad in Vermont who said: “The expectation among my male friends is
still that they will have the life they had before having kids. My dad
has never cooked a meal. I’ve strayed from that.
But subconsciously, the thing that makes you motivationally step up and
do something when you’re not being asked …” he trailed off, and then
said: “I have justifications. It’s a cop-out.”
love out of the equation and focus on the workplace, and it’s clear how
this plays out. Studies show that male employees sit back while their
female co-workers perform the tasks that don’t lead to promotion. In a
series of lab studies, the economists Lise Vesterlund, Linda Babcock and
Maria Recalde and the organizational behaviorist Laurie Weingart found that in coed groups, women are 50 percent more likely than men to volunteer
to take on work that no one else wants to do. But in all-male groups,
the men volunteer just as readily.
In an interview with NPR,
Dr. Vesterlund explained that the women do the work “because they’re
expected to.” The men “come into the room, they see the women, they know
how we play these games.”
the same games at home. I interviewed couples separately and found that
the women were often angry, while many men didn’t seem to realize there
was a problem.
couples offered three explanations for this labor imbalance. The first
was that women take over activities like bedtime, homework and laundry
because men perform these tasks inadequately. But this isn’t “maternal
gatekeeping,” the theory that men want to help but women disparage their
capabilities and push them out. Instead these seem to be situations
that necessitate the intervention of a reasonable adult.
mother in California said: “It’s important to me that my sons are not
falling asleep in class and that they’re not late for school. My husband
does not share those priorities, so I do bedtime and school drop-off.”
dad in Vermont explained: “I do laundry when I need it. When it comes
to the kids’ laundry, I could be more proactive, but instead I operate
on my time scale. So my wife does most of their laundry. Let me do it my
way and I’m happy to do it, but if you’re going to tell me how to do
it, go ahead and do it yourself.”
second explanation involved forgetting or obliviousness. A mother in
Illinois said: “My husband is a participatory and willing partner. He’s
not traditional in terms of ‘I don’t change diapers.’ But his attention
is limited.” She added, “I can’t trust him to do anything, to actually
A dad in San Francisco
said that many of the tasks of parenting weren’t important enough to
remember: “I just don’t think these things are worth attending to. A
certain percentage of parental involvement that my wife does, I would
see as valuable but unnecessary. A lot of disparity in our participation
Finally, some men blamed
their wives’ personalities. A San Diego dad said his wife did more
because she was so uptight. “She wakes up on a Saturday morning and has a
list. I don’t keep lists. I think there’s a belief that if she’s not
going to do it, then it won’t get done.” (His wife agreed that this was
true, but emphasized that her belief was based on experience: “We fell
into this easy pattern where he learned to be oblivious and I learned to
A father in Portland,
Ore., confirmed that his wife takes on more but said: “It has to do with
her personality. She always has to stay busy. No matter what day of the
week it is, she has a need to be engaged, to be doing something.”
mothers told me they had tried to change this and had aired their
grievances with their partners, only to watch as nothing changed. A
mother in Queens said she spent three years trying to get her husband to
do more before coming to terms with the fact that maybe it was never
going to happen. “He notices the unfairness, but he just accepts it as
something we have a disagreement about,” she said. “How much convincing
of the other person can you do?”
this comes at a cost to women’s well-being, as mothers forgo leisure
time, professional ambitions and sleep. Wives who view their household
responsibilities “as unjust are more likely to suffer from depression than those who do not,” one study says. When their children are young, employed women (but not men) take a hit to their health as well as to their earnings
— and the latter never recovers. Child-care imbalances also tank
relationship happiness, especially in the early years of parenthood.
of labor in the home is one of the most important gender-equity issues
of our time. Yet at the current rate of change, MenCare, a group that
promotes equal involvement in caregiving, estimates that it will be about 75 more years before men worldwide assume half of the unpaid work that domesticity requires.
anything is going to change, men have to stop resisting. Gendered
parenting is kept alive by the unacknowledged power bestowed upon men in
a world that values their needs, comforts and desires more than
women’s. It’s up to fathers to cop to this, rather than to cop out.