When Deirdre married Jeffrey, she was sure she found a true partner. She wanted someone who would split childcare and housework 50/50. Over four years of dating and two years of marriage, she and Jeffrey discussed how having an equal partnership was important to both.
“I grew up in a house where my mom and dad both worked,” Jeffrey says. “But my mom definitely took on more of the house and kid stuff, and she was always so much more stressed out. I always vowed that my own wife wouldn’t go through the same thing.”
In the early years of the marriage, the couple split the chores in their Victorian fixer-upper in San Francisco, communicating well and avoiding disagreements.
But then they finally had their first baby, a girl named Inez. And then suddenly, their carefully wrought equality went out the window.
“It was like a grenade went off in our marriage,” Deirdre says.
Parenthood was hard enough, but Deirdre also dealt with Inez’s premature birth, as well as an emergency caesarian section and post-operation complications. Lack of sleep, physical pain, hormones and newborn difficulties — mother and baby had problems establishing breastfeeding — snowballed, and Deirdre slid into postpartum depression, making matters even worse.
Jeffrey watched as his wife struggled, and tried to help out as much as he could. But he only had two weeks’ vacation off to use as paternity leave. Then waking up in the middle of the night to feed Inez a bottle as well as getting up early for work proved difficult.
“Something had to give,” he says. And in their new life, that meant housework. Deirdre was too challenged with her baby, recovery and depression to stay on top of it. Jeffrey was overextended at work and helping with the baby at home, so chores went unattended.
Eventually their newborn developed a semblance of routine, but their house remained messy. This only added to Deirdre’s distress, especially when she too returned to work.
“No matter what I did, I could never get on top of the housework,” Deirdre says. “It was impossible. I’d start something — a load of laundry, or washing the dishes — and then Inez would need attention and I’d have to stop. And then Jeffrey would get home and take over for a few hours, but I felt obliged to use that time to do housework instead of relax like I really wanted. I felt like I never got any rest.”
Deirdre often felt like the only one who cared about housework and actually did it. “I noticed when Jeffrey cared for Inez, he only played, changed and fed her. He got to be the fun, caring parent,” Deirdre says. “I’d come home and the house was a mess but Jeffrey would be sitting in front of the TV while Inez napped in her bassinet. If that were me, I’d take advantage of that window to get something done, not watch a golf tournament on ESPN.”
Deirdre asked Jeffrey to take care of some chores while he was caring for Inez. To her surprise, Jeffrey balked or acted annoyed, and then ignored her requests.
For Jeffrey, taking care of Inez was work enough. “I honestly didn’t know why Deirdre suddenly cared so much about keeping a clean house,” he says. “We were still in a transition period and felt we should cut some slack on the chores. And yes, I wasn’t too keen on doing the cleaning while caring for the baby at the same time — why make something difficult already harder for us to begin with?”
“Before the baby, we had never had any problems splitting the chores,” Deirdre says. “But suddenly Jeffrey was acting like I was being demanding or unreasonable. Like I was a nag, which made me resent asking even more.”
The schism between their two different attitudes towards housework seemed to widen, and resentment crept into their relationship. Deirdre began to wonder if Jeffrey really was the well-intentioned partner she thought he was.
“I thought maybe he was more unconsciously sexist than he realized,” Deirdre says.
Jeffrey, too, felt angry. He wondered “what happened to Deirdre, and who was this Stepford wife who took her place,” he says. “She would either barely speak to me, retreat into her bubble with the baby. When she did speak to me, it would just be demands and orders, not any real conversation like we used to have.”
Jeffrey knew Deirdre was judging him as inadequate, and that made him angry and hurt. Deirdre felt unsupported — and worse, relegated to the role of housewife and home manager, while still having to work fulltime and adjust to being a mom.
“I’d be throwing dinner together while Jeffrey sat at the table and played with Inez, and I would just be hating Jeffrey so much,” Deirdre says. “We looked like this picture of a cute young family, but underneath it all, it felt like a lie. Just as we were supposed to be drawing closer together as a couple and family, I’d never felt so far away from my husband in my life.”
Deirdre and Jeffrey were in the middle of a classic conflict centered on gender roles and division of labor. It goes back to the Victorian era, where women — who once worked as much as men in a more agriculture-based era — were relegated to the domestic sphere, with housework and childrearing as their main job.
Since then, women have expanded beyond the home to include work, hobbies, politics and other activities in their lives. But they have yet to fully escape the expectation that they are primarily responsible for hearth and home. And men have yet to return there — if they ever really played a homekeeping role in the first place.
Now, women work more than ever — in fact, four-of-ten households feature women as the primary breadwinner, according to Pew Research.
But they’re still also primarily handling housework and childcare at home, creating a so-called “second shift,” where they put in as many hours of work at home as they do at their jobs.
According to the Nation, women do three more hours of housework more than men each week — men, however, have three more hours of leisure than women.
And while over half of women will come home from their full-time jobs to do more housework, only one-in-five of men do.
This second shift seems small — “Just three hours a week? It seems much more,” Deirdre says — but it actually costs women significantly.
In the short term, having to deal with a second shift drains women of their time and energy. Researchers found that married women’s levels of cortisol — a stress hormone linked to higher incidences of disease and death — were higher than their husbands’ at the end of the day, due to doing more second-shift work, according to the Los Angeles Times.
However, if their partners pitched in with the housework, their cortisol levels were significantly lower, allowing their bodies and mind to better recover from a full day’s work and stress.
And in the long run, the second shift can curtail a woman’s career trajectory. Many often take on part-time work or easier jobs that they are overqualified for in order to better manage their responsibilities at home. But this means that women never quite reach the earning and career potential they may want or deserve, partially contributing to the much-debated pay gap between men and women.
Deirdre knew she was working a second shift at home, and she resented it.
“I had spent so much time and effort with Jeffrey to avoid the situation, and we both knew how it was important to me,” Deirdre says. “And yet somehow I found that we had fallen into this pattern, despite all our best intentions. There were some days when I was so bleary-eyed with fatigue that I’d look over at Jeffrey and just hate him because he just didn’t seem to be doing as much as me.”
At some point, Deirdre knew she needed outside help, and not just with the housework.! She started seeing a therapist for her postpartum depression and skyrocketing stress. The psychologist suggested they see a marriage counselor for a few weeks to work on their communication issues.
Seeing the marriage counselor helped the couple to see the unspoken assumptions that underlined their thoughts and behavior.
Part of the problem was how Deirdre and Jeffrey defined “work” differently in terms of childcare and housework. For Jeffrey, diapering, feeding and caring for a baby was work enough, and he was surprised Deirdre expected him to do more when he was with the baby.
Deirdre pointed out, however, that when she cared for the baby, she often multitasked, throwing a load of laundry into the washing machine before feeding Inez, for instance.
Jeffrey didn’t want to multitask, but Deirdre felt like she was doing all the work. She felt like she had to do the housework “because otherwise when would it ever get done?” she asked.
When the couple realized where they differed, they more easily hashed out a solution. Jeffrey took time everyday to do some more housework, creating a routine so he could care for their baby without “trying to cram everything in,” he says. This enabled Deirdre to do less housework — and more importantly, freed her up from “managing” Jeffrey — so she could feel less stressed and more focused on the baby.
“It worked a lot better for all of us,” Jeffrey reports. “Deirdre felt less frazzled and seemed happier. And both of us felt more connected and bonded to Inez, because we were better able to focus on caring for her instead of multitasking.”
The couple also realized they had overlooked a key component of domestic work when portioning out chores and duties. The counselor had both Deirdre and Jeffrey keep what researchers call “time-use” diaries, tracking how they spent their time, particularly on domestic tasks.
When they compared their diaries, they both realized they performed childcare tasks like diapering and feeding. Both also did housework-related tasks like diapering, grocery shopping, yardwork and dishes.
But Deirdre also included more “admin” tasks of running a household, such as researching nearby daycare centers, negotiating with their health insurance, coordinating schedules, shopping lists and errands.
“I was doing most of that grunt work,” Deirdre says. “And there was a significant amount of it, too. No wonder I was so resentful and stressed out — it was like I was managing a whole other job. Interestingly enough, I didn’t even think of it as part of the work — I just took it on automatically, one task at a time, until suddenly I was doing everything in addition to working full-time and caring for Inez.”
Jeffrey didn’t realize how hard it was to run a household until he saw the “invisible” work Deirdre did. “I had no idea just how much time Deirdre put in to make everything run smoothly,” Jeffrey says. “Like the daycare — I really didn’t realize it how long it took to find a day care, put together the application and then register once we did get in. Or the hours Deirdre spent on the phone with insurance. I just assumed, I guess, all that it kind of pulled itself together, but Deirdre actually put in that groundwork.”
In fact, much of the still uneven distribution of domestic work between men and women in a family involves so-called admin work. Things like school applications, summer camp research, and simply coordinating the family calendar take up more and more time and are more complex nowadays — and it falls primarily on women still, who become the defacto manager/CEO of a family.
It’s not that men don’t do a lot of childcare, but as a 2008 study puts it, according to the New York Times, while men are more likely to coach Junior’s Little League team, it’s the mother who puts in most of the gruntwork to keep it running behind the scenes — work that takes more time and is more stressful and less fulfilling in the long run.
Once they realized just how much admin work Deirdre was doing, the couple agreed to divide it up more evenly. Neither enjoyed doing the bureaucratic and organizational tasks of keeping a family going, but at least both Deirdre and Jeffrey would feel better in the marriage.
Luckily, technology helped both of them coordinate this shared home admin work. Jeffrey found the popular Cozi app, which manages multiple schedules, to-do lists and notes as well as records intimate family moments for all to share.
The app can schedule multiple notifications so that communications and reminders reach both parents, and can be installed on multiple devices so that all members of a family can track and organize appointments, events and lists.
Both Jeffrey and Deirdre found the app to be a “godsend,” according to Jeffrey, and helped them split a lot of the worry work Deirdre had previously taken on. The auto-reminders also helped Deirdre feel like less of a nag, and tensions eased in their communication.
It took discussion, honesty, counseling — and time for baby Inez to start sleeping through the night — but Deirdre and Jeffrey managed to hash out a division of labor that works for both of them.
But the result is a happier marriage for both Deirdre and Jeffrey. It’s less the actual splitting of the chores, both say, than it is the communication and teamwork both put in to solve the problem that creates the closeness.
“We had to clarify what being a happy family and home meant,” Jeffrey says. “What we settled on wasn’t as clean as Deirdre want or as messy as Jeffrey is okay with — but the standard is one we agreed upon together, and it’s meaningful to both of us.”
Deirdre and Jeffrey still hit some blocks, most of which had to do with their own internal attitudes towards gender, work, marriage and family — illustrating that achieving true equality at home will take a lot more than an app to realign and reassess.
Jeffrey learned to manage his reactions when Deirdre asked him to do something. “I had to learn to stop seeing it as nagging,” Jeffrey says. “In fact, I realized that if I wanted it to stop, I had to take some initiative and start doing things without her asking me.” He says it helped to have the app to refer to so he could keep on top of the endless flow of tasks and chores.
For her part, Deirdre had to let go of control and assuming that just because she was the mother, she knew what was best. Sociologists call this attitude “maternal gatekeeping,” which may harken back to a time when women’s only arena of control, power and superiority was the home — and which may explain why many women don’t quite let go of the second shift, even when it’s to their long-term detriment.
“When Jeffrey cooked or cleaned, I had to restrain myself and not impose my way of doing things,” she says. “I also had to learn that we didn’t need to have ten different options of play gyms to order from, but that three to choose from was enough.”
Letting the more laidback Jeffrey handle some admin tasks reduced the cognitive overload Deirdre often felt, and as a result she felt more relaxed, at ease and confident as a parent and a wife.
“I think a lot of women hold themselves up to this perfectionist standard when they become mothers,” Deirdre says. “That we have to do and be it all, and in a certain way. But we need to let go of this internal pressure and ask for what we want and be honest with ourselves and our partners. We can’t just assume equality — we have to make it happen.”
Now both Deirdre and Jeffrey feel as if they are both on the same team, moving towards the same goals together. It’s still a work in progress — and there are still a lot of sleepless nights — but both are more satisfied and happy, and confident that they’re modeling a good partnership for their daughter.
“I want Inez to see both mother and father working together to help one another,” Deirdre says. “I want her to see what it means for a woman to fully participate in the world, and for a man to fully participate at home, and see what kind of teamwork it takes. I don’t want her generation to be still having these same old work-life arguments, but to know what equality feels like — and to expect it as a given.” ♦