Despite having made an agreement pre-baby with my husband, Charlie, to do an even, fifty-fifty share of our parenting responsibilities, I found myself doing more like a seventy-thirty share post-baby. I felt frustrated and confused, with a healthy splash of resentment. How did this happen? Yes, he was changing his fair share of diapers, but I was doing that and a whole lot more: I was making sure we had enough diapers around to change, plus I was putting a lot of energy into gathering recommendations for sleep schedules—and when and how to introduce solid foods, as well as signing us up on daycare waiting lists. I was also finding and buying the best swaddles; doing all the breastfeeding and pumping, with all that entailed (Hello, handwashing pump parts way too many times a day!); and handling all the other forms of invisible labor that come with parenting.
However, it wasn’t until it came time to book a sitter that the inequity really hit me. It was the week before Charlie and I were going on our first date night since Jude had arrived in our lives, and I was sitting in my office. I was thinking about how much fun it would be to enjoy a margarita and some tacos at our favorite local haunt. But then my heart sank as I realized it was on me to book the sitter. At that point, I had done all the intel, found possible sitters, interviewed them, and booked some for work-related occasions. I was their only point of contact. Sitting there in my office, booking a sitter for our first date night felt like just about the most unromantic thing I could think of.
Instead of calling a sitter, I called Charlie.
“Hi babe!” he said, his usual cheery self.
“I’m not feeling like much of a babe,” I said, knowing that ideally this was a conversation to have in person. But Charlie and I have put a lot of work into our ability to communicate, and sometimes things can’t wait, so I continued, “I’m actually feeling pretty pissed.”
“Okay,” he said. “Let me sit down. I wanna give you my full attention. What’s up?”
So, I explained: “I don’t want to be the sitter czar. I don’t want to have to track your work schedule and my work schedule, and then book sitters whenever we need them. And I don’t want to book a sitter for our first date night! I thought we agreed to do fifty-fifty parenting, and my experience is that we’re not.”
I could sense Charlie listening carefully. After a second, he said, “I want to make sure I’ve got this correct. You’re upset because you’re in charge of arranging childcare when we need it?”
“Yes. And I’m in charge of finding a dentist for Jude and figuring out solid foods and so many things. It’s not feeling like we’re in this equally. I believe I’m doing more.”
“Thanks for telling me,” Charlie said. “I could feel you getting testy and irritated with me lately. Now I know why. Let’s do something about this. Let’s figure out how to make it fifty-fifty. That’s what I want, too.”
We agreed to talk in greater depth that evening, and by the end of that conversation, we had finessed our redistribution of labor. I was no longer the sitter czar, and never have been again.
I know from my experience as a couples therapist that the kind of scenario Charlie and I found ourselves in is not unusual. In fact, it could have almost been expected. Despite a generational shift that has made parenting responsibilities more of a shared adventure between partners, biology and entrenched cultural norms still influence parents to rely on mothers to do more than their fair share. The biology cannot be redistributed (moms will always be birthing babes and nursing if they can or choose to), but the labor can be made visible and redeployed.
The fundamentals a couple need in order to move toward more equitable parenting are: 1) the willingness to change, and 2) the willingness to have the hard conversations. In particular, you and your partner may find these steps helpful:
1. Make a list of all the parenting duties each of you is already performing. This list should be exhaustive: every Amazon order, every phone call, every Google search, every time you ping a friend with a parenting query. Every single thing! Tag which one (or both) of you does each thing.
2. Based on your list, have a direct and honest conversation about the degree of equity you have currently achieved. Listen with an open mind to each other’s assessment of how equitable (or not) things are. You don’t necessarily need to have arrived at the same assessment; the most important thing is to respect each other’s feelings and share the commitment to move closer to a distribution of responsibilities you can both feel comfortable with.
3. Now it’s time to share. Go through your list again, with an eye to who could do more and who could do less. Consider creative ways to divvy up your duties. For example, if you’re breastfeeding, perhaps your partner can handle the pump cleaning and milk storage and take on some nighttime feedings. Continue to work your way through the list, seeing how close to a fifty-fifty distribution you can get. If you don’t want a fifty-fifty split, that’s fine! Just do whatever feels equitable to you both.
4. Finally, make an agreement to carry out the responsibilities you’ve agreed on. In my experience, having a formal agreement makes follow-through more likely. And if you run into any challenges down the road, you have something concrete to come back to.
Of course, this agreement isn’t set in stone: consider it—like your relationship in general—to be a work in progress. From diapers to daycare and beyond, the great adventure of parenting will continue to give you opportunities to discover the balance and equity that suit you best.
Kara Hoppe, MA, MFT, is a psychotherapist, teacher, feminist, and mother. She has spent more than a decade as an inclusive therapist working with individuals and couples toward healing and growing; and toward becoming grounded, integrated people with better access to their own instincts, wisdom, and creativity. Hoppe currently lives in Pioneertown, CA; and sees clients in private practice via telehealth. You can learn more about her at www.karahoppe.com.