It’ll Be Fair If We Make It Fair
When I was pregnant, I ran into an acquaintance who asked whether I would continue to teach classes after the baby’s birth.
“Of course,” I said. “That and everything else I do. I teach classes on evenings and weekends anyway and my partner works 9 to 5, so that’s actually the easiest thing ever to schedule.”
She looked at me in surprise: “You’re going to leave the baby alone with your husband?!”
I looked at her like she had two heads: “Uh, yes — at minimum, several evenings a week and all day Sunday. I would never have a baby with someone who couldn’t be left alone with a baby. In fact, nobody should.”
I wouldn’t agree to an unfair parenting arrangement any more than I’d work with a coworker who dumps his work on my desk and cuts out early.
However, many male-female couples discover that, no matter how young and modern and committed to equality they are before they have kids, they fall into tired old patterns as soon as a baby comes along. After all, aren't women "naturally" better at caring for young children? (Hint: No. Patient people are probably better at it. And — as with any job — people with prior experience.)
As a woman partnered to a man, I can say definitively that once I finished breastfeeding, there is nothing gendered about the way we parent. There are no tasks I do just because I am female. Fairness can be attained.
Rule 1. Parenting is Not Optional
Set egalitarian patterns early. If you’re on maternity leave and your partner is working full-time, be careful that you don’t set up patterns that will be unfair and unsustainable once you go back to work. First, you don’t want to take on a huge workload when you’re still recovering. You can also say things like, “I can do all the baby’s laundry while I’m still on mat leave, but once I go back to work, let’s split it — you do weekend laundry, I’ll do midweek laundry.” Collaborate on a chore chart. If that sounds too old-timey, make a spreadsheet together. If you color code each person’s tasks, the division of labor is obvious at a glance.
Also, do anything possible to ensure that your male partner gets paternity leave. In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act provides just 12 weeks of unpaid leave (so save money beforehand if needed). Save up vacation days. If he runs a business, be clear that he is needed by his child and will need to delegate and disconnect.
Studies show that paternity leave helps women quite a bit, as patterns set during those first crucial weeks — who changes diapers, who gets up when the baby cries — persist for years. When my baby came home from the hospital, my partner performed nearly every baby task as I recovered. He became the expert at getting the baby to sleep — and he remains the expert (and thus, the person most likely to do the task) to this day. Although my partner is exceptionally motivated to be an active parent, I don’t think it would have happened quite this way without paternity leave.
A study of Harvard Business School students showed that “more than three-quarters of men expected that their partners would do the lion’s share of child care” and that “women were more likely to have egalitarian expectations — and to see their expectations dashed.” Another fun fact: White men score the worst on measures of equality. Forty-eight percent of men of color, versus 39 percent of white men, assumed that their female partners’ careers would be of equal importance. Black men and women were 15 to 20 percentage points more likely to have a progressive child care arrangement.
Even if you think that you and your partner are different (he has tattoos and a beard and is an urban quinoa farmer!), we all absorb the culture around us — what our parents did, what we see in the media, what we see around us. To keep that from seeping in, you have to actively design something different. If you don't nip unfairness in the bud, unfair patterns become calcified. Some say it takes 28 days (or 66 days) to build a habit. However long it takes, don't make your "habit" getting taken advantage of (or taking advantage of your partner).
Rule 2. Breastfeeding Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Have Equality
If you are breastfeeding, it might seem like you will have to do more than half the baby work during that time. NOT SO.
Guess what? Babies generate an infinite number of tasks that need to be done. Even the breastfeeding itself has an intro and an outro: The baby wakes up and starts to cry, someone picks the baby up, and changes his/her diaper. Someone breastfeeds the baby for 15 to 30 minutes. Then someone needs to burp the baby, and in some cases, clean up copious spit-up and even change the baby’s clothes. These do not all need to be done by the same person.
This is especially true at night. If you’re both working, one person shouldn’t take the entire hit to their sleep. When I was breastfeeding, every time the baby woke up at night, my partner would get up, change the baby if needed, and bring the baby to me in bed. He would doze off while I fed the baby. When I was done, I’d nudge him (he’s a light sleeper), and he’d burp the baby (that sometimes takes a full five minutes) and put her back to sleep.
Consequently, we were both equally tired. We shared the same propensity for evening and weekend naps (that’s nice), and the same motivation for finding solutions that would help the baby get to sleep faster and sleep a little longer. These things were not solely my concern. Calling the pediatrician, reading articles about baby sleep, and shopping on Amazon for high-tech swaddling blankets — these all count as work.
Equal parenting is greatly facilitated not only by splitting tasks, but also by sharing a motivation to complete them.
Rule 3. Arrange Your Work Schedule Explicitly and Draw Clear Boundaries
If both parents work outside the home during similar hours while the child is in child care, it’s a lot easier to see what “equal” looks like. Both parents are doing pretty much the same thing. Sure, one person might mind the baby while the other cleans the house. Or maybe one of you attends a networking event on Mondays while the other does all of the evening tasks, and Tuesday night, you switch.
But it gets complicated when one person works a traditional job and the other is an entrepreneur or freelancer. Many a well-intentioned parent has said, “I’m going to work from home, with the baby,” only to find themselves getting almost no work done (you think you’re going to work during the baby’s nap, but if you haven’t eaten or showered, and you also desperately need a nap ... well, it can be hard to sit down and be productive immediately, with no transition time, during these few brief windows).
Then your partner comes home and takes over, and you rush out to a coffee shop, trying to finally get something done even though your best working hours were actually eight hours ago. Technically, you might have gotten five hours of “work time” that day, but they were the shittiest hours imaginable.
You need to work when you’re physically and mentally capable of it. That might mean that your partner does a morning shift before their 9-to-5 so you can work a bit while you’re fresh. If you decide to bring in child care so you can work, make sure you use that time to work — don’t get caught up thinking that now that you have child care, cleaning the house is the least you could do. If your partner doesn’t clean the sink at 2 pm between meetings, you shouldn’t sacrifice your work hours, either.
If you decide to work on weekends when your partner is in charge, leave the house. Find a coworking space where you can get 24/7 access. Borrow the apartment of a friend who’s out all day. Work it out ahead of time — you can’t monopolize a cafe table all day Sunday.
If you try to work at home while your partner takes care of the baby, even the most reasonable partner might find it “reasonable” to interrupt you every 45 minutes. “Oh, could you ‘just’ hold the baby while I take a shower?” If every interruption takes five to 10 minutes, and then it takes you another 10 minutes to get back into what you were doing, you will not be able to do meaningful work.
If he gets to go to work for eight hours and work without child care interruptions, arrange the same for yourself. Figuring out how to take care of a baby and also take a shower without someone else’s help is not a female problem; it’s part of being a parent. Get out of the house and let your partner work it out.
Rule 4. Have a Designated Primary Parent at All Times
Maybe you have daycare during the day, so getting enough work time is not an issue. You might be sleep-deprived, but you go to work and work an eight-hour day just like everyone else.
If that’s the case, “fairness” might not be something you think about. Or maybe you find that your partner schedules evening and weekend events — or brings work home and expects to do it in peace — without even asking you ahead of time if you mind taking on 100 percent of the child care during those times.
NOT COOL. Not cool at all.
In my own case, my partner almost never has after-work events. But among young professionals, that’s rare. If it becomes a problem, I suggest designating a primary parent at all times. If you don't designate a primary parent, the female parent will likely always end up being the de facto primary parent.
Here’s what it means to be the designated primary parent:
You can't just go and do non-baby stuff and assume your partner will cover for you. Want to go see a friend? You can plan it when you're not on call. Ask your partner for a favor that you will pay back during their primary-parent time, or hire your own baby-sitter. (Finding a baby-sitter who is available when you want is absolutely a form of work — the person who needs the baby-sitter has to do that work.)
If your career has been greatly helped by networking events and conferences, don’t stop now. If you’re always on call, or you and your partner are equally on call all the time, you’re less likely to ask a colleague to do dinner (you’d have to check with your partner, ask for a favor, etc). This is a bad system that will nudge your behavior in small or large ways over time; it creates a disincentive for you to maintain your network and your career.
But if you know automatically that you’re off on Wednesdays, you can R.S.V.P. to events and plan after-work drinks without worry. You’re already going to be tired, right? So you want to set yourself up to make networking easy and automatic — not something you have to move mountains to accomplish.
Rule 5. If You Want Equality, You Can’t Micromanage
Managing is work. That’s why “manager” is a job title. If you’re assigning your partner tasks, telling him how to do those tasks, and then checking up on his work, guess what — that’s more work! And it’s not very motivating for him, either. People are more motivated to do tasks when they have control over them and can be creative about accomplishing them.
Giving your partner a detailed to-do list is not equality — it’s delegating. Equality means each of you has broad spheres of responsibility and makes decisions in those areas. If he prefers to bathe the baby in the sink instead of in the baby bathtub you bought, get out of the way. If you’re in charge of daycare and you want to carry supplies to and from in a Victoria’s Secret bag that says “SEXY,” have fun with that.
Recently my partner asked about the baby’s sizes so he could start buying her clothes. “Wait, I get to decide what the baby wears!” I thought. Because … we’re both girls? That’s not a valid reason. Equal labor means equal decision making. It means that, while I think the baby looks great in black leggings and a charcoal gray cardigan (because, you know, I would wear that), sometimes she’s going to wear a bright red onesie and shorts, because I don’t make all the decisions around here.
From a 2008 New York Times article about Amy and Marc Vachon, authors of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents:
[Amy] reached over to her husband, Marc, who would not be going to work that day in order to be home with Maia, and handed him the List. That’s what they call it now, when they revisit this moment, which they do fairly often. The List. It was nothing extraordinary — in fact it would be familiar to many new moms. A large yellow Post-it on which she had scribbled the “how much,” “how long” and “when” of Maia’s napping and eating.
“I knew her routines and was sharing that with Marc,” Amy recalls.
She also remembers what he did next. Gently but deliberately, he ripped the paper square in half and crumbled the pieces into a ball.
“I got the message,” Amy says.
The article also mentions that Marc and Amy split the check on their first date, and after they married, moved into a house that Amy had bought before their marriage. Just throwing that out there.
Note that while I fully support the concept, I haven’t read Equally Shared Parenting for the same reason I haven’t read books entitled Go to the Bathroom When You Need To or Don’t Be Friends with People Who Punch You. That is, I can’t imagine being any other way.
Rule 6. Politely, but Firmly, Adjust the Expectations of the Outside World
You can aim for equally shared parenting at home, but pretty much everyone in the entire world will assume that “mom” is in charge: your families, the daycare center, other parents, people on the street, the pediatrician.
So you have to say things like, "Oh, you'll have to talk to John about that — he handles all the food buying and preparation." And then refuse to engage. No, I don't know what brand we buy. John's all over that. You'll have to tell him — I'll never remember. My brain's full just doing my half of the baby work!
This is also true at work. Some managers and coworkers will assume that now that you’re a mom, you can’t ever work late or travel — and that you’re going to be putting in 80 percent of your previous efforts, at best. Some of that might be true for a time, especially travel (ever cleared out a mini-bar fridge to store breastmilk?), but your workplace shouldn’t assume.
Set the expectations. Initiate after-work drinks with coworkers. If anyone seems surprised, say “It’s John’s night with the baby every other night, and I’d really like to catch up with the team on the XYZ project!” Stay conspicuously late one evening, and cut out at 5 pm the next day. Repeat. If it’s normal in your office to talk about family stuff, casually share anecdotes that highlight your partner’s competence. You might complain that sitcoms are sexist against men when they portray fathers as bumbling idiots. Of course men can be left alone with their own children. Of course men are just as good as women at these tasks, if they want to be. And good parents want to be.
Rule 7. Plan for Emergencies
Say you create a plan to split parenting tasks equally. Great! Now what happens when the baby gets sick, or some other emergency? Is it just assumed that you'll pick the baby up from daycare and stay home? Every time?
Address this head-on, preferably before having a baby. Will you take turns dropping everything and running to your child's side? If you have the more flexible job, maybe you'll stay home with the sick baby, but then you'll expect your partner to cancel any weekend plans so you can catch up on work if you need to.
It's easy to imagine equal parenting when everything is perfect — sure, we'll take turns changing diapers during our lovely weekend together. But when the shit hits the fan, plenty of people fall back into the pattern of "no real man leaves work midday for some baby thing" and "no good mother puts her work before her child."
It goes without saying: If you want gender equality, don’t couple up with someone who isn’t committed to gender equality.
You don’t fight the patriarchy by accident. Make a plan!
*This article is mostly about male/female couples. It’s often easier for gay and lesbian couples to parent equally, because they’re generally not working against stereotypes that one person should have drastically different roles and responsibilities than the other.