Is the Bar Too Low on Being a Good Father?

A year ago, I wrote this piece about emotional labor called “Why Married Women Get a Raw Deal.” In it, I confessed I was as sensitive and available as my stay-at-home wife could have hoped for, and still, she works harder and has less free time than I do.

The story wasn’t really about me but readers offered all sorts of constructive criticism for what I could do better to improve my wife’s life.

I took all of this into advisement and today, I’m proud to announce that everything’s changed.

My wife is now sleeping normal hours and is happier than ever.

She has let go of her perfectionism, OCD and inability to delegate and has offloaded half of her housework to me and the kids.

Even if we don’t do things exactly her way, she’s okay with it because she knows it’s not the end of the world. As a result, she has freed up a lot more time for personal care.

In the end, this was a triumph of crowdsourcing, for, without the input from the comments, I would have not had the knowledge or courage to insist – against my wife’s will – that I take over 50% of household duties while acting as the sole breadwinner.

Ready for Lasting Love?
Ready for Lasting Love?

Just kidding.

None of that happened.

It was just a prelude to today’s article, an opinion piece from the New York Times, called “What Good Dads Get Away With.” Brought to you by the same author who wrote, “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership,” you can only imagine that men do not acquit themselves well in this.

To be fair, I agree with what the author posits:

“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?”

The 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.

The 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 remember.”

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 is that.”

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 resent him.”)

Like most issues where there is a reasonable debate, I would say this is a both/and, rather than an either/or question.

Couldn’t it be that a lot of self-proclaimed egalitarian men take a passive role in domestic chores because they either assume or hope their wives will take on the lion’s share?



But unless you’re completely discounting the opinion of men, I don’t know how you can ignore the three explanations above, which, unfortunately, also apply to my marriage.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Men do need to understand their wives, empathize with their plights, and offer to do more where possible.

I pay the bills. My wife takes care of the home and the kids. As a result, she knows everything and is on top of everything. That means she has lists on top of lists. It means that she knows more about the house and kids than I do, cares about doing things a specific way than I do, and has a hard time delegating because she’s the only person who is an expert in our household. If I tried to delegate my job to her, it would be similarly difficult. Factor in that my wife is admittedly a procrastinator, a pleasure seeker and extremely detail-oriented (pulling three straight all-nighters to pack for a trip, for example), and, well, it paints more of a two-sided picture as to how my marriage falls directly into this pernicious stereotype.

Like political problems, I don’t claim to have the answer, but I know the problem isn’t solved by demonizing one side and ignoring its feelings. Men do need to understand their wives, empathize with their plights, and offer to do more where possible. It would also seem that women, if they want the help of their husbands, could stand to let go of some of the quality control, since it’s perfectly fair for him to not care as much about some of the details as you are.

Between taking 90 minutes to get out of the hotel and remember to bring a change of clothes, baby wipes, three different kinds of sunscreen, a light jacket, band-aids, and a variety of snacks and reading materials (my wife’s method) and throwing on clothes and getting out of the hotel room in 20 minutes (my method), there has to be a happy medium, no?

Your thoughts, below, are greatly appreciated. Personal attacks are not. 🙂