Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
My husband and I have been married for five years. We both have decent paying jobs, both pay our fair share of the bills, and have our specific chores around the house. I’d say we have a very egalitarian relationship. When we discussed the idea of having a baby a couple years ago, we completely agreed that we’d split parenting 50/50. I’d feed the baby, he’d change the diapers. I’d wash and dry the laundry, and he’d fold and put it away. I’d cook the food, he’d pick up the groceries. I’d take a night shift, he’d take the next night. We even shook on it.
Now, we have a six-month old son, and our lives look nothing like that. I feel like I do 90% of the work and he does 10%. He’s usually happy to do whatever I ask him, but I always have to ask. I am always the one on deck. When I’m not actually feeding, bathing, soothing, or playing with our son, I’m thinking about when his next nap will be, when he’ll need to eat again, when to schedule the next doctor’s appointment, when to start solid foods, if he’s understimulated or overstimulated, and on and on and on. I can promise you my husband is not thinking of any of this. I don’t want to always be the one doing everything, but I’m afraid if I don’t do it, nothing will get done. It’s infuriating!
So how did we end up here, in this very traditional-looking arrangement? I thought we’d be able to break the stereotypical parenting mold, but we’re failing. Will we ever balance out again? Or now that I’m a mom, will I always bear the bigger burden?
Dear Baby Burden,
When I was in grad school getting my MFA, I was required to take a few literature classes, so I decided to choose something fun and took a course on 2nd wave feminist scifi novels. We read Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, and Marge Piercy, among others. Each of these women had penned a novel set in an imagined place—the future, another planet, another universe—and what struck me at the end of the class was that each of these scifi novels posited a world in which women were unbound from pregnancy and child care. In each novel we read, the author found a way to solve the problem of reproductive biology—children were incubated in community growing centers, people switched back and forth between male and female biology and thus took turns being pregnant, aliens showed us new ways to reproduce outside of the female body, babies were raised by a collective instead of a single mother and father.
I took this class before I had a baby and at the time I was slightly bothered how each of these writers worked so hard to relieve women from the act of childbearing. Isn’t the fact that we, and we alone, can carry and birth and nurse children an advantage and a burden? Then I had a child myself and was able to understand the authors’ conundrum on a much deeper level. It’s hard to create true equality when a woman’s body is a required sacrifice to support life. It’s hard to live in true equality when your body is stretched, and shared, and used as a food source in a way that a man’s body is not.
When I was pregnant, there was a couple with a newborn living in the apartment above us. They gave us advice on how to handle having a small, crying baby in our home. They told my husband, “She takes care of the baby, you take care of her.” And it was good advice, plus it was already happening. I was taking care of the baby everyday, my body tending to it as my husband tended to me. Once the baby is born, however, its care becomes a daily conscious act. In those first few months the baby is outside of you but you are still very much connected. The baby needs to eat and, if you choose to breastfeed, you’re its sole means of food—you carry its primary source of comfort in your body. You wake up in the middle of the night, and stay up. Due to our complete lack of paternity leave in this country, your husband likely needs to sleep because he has to work in the morning. So a pattern is established—you take care of the baby, and he takes care of you, when he can, except he can’t take care of you because he’s at work, so you take care of the baby, he takes care of your financial security, and no one takes care of you.
We ask women to accept this deal, and many do, only because there doesn’t seem to be another deal on the table. He has to work. I have to take care of the baby. But then, the baby grows older, and the established pattern stays.
My husband got a week off of work after I gave birth to our son, and then he had to go back. So it was me, and the baby, home by ourselves all day. It was winter, there was a polar vortex, and I felt so profoundly isolated to be home with this tiny being that I knew nothing about. But I started to manage, to develop rituals, patterns, ways of soothing him and myself. And then my husband would be home, on evenings and weekends, and he’d try to take care of our son. He’d give him a bottle, change his diaper, swaddle him, soothe him, and I’d freak out. Because he was doing it wrong. I didn’t agree with the way he was holding him, or changing his diaper, or using baby powder when I just read an article that morning that baby powder is bad for developing lungs.
I didn’t agree with anything he was doing because he wasn’t doing it my way. And I tried to be subtle about it, but my husband noticed. I was drowning under the weight of the responsibility of helping this new little life to thrive, but I was also jealously protective of the task. Because, when you’re forced into a situation where you feel trapped, you cope by leaning into it. You cope by owning it as much as you can. I felt complete ownership over the task of raising our son, and I hated how my husband would do things differently when it was his turn to care for our baby.
One Saturday afternoon, after I told my husband that I didn’t like the way he was holding our son, that he should hold him more this way, my husband snapped. He said, “Am I going to be the babysitter, or am I going to be a parent?” And I was hormonal, and I was pissed, and we fought about it. But, here’s the thing: He was right. The first few weeks of a new baby’s life aren’t just critical for the baby—they’re also critical for the couple. Patterns are established that can stretch on for decades and, without knowing it, my reticence in letting my husband take ownership of caring for our son was setting into motion a future where I would always, always be the only one who was allowed to nurture our son, the only one allowed to do the work.
I had to step back. I had to acknowledge that my way wasn’t the only way. I had to acknowledge that, in order to let my husband figure out how to be a dad, he had to have the time and the space to fail, just as I had. I wasn’t a perfect parent all of the time—there was the moment when I went to put my son on the floor and then, when he was two inches off of the ground, I let go and dropped him. He cried, he was fine, and I was shaken because why had I dropped him? What was that? But I recovered, quickly, because no one was around to instantly judge me, or chide me.
Which is a long way of saying: Leave your husband alone with the baby. Go, go now. Leave the house. For an afternoon, an evening, an overnight, preferably a weekend. If you’re still breastfeeding then stick a mess of milk in the freezer and bring your breast pump with you. Get out of the house and allow your husband the space to become frustrated and uncertain and then to figure out what to do. Make a rule that he can’t call you with boring, normal questions. Yes, if they’re headed to the hospital he should give you a ring, but otherwise he should be alone with his child for an extended period of time without your help.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s your fault that your husband isn’t more engaged. Our society is stacked against equitable rearing of children—men don’t get the same amount of time off, they don’t have the same societal expectation. After my maternity leave ended, my husband and I decided that it would make the most sense for him to stay home with our son. He told his father about this arrangement, and his father responded, “Are you sure you’re cut out for this? It’s harder for men. I don’t think we’re supposed raise children.” This is the basic, unexamined assumption of the whole of society.
Housework and childcare are not valued in our culture—it doesn’t make money, so it can’t be that important. Make a list of the things that you do for your child and for your home, and ask your husband to make a list of the things that he does, and then sit down and compare the lists. You and him should list all of the things you do—remembering doctor’s appointments, buying birthday presents, getting the oil changed in the car. You may find that he’s taking care of things that don’t occur to you and you haven’t noticed, but he’ll also find that you do so, so, so much more than he realized.
Now, renegotiate the chores. If you’re doing overnight baby duty still, then he should take on a larger share of the household chores during the day. Also, and this is super important, make sure that on your list you include any managing you do of his chores. Because asking someone to do something is a form of labor. You want a partner, not an employee. Him waiting to be asked before he does housework implies that you aren’t partners, you’re his manager. And, as anyone who’s employed as a manager can tell you, that shit is work. Ask him to free you from the burden of having to direct him. If you two have different standards of dirty vs. clean, then ask him to set up a cleaning schedule. You can create a shared Google calendar in two minutes that will notify him when it’s time to clean the bathrooms, or the floors, or dust.
The problem you’re having is a persistent problem in our culture, but it’s not insurmountable. You can solve it by acknowledging how difficult it is to unwind yourself from centuries of cultural conditioning and then, with the help of your partner, work to unwind yourselves from centuries of cultural conditioning. Create a system where you don’t ask him to help—he does the work because it’s necessary and he’s a full partner in your home. Create a system where he doesn’t wait for you to ask him to help—he can see that it’s not your work that he’s helping with, it’s your work that you both do because you’re both two adults living in the same home. Accept that, with him taking on more, things won’t be done the same way that you would do them and accept that this is really, truly, fine. Let him try, let him fail, and let yourself off the hook.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.