3. The Mess at Home: America Has a Housework Gap – Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman

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The Mess at Home:
America Has a Housework Gap

When I first meet Sharon, the analyst at an investment firm with two children, ages eight and five, she tells me she and her husband split family and home responsibilities fifty-fifty. That seems fair. They both work full time, and in fact Sharon significantly outearns her husband. But she quickly amends that statement. “It’s complicated, but it’s probably sixty-forty.”

Sharon says that while she does most of the indoor chores and he does most of the outdoor work, many of his assignments are task-oriented and take place once a week, whereas her assignments—laundry and child care, for example, are constant.

“Cars are totally on him. He stays on top of the oil tank and water tank. He’s much more into technology; he will spend a lot of time trying to get the computer to play on the TV. I couldn’t care less. He would like a new outlet. I couldn’t care less. Of course, he would probably schedule the electrician to come the day I’m home.” Sharon works from home on Tuesdays, and her home life usually bleeds into her workday. She describes her work-from-home days as, “proactively running performance data and packing snacks.”

One of her husband’s project-oriented tasks is the lawn. “He gets absolved of other duties because he’s doing yard work. As a point of pride, he wants to do it. I would rather pay for someone to come on Wednesday and get him back on the weekend.” I hear this same refrain from a number of women. Their husbands go out to mow the lawn on Saturday, with a football game on their headsets, and are tied up for hours while the wives run errands, clean the house, and entertain the children.

Cleaning for the Cleaners

Outsourcing, however, isn’t a magic pill. Most of the women I interviewed who could afford to hire help with the housework did so. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a source of conflict in their marriages. After all, someone has to do the pre-cleaning cleaning. “We used to fight over the prep for the cleaning lady,” said one woman. “He would throw his hands up and say, ‘It’s ridiculous you clean up for the housecleaner.’”

“We have that conversation at least once a month,” said another woman, who works in health-care marketing. “And by conversation I mean screaming. And by screaming I mean me.” Her neighbor complained jokingly that she never gets to appreciate the clean house, because her husband gets home before she does on cleaning day. “I don’t get a chance to see it clean.” She says she comes home and the place is already trashed. “I say to him, ‘I don’t understand how this happened.’ He’s like, ‘You’re crazy,’ and I’m like, ‘No, you’re delusional.’ Sometimes I’m not sure the cleaner is worth it.”

Sharon, who does have a housekeeper but needs to maintain order in between appointments, is critical of her husband’s homemaking. “He buys the groceries and is responsible for all cooking; we eat out twice a week as a result. When he does the shopping, he stops at Starbucks, drives around a little bit. Me? I have a list and it’s all about efficiency. He doesn’t put his clothes away—it’s like a three-foot pile of laundry. And he doesn’t value shutting cabinets.” Regardless of her feelings, the couple doesn’t fight about it.

“I accept it to a large degree,” says Sharon. “I think it’s just they don’t have an awareness. My husband was raised in a very feminist household but he just doesn’t see it. His brain doesn’t work in those ways. There’s a reason men don’t wake up when a baby cries or walk past a laundry basket that needs to go upstairs. They don’t see things the way we do. They don’t see that pile of mail. But my husband looks at the roof and I never look at the roof.”

The Havoc of Half Days

The school system is a much bigger source of stress for Sharon than sharing housework with her husband is. The public schools in her town close at 12:30 every Tuesday and six additional Thursdays throughout the year. She has her daughter in an afterschool program on Tuesdays, but the program requires Sharon to also pay for Thursdays, even though she doesn’t use it that day. On Thursdays, her daughter goes to Hebrew school and Sharon relies on another family to drive her there. To reciprocate, she tries to have the other family’s daughter over for playdates as much as she can. She worries about what would happen if she could no longer rely on her neighbors for transportation. “I’m hoping we keep the relationship going for the next ten years with that family. That’s the kind of stress my family isn’t thinking about.”

“Don’t Be a Bitch”

“My husband and I had a big fight at the start of the school year,” Sharon tells me. “I noticed the Thursday day off in February was scheduled for a Wednesday, so I sent an e-mail to the PTO office and said, ‘I’m curious why it’s a Wednesday.’” Sharon didn’t hear back and she pushed the issue in December but her husband cautioned her, “Don’t be a bitch.”

“Pointing out that something is inefficient gets that label,” she says. “But it’s disorganized not to communicate. Maybe there’s a good reason; it’s probably rippling from something else that I need to know about. So tell me, because I haven’t stopped thinking about it since July. And I’m concerned I’m going to be the one who’s affected. Thankfully, I’ve been with my company seven years and have established some flexibility.”

I feel her pain. Sharon and I, although we live in different towns, commiserated over the fact that we both received notices that our children’s art would be on display in district-wide art exhibits the night before the events. Neither one of us made it to our respective shows, as we both had prior work commitments. And yet both of us have enough seniority and personal equity at work that we could have rearranged our schedules if we had advance notice. “[The planning] doesn’t happen overnight. So why give us one day of notice?” Sharon asks.

Good question. At my child’s show, hundreds of little masterpieces lined the halls. It must have taken time to hang all of that art, probably more than a day. The high school band was performing. I assume they were given more than twenty-four hours’ notice. Refreshments were served. That required planning.

Interestingly, neither Sharon nor I received much sympathy when we complained about our situations, even thought it’s a scenario played out across the country. “I’ve gotten a day’s notice that my child is going to get an award,” one woman tells me. “Stop with the middle-of-the-day thing. My eight-year-old is asking, ‘Can you do it this year? Can you chaperone?’ I mean, I book vacations four months out.”

Why Can’t You Come, Mommy?

The general consensus is that working mothers should accept the fact that they are going to miss out on school events. But that doesn’t have to be the case all the time. We accept that there are many things we cannot do because we are working. But we can’t reconcile a child’s broken heart when the situation could have been avoided with planning and communication. When I told my son I couldn’t attend his show, I could tell he was trying to be mature, saying to me, “That’s okay.” But it wasn’t okay. If you’ve ever watched a child on a school stage scan the audience anxiously looking for parents and then waving and smiling when they are spotted, you understand how important family involvement is to a child.

Another working woman tells me her daughter is constantly asking her to come into her classroom: ‘Why can’t you come in, Mommy?’ she asks. When I finally came in for secret reader she was thrilled. If I could just live that day over and over I would.” Working mothers don’t expect it to be easy, but we’re never going to accept when our children are negatively impacted and the situation could have been avoided.

All parents, especially working mothers, have to consciously manage perceptions at work. If we are serious about our careers we need to be seen as dedicated to the job. Yes, it has become more acceptable to work from home on the day of a school event or hold a conference call while driving to meet the bus, but it’s a fine line. We are constantly seeking the right balance of work and family.

True, no one will lie on her deathbed and wish she had picked the meeting over the school play, but many will lie awake in their own beds at night wondering how to make more money in order to help pay for their child’s education.

When a working mother picks and chooses which school events she will attend, she is also thinking about any contingency days she may need for sick days and snow days too. She is constantly weighing the risk/rewards for every decision she makes to be at work or at home. Where is the greater payoff—the client call or the teacher conference? What carries a higher penalty—miss the meeting or miss the field trip?

My Lists Have Sub-Lists

“It’s exhausting,” says Sharon, about trying to stay on top of her family’s schedule. “You’re always thinking ahead to the next thing. I make lists in my sleep and my lists have sub-lists. My calendar is my life.”

By the time Sharon and I are done talking, she’s decided she and her husband have an eighty–twenty split of family-related chores. “I am basically 100 percent responsible for winter gear and the replacement of all winter gear, as it inevitably gets lost; bathing suits, towels, goggles, and water shoes in the summer—more daily laundry; all kids’ clothing shopping—what sizes they wear, what needs to be purchased, weeding out/donating old clothing; my kids’ birthday parties, including planning, booking, inviting, goody bags, food purchasing/ordering, thank-you notes—any and all thank-you notes, for that matter; all RSVPs; most gift giving; paying the bills; all packing for trips for the kids—including overnight camp for my daughter—a huge job; arranging the cleaning people; cleaning for the cleaning people; all kid haircuts; trash and recycling; making the grocery list; homework; bathing the kids. And thus I live with a near-constant eyelid twitch.”

The Invisible Task List

Sharon’s list is full of the invisible tasks, the tasks that don’t necessarily show up on a chore list but still require time and mental energy. These tasks, with a few exceptions, overwhelmingly fall to women, no matter what a couple’s work–life arrangement is.

Take Tania, a high-powered, successful managing director at a Wall Street investment firm and the sole breadwinner for her family. She and her husband have four kids and made the decision fifteen or twenty years ago that he would stay home because her career was taking off. “In the ‘90s I was having kids and traveling to Europe all the time. Even after that I was alternating weeks between California and New York. You can’t outsource at that level unless you’re going to hire some kind of governess out of an English novel.”

Tania makes no qualms about what she thinks is a fair division of responsibilities between herself and her husband. “When dinner’s not on the table I’m pissed. It’s not that there isn’t dinner; it’s, ‘Can you figure out what time I get home? Why do I have to tell you I’m on the bus—’cause a woman would know.’ You work all day, come home, pace for twenty minutes debating whether or not to shove cereal in your mouth cause you’re starving and you haven’t eaten since one and now it’s eight.”

As far as cleaning goes, Tania doesn’t think it’s her job. “I’m kind of a bitch. I’m Robert Young from Father Knows Best. If I were Laura Petrie, would Dick come home and clean the house?” she asks, referencing the popular 1960s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show. Men, as a rule, are not expected to come home from work and take care of the home. But the same isn’t true for women.

Stay-at-Home Dads Aren’t Moms

When things break down in Tania’s family life, she thinks part of the problem can be attributed to her husband defining the role of stay-at-home spouse differently than many women do. “The men see what quote, unquote, stay-at-home-mothers do, and only see the physical. They don’t plan anything. They don’t check calendars to see if something is viable. They think the job description is menial. It’s like the difference between a house manager and a house maintainer. My husband seems to think that managing the house and the kids, that these are elective. So he enters into projects that he’s interested in. Like, my son is seventeen—my husband got a twenty-five-year-old Mercedes and rebuilt it for my son. He’ll totally clear his schedule to accommodate that because his home role is elected. Imagine if you were home and your husband came home from work after being in the city for hours and hours and you said, ‘I ordered Chinese takeout because I was making a quilt all day.’ The roles of stay-at-home women and men are not interchangeable. I don’t even know if the guys know what the job description is.”

Don’t Blame Biology

Don’t try to tell Tania that biology makes men and women view the roles of stay-at-home spouse differently. “I don’t believe in that stuff…,” Tania says. “I have never had a biological urge to clean anything.”

Tania says that, with her husband, small but important things fall through the cracks. “The other thing I find, at least with my husband, is they don’t remember all the detail stuff. They don’t even remember what grade the kids are in. The school will call the house and he’ll let it go to voice mail and tell me to call the school back. Or they just haven’t checked that box on their little opt-in box. I have said to my husband numerous times, ‘Just put it in your Blackberry, set yourself an alarm.’ I’ve had my husband forget to take my daughter to her tennis lessons—I mean, that kind of stuff.” As a result, the invisible tasks fall to Tania.

“If your kids have an issue, you can read it,” Tania asserts. “There are all these different emotional intelligence things going on. They fly over the guy’s head. They just don’t get it. They just don’t. My daughter has a chronic medical condition that kind of comes and goes. I can tell in two seconds if something is off. Meanwhile, he could take her to a tennis lesson with a fever.”

We Need You at Work

The issue with invisible tasks isn’t just one of an equitable marriage. It’s the mental energy these tasks consume and the impact that has on a woman at work. Stephanie, the customer service associate whose boss said she wasn’t pulling her weight, says she assumed responsibility for most of the invisible tasks until people in her office noticed. “When we first had kids I was like, ‘Yup, that’s me.’ The week sign-up happens at camp, it consumes me. I don’t want to disappoint my kid. I spend fifteen minutes every day making sure everything doesn’t fall through the crack. But I decided it was jeopardizing my career. My boss called me aside and said, ‘I know you’re juggling, but we need you.’”

As a result of that discussion, Stephanie tries to hide these responsibilities from her coworkers. “Thank God babysitters have text and e-mail. I try for school not to call me. I use technology a lot. I use texting. It just makes it so much easier.”

JJ DiGeronimo, a director at a large technology company, says the invisible tasks are exhausting: “Although I’m very organized, there are few moments that I can just kick back and relax without worrying about all the things I have yet to check off my list. It’s fueled some of the controversy in our house, since my husband does a better job of unplugging even if it is for just a few minutes. It’s likely not going to change for you, for me, or for any woman that is juggling too many commitments. I think women are tremendous; they’re just tremendous, but many women I meet are committed to too many things and they are exhausted.”

One solution is to pull men into these tasks. If women keep the invisible tasks hidden from their spouses, how can we expect them to help? Lisa Gates, cofounder of She Negotiates, a training program for women, thinks so: “The thinking part is such a burden. I think we do our mates a disservice by not involving them. There was a particular time four or five years ago—we were in a hard economic time—there was a strike in my husband’s industry. And the thinking wore me out. It was almost an obsession. I was creating graphs in my head and I realized I do not have enough support. I am not leaning on my friends. I didn’t even consider my husband part of the process. I didn’t trust the answers he would come up with.”

Are You a Maternal Gatekeeper?

Gates raises an interesting point. Women are shouldering the majority of responsibilities at home, but how much of their burden is self-imposed? Jen Deaderick, a writer from Cambridge, Massachusetts, cautions that women need to be aware of trapping themselves in the homemaker role: “One of the things I noticed other women doing is they would decide things have to be a certain way; the husband doesn’t know how to do it right. They would trap themselves. Which can be rather intoxicating.”

Melissa Williams, an assistant professor of business at Emory University, says the behavior Jen references is a form of maternal gatekeeping. Maternal gatekeepers, through criticism or nonverbalized rules, can limit or inhibit their spouses’ participation in household chores and child care.

Williams and UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen conducted a study that indicated women who run their households have fewer career ambitions and less interest in promotions and raises at work. Through a series of experiments, they found that ambition wasn’t affected when women shared household responsibilities with their spouses, only when they controlled them. While both female and male survey participants agreed that having control of household decisions is desirable and advantageous, only women indicated that actually having that control impacted their career ambitions.

Williams says it’s not that women are less interested in power than men are, but that women often feel like their two domains—work and home—are zero-sum. “Men can pursue both simultaneously,” she says.

Her coauthor, Chen, says, “To realize true gender equality in both the private and public spheres, our results suggest that women may need to at least partially abdicate their role of ultimate household deciders, and men must agree to share such decision making.”

Men Aren’t Mind Readers

Abdicating some responsibilities in the home takes training and discipline. Kelly, the attorney, says one thing women should do is ask their spouses for the help they want; it’s good for both managing the chores and the relationship. “I kind of think men get a bad rap with women, but they’re not mind readers and I don’t see any problem if I have to ask for [what I need]. I don’t have a problem saying, ‘Can you do this for me or can you make sure the trash gets taken out?’ I think it makes for a better marriage. Plus, I’m a divorce attorney,” she says, implying she’d rather ask for what she needs than become a client.

One reason more women may not ask, however, is that they find it easier to do things themselves. That may be a good short-term solution, but it doesn’t help in the longer run. We need to work toward sustainable options that work over the course of our careers and our marriages. “I know about things like doing laundry or tending to the house, hanging pictures and things,” says Jen. “All that kind of stuff I just know. And it becomes so much work to kind of instruct your husband. That’s another trap—it’s easier to do myself. He does dishes and laundry and trash. He’s not very good at it but I don’t want to do it. It’s always a struggle.”

That struggle may involve lowering our standards and accepting that a task that isn’t completed to our standards is still a task completed. It also involves letting ourselves off the hook for results that are short of perfection. As Lisa, a development officer for a nonprofit, says, “It’s about quality of output.” Lisa says she’d be likely to send her kids to school on a cold, snowy day with hat, mittens, snow pants for recess, and a healthy snack, and her husband might send them to school missing one of those items. Either way, the child would most likely be fine. Another woman agrees: yes, the children will be fine, but she says women judge themselves harshly. “If my husband brings them to school and they say, ‘Dad, you forgot my snack.’ He thinks, ‘I forgot the snack.’ But if I forget the snack, I think, ‘I’m a bad mom.’”

Getting to a place of acceptance often involves getting out of the way. “If I’m away it’s fine, but my husband and I do things so differently that if I come home and he’s in the middle…” says the woman who works in the engineer’s office. “It’s easier for me to be out of town or literally stop somewhere and read a book. I don’t want to come home in the middle of it. I just basically need to relax but it just gets you so wound up.”

Her friends support the hands-off strategy; not only does it give a mother more freedom, it also allows a husband to be his own parent, not his wife’s version of a parent. “[My husband] does much, much better when I’m not there because he defaults to ‘Linda will do it,’” says the commercial banker. “But when I’m gone he’ll take the kids and do more things with them because I’m not there to backfill. It’s actually good for him, and the kids enjoy it. It’s a different dynamic. And he steps up and does a great job. And I get home, and the house is standing, and we still have two kids, and the cat is in the house. He will rise to the occasion.”

The Kids Are Alive

Linda’s neighbor, a scientific director for a pharmaceutical company, concurs that women need to get out of the house sometimes and let men manage on their own. She says, “The kids are alive, you have your own relationship with them, you figure out what works. Don’t involve me as long as they wear something that covers their genitalia.”

Suggesting women step out of the way and let their husbands step up may sound like victim blaming. It’s not. The interpretation should not be that it is women’s behavior that leads to the fact that they do a disproportionate amount of housework and child care. But in some cases, it is at least part of the problem and therefore is one strategy women can deploy to attempt to shift the balance of responsibilities. Whether women give in to their spouse’s approach to parenting, stay out of the house and read a book until the chores are done, or ask their husbands to do things their way, women who want to let go of some responsibilities need to make an active decision to do so. We receive so many external messages about what a good mother should do—serve well-balanced meals three times a day, maintain a picture-perfect home, and turn out children who resemble J. Crew models—that we need to consciously reprogram our way of thinking about what good parenting looks like.

Sondra, a business owner who’s been married twenty-five years and has three grown children, took on both the housework and the invisible tasks because she wanted her children to have a certain type of childhood: “Throughout their childhood and our young lives, my husband and I attempted to craft a semi-balanced share of child rearing and housework, using some outside help. However, in the end I led and took care of finances, cooking, shopping, family activities, holidays, birthdays, schoolwork, sports, discipline, day-to-day housework, and family plans. Mostly because he just didn’t see it needing attention. I think we are more attuned, as women, to the finer details of life, the organization and the project management needed to keep a family and home going. He was happy to sit back, oversee, and lend judgment. It was much more challenging when the kids were young. I started working when my daughter went to kindergarten.”

Sondra continues, “The kids were really central to me carrying the load. I wanted them to have a certain lifestyle. And if my husband wasn’t going to lead that, the alternative of not having that happen was unacceptable for me. So we’re kind of stuck in this paradox where we want our worldview to happen but we want someone else to make it happen. My kids now say, ‘We had the best childhood—the things we did, the camps we had.’ So I know I did the right thing.”

I Lost Respect for Him

For Sondra, carrying the load at home didn’t just impact her career, it impacted her marriage. “What’s happened since the kids left…My husband and I have lost a lot in the relationship. I don’t have a lot of respect for him. I never felt like he…boy, this is hard to say…really lived up to his role. And it’s not that he didn’t know what I expected. It wasn’t a big hide-and-seek game for me. I was clear. But, really, the relationship…we don’t have a relationship, primarily because I know I have a lot of anger. It definitely clouds the way my husband and I relate now. We’re trying to make it work and I do see him, as he gets older too, maturing into a different type of partner.

“As a fifty-year-old woman whose children are gone, there are a lot of scars there and a lot of things getting in my way and it always seems to take him by surprise. My husband is very compassionate, very loving. Our relationship is based on need and not necessarily love. This is a difficult observation too—I sometimes think had my husband faced more adversity if I hadn’t pretty much taken care of everything, if I had maybe stepped back and forced him to take care of different things, he might not be unemployed. I guess in some ways I was an obstacle to that. It’s hard to say. I don’t regret anything in life. I certainly don’t regret staying home with my kids. I love my life. I love my career. I love my kids. And, essentially, I love my husband. Would I want him to be a different person? But what would I be giving up?

“I noticed when I was young the stress we had was mostly about things. Who’s going to feed the baby? Who’s going to unload the dishwasher? As we got older it became more about substance. My daughter was diagnosed with anorexia and the arguments were about who…and I do have to say he really stepped up during that time. He tried to take the lead as much as possible. It was an effort for me but I allowed him to. There’s a trust issue if you haven’t been able to trust him to do stuff around the house but now trust him with your daughter’s illness. I still know I carried the burden for 90 percent. But there were parts of allowing him to step up.”

Of course, the inequity in household chores found in so many American households, the resulting schisms in many relationships, and the negative impact that often occurs for women in the workplace won’t be solved by a simple platitude like, “Lower your standards, ladies.” But it is something in our power to address. And then we need to tackle many other factors, including societal pressures, media influences, and, dare we say it, sexism.

It’s Not Sexism; It’s a Weird Given

Dr. Dawn DeLavallade is a virtual radiologist who works from home interpreting CT scans, ultrasounds, and X-rays from hospitals across the country. She works seven nights in a row, followed by seven nights off. The schedule gives her the flexibility she needs to be available to her son while her husband travels building his own business. Dawn says she would love more help at home from her husband, who she says works long hours in a demanding job. “My husband sometimes feels like he doesn’t have to do anything,” she says. “I cut back. I took a voluntary pay cut to make time for my son. A part of that is self-inflicted—if you teach someone they can always count on you, that’s what they do. And when he’s home he wants to put his feet up. Even if I say I fixed dinner and it’s your turn to clean, it’s still not done the next morning. A part of it is, it’s still kind of a king-of-the-castle feeling there—he just feels like he doesn’t have to do it.”

Maria from the engineering office wants more help too. “I argue with my husband every summer. He can never, ever get home for what I need, but on golf Wednesday, come hell or high water, at ten past four he leaves to golf. He goes with the guys he works with, not even with clients. Are you kidding me? The rest of the family suffers all week because he works until nine every other night. I’ll say, ‘Can you pick up the kids?’ ‘No, no, no, I have a job.’”

King of the castle. Putting his feet up. Golf before family. It sounds like old-fashioned, 1950s sexism doesn’t it? But most women aren’t willing to call it that, although they usually can point out friends with sexist husbands.

“My husband is great,” says Leslie, who left graduate school when she got pregnant with her son. “He doesn’t even need me to say, ‘Hey, can you vacuum?’ There are a few things he needs to be pushed to do. If there are dirty dishes in the sink or clean dishes in the dishwasher…I do have friends whose husbands work their butts off and they come home and put a beer and the clicker in their hands and they don’t get up until they go to bed.”

Monika works from home full time. Her husband works in corporate communications. They have two children, ages five and three. “I do probably 90 percent of the household chores,” she tells me. “My husband’s primary responsibility is making lunches. We decided at one point he’d do meal planning and groceries. He does it about 5 percent of the time. I’ve tried not doing [housework], and that just drives me more crazy. I would like to think that I’m not nagging about things that don’t need to get done. But the boys need lunch. People need to eat dinner. Every once in a while the house needs to get cleaned. We had a cleaning lady but it’s not in the finances. It’s a hard struggle—do I take the weekend to clean the house or spend time as a family? Usually we choose family. But since I work from home, I’m the one who has to live in that.”

“My husband is perfectly willing to step in,” Monika continues. “I don’t think he considers any of it to be my job. He doesn’t notice it and isn’t as good at remembering and planning ahead for things. He just doesn’t see it. It’s very frustrating. He’s so good at his job and he’s a really good friend and dad. We’ve never been a couple to fight about money, it’s just the division of labor.”

“Yesterday I was home to do child care,” says Ilana Garber, a rabbi and mother of two who is married to a musician. “While I’m the breadwinner, not primary, it was sort of just a given that I would cancel my appointments and…and it’s not sexism, it’s just sort of this weird given.” This given Ilana describes is a common theme in many marriages. Even among couples who defy traditional gender roles with regard to breadwinning, child-care responsibilities are often just assumed to be a woman’s concern.

Making a Quantum Leap

“Sexism is the easy answer,” says Lisa, a mother of two who works 80 percent full time and is married to an architect. “But I think that answer feels a little unsatisfying,” she says. “I think I do much more than my husband. But he feels like he does so much more than he ever thought he’d do. The leap we are asking [men] to take is a quantum leap. I think it’s changing at a lightning speed but I don’t think it changes instantly.”

Describing what’s taking place in women’s homes and workplaces as sexism may feel unsatisfactory, but unless we name the problem, it’s difficult to change it. If therapists can’t even tackle the issue, as we saw with the woman whose marriage counselor told her she had to quit her job, who can address this “weird given?” Part of the solution lies in our ability to shift our thinking about housework and child care as they relate to work from women’s issues to parenting issues. Women’s roles have evolved over the years to include breadwinning. Now we should expect men’s roles to shift as well and include more family and household responsibilities.

“What struck me when we first had kids and he was changing jobs, he never asked about flextime and all the questions that any mom with two kids under three would ask,” says Lisa. “As I’ve gotten back from the edge of exhaustion and rage that I typically felt when the kids were little…I think the workplace for men has to be understood and changed as much as it has to change for women. So many men are still worried about taking time off, and many don’t take the paid leave they are entitled to. When they don’t take their leave, it puts the women who do take it at a disadvantage—they are gone for weeks or months in a way that men aren’t.”

Lisa, rightly so, suggests another part of the solution for the inequities women face at work and at home is for men to demand and take the same parental benefits women do. Still, she acknowledges, it’s not a simple fix. “Looking back I can see that the forces my husband was fighting were very powerful. At his Christmas party there was a guy with a baby in a Baby Bjorn. Everyone was like, ‘That’s so sweet.’ That guy was gone a few months later. And the problem…what does the workplace do? It doesn’t surprise me that women don’t choose the bigger job. Someone needs a flexible job.”

Husbands Aren’t Bad People

Michelle Parrinello-Cason, a PhD student and full-time faculty member at a community college, agrees with Lisa on two fronts. The first is that most husbands aren’t overt sexists; their behavior is more ingrained and maybe even subconscious. The second is that motherhood exposes an inevitable chasm in marriages that skews in the man’s favor. “At least, speaking for me and for my friends, I don’t think our husbands are bad people, they just don’t even realize that this is happening,” says Michelle. She is married to an attorney and they have one child. “I’m just at home more; more of my forty hours are spent in my house. It was something my husband and I had to work through.” And like Lisa, Michelle experienced pregnancy as a defining work–life moment. “I was breastfeeding. I was the one who went through the physical stress of pregnancy. When I would talk to my husband, he was like, ‘Okay, I get it.’ But it was so frustrating to negotiate. I was so overwhelmed to even tell him. And all the questions we got were, ‘What are you going to do?’ He was sitting right there; he’s going to do things too.”

I remember fielding similar questions when I was pregnant. Up until that point, I enjoyed what I felt was a fairly progressive partnership with my husband. I was the primary breadwinner. I kept my name. I felt like “I am woman, hear me roar.” But when I got pregnant, I was the one who felt like I needed a nap at my desk. I was the one who had to miss hours of work to go to doctor’s appointments. I was the one whose stomach entered the conference room seconds before the rest of my body did. And colleagues and clients commented I was cute, or huge, or, worse, they touched my stomach. My husband was about to become a parent too, but his work identity hadn’t shifted, while mine had morphed from smart, hard-working employee to woman-about-to-take-leave. I hated the whole experience and felt blindsided by the changes. When my friend innocently offered to take me to Babies “R” Us to help me register for nursery items, I exploded at her and wanted to know why the hell she didn’t ask my husband to go buy baby things?

I Don’t Do Diapers

Some of the working women I spoke with have learned how to address the issue of becoming a mother with more grace and skill than I exhibited in snapping at my friend. Ilana refuses to change diapers. “Unless my husband is not in the house, I will not change a diaper. It stems from the early few weeks. The baby would wake up and I had to get ready to nurse. I was in charge of input and he was in charge of output. It’s a wonderful thing he does a lot of that stuff.”

And even though men, like women, may suffer some backlash at work when they exercise their right to parental benefits, one C-level executive I spoke with and her husband have had a positive experience treating the work–life issue as a family issue rather than as a mother issue. “One thing that has helped tremendously, after I took three months of maternity leave, is my husband took one month,” says the marketing executive for a health-care nonprofit. “I would recommend it to anyone. What happened was, when I was on maternity leave, I was in this state where I was constantly checking in, ‘When are you going to be home?’ Everything was lovely, but I wanted to hand over the baby, and if you haven’t been there, you can’t relate. He’d say, ‘I’ll be home at five,’ and I’d be watching the clock, thinking, ‘I can make it.’ But when he got home, he’d spend an hour unloading tools. I told him, ‘We need to have a conversation about being home or being on the property and being home able to take the child.’ In the fourth month, he was calling me at work asking when I’d be home and I loved it. Now he just gets the rhythm—what it means to be with the kid all day every day, what it means to be home all day.”

The workplace needs to recognize raising children is a parenting issue, not a mom issue. Our spouses need to know it’s a parenting issue, and the schools need to know it too. “The schools default to moms. The schools absolutely default to moms,” says Tania, the sole breadwinner, echoing a complaint I heard from so many women.

The commercial banker tells me, “I get notices about PTO meetings at 8:45 Monday morning. Okay, who doesn’t have a staff meeting Mondays? Who’s available for that? Or, the e-mail comes out on Wednesday to pick up your stuff for the fund-raiser for two o’clock on Thursday. Two o’clock on Thursday? How am I going to do that? So I e-mailed the PTO president and asked if she had any suggestions for working parents. She delivered them, which I thought was really nice but also overkill—like I kind of felt like, ‘Well, shouldn’t I be able to pick up?’”

Co-Parenting Is Possible

Krissa, a full-time, self-employed consultant, says she and her husband, who is also self-employed, completely co-run their home. She said it took a few years to get to that place and that part of it involved educating her children’s schools. “We pushed to have his name added to everything. No conversation happens without both of us. All the teachers know we have to both be included on everything.” One small but significant change that happened in her school district was the classroom directory, which used to only list contact information for children’s mothers, now includes a place to list the fathers too.

Michelle, the PhD student, has also retrained her children’s school to stop deferring to her on everything. “When my daughter has a fever or something, they immediately call me. And I’ll say it’s my husband’s turn to get her.”

For women like Michelle, changing the status quo is more than an issue of equity. It’s about raising the next generation to be that much more aware than this one. Her husband shares grocery shopping duties and she wonders if her daughter notices. “I just hope that I can make her enough of a feminist so that she makes her own decision.” Michelle has a healthy, long-term approach to her current situation. While we work to find balance in our own lives, we also need to prepare the next generation for changing gender roles and dynamics at work and at home.

Is Babysitting a Trap?

Alison, a writer, also wants to raise her four daughters to be self-sufficient and self-fulfilled. She says that when her girls were small, “I wanted my daughters to think of nobody else in the world but themselves, to follow their own goals, to just bypass all that nurturing and babysitting shit, and get jobs that pay good money. And all of that stuff, it’s a struggle. I think a lot of it is internally programmed.”

“I was successful,” Alison says. “Very few [of my daughters] babysat. I think it’s the first step in the trap, I really think it is. It’s that sort of mommy’s little helper thing. If she wants to make cookies, she’s in charge. She’s going to be on a stepstool measuring things. She’s not going to be opening the fridge to get me an egg. She’s not going to be helping me. She’s going to be the boss.”

Alison and Michelle know that women can’t be what they don’t see. And what so many women see are images of women as supermom, not superwoman.

Of course, no woman is really a superwoman—at least I’m not. Still you don’t need to remind me. Here are six things I hope you never say to me or any working mother:


Do you have to work? First of all, that’s none of your business. Second of all, it’s completely irrelevant. Some women enjoy working. But if you mean, do I have to work from two to two thirty on Wednesday when the class is decorating gingerbread houses? Yes, I have a meeting with my boss at that time. Otherwise, I’d try to rearrange my schedule…again.

Don’t feel guilty. Who said anything about guilt? You did, not me. I may be frustrated that the teacher didn’t choose the field trip chaperones until three days before the outing and that’s not enough notice for me to miss work. I may be crazed because I am trying to find a skin-colored leotard with black straps by tomorrow. Maybe I feel disappointed that I am going to miss my daughter’s play because I’ll be out of town. Most likely, I am exhausted because I got up at 5:00 a.m. to get some work done before the science fair. But I don’t feel guilty about providing a paycheck for my family.

This is important, so do your best to be there. I don’t need to be reminded how important it is for me to be involved in my child’s education. In fact, I think it’s the administration or school staff or PTO board that needs the reminder if they’re the ones responsible for planning an event at an inconvenient time or with too little notice. I do my best every day. But I cannot reschedule a client meeting or business trip or deadline with little notice. If I could, I would.

Don’t worry. Your child will be fine if you’re not there. Who said anything about my child? I know my child will survive if I don’t volunteer at the holiday bazaar. And I even think my child benefits from my missing a concert or two. What better way to learn to perform for the joy of it instead of for the applause? But I understand that life is short and our children grow up fast, and so I want to be there.

I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t stand to miss out on my child’s activities. I don’t need to explain why you should never say this. It’s horrible and you know it.

I guess if you’re going to work, you have to accept that you’ll miss out. As a working parent, I don’t expect to be at every event. But what I do expect is enough planning, communication, and courtesy that I can choose the events I will miss and the events I will use my vacation or personal time to attend. What I will never accept is missing events that I may have been able to attend if only I had enough notice.

And the one thing we’d love to hear you say?

You’re right. All parents are busy and need more notice and flexibility. Let’s work together to effect positive change.