It’s a Saturday morning ritual common to dual–working parent households: Parents come together and sort out what must be done and who will do what. Plans are made. On a good weekend, the schedule allows for something resembling leisure time for each partner. It’s not impossible.
On a recent Saturday my husband and I engaged in this scheduling pas de deux while eating breakfast. Food shopping came up, and he said he would do it on Sunday, after the gym. I told him that on Friday I had received an email from our son’s preschool teacher informing me that it was our turn to be snack parents for his class. “Oh, right,” he said, “his teacher called me yesterday. I forgot.” We decided that he would get what we need—three days’ worth of afternoon snacks for 12 3-year-olds—when he went food shopping.
On Sunday afternoon I headed to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with my son. We walked for a while and then found a wooden bench in an unusually quiet spot where we sat down and shared the carrot muffin I had packed for a snack. This, I thought, is leisure time, as we took bites and observed the sights and sounds around us. For a short while I was immersed in that sublime state psychologists call “flow”; I was absorbed in the moment, my reflective self-consciousness gone. I took another bite of carrot cake and then, pop, the bubble of bliss burst open as I remembered the school snacks. I hadn’t seen them in the shopping bags my husband brought home from Trader Joe’s. He had forgotten. Again. Damn.
This is a common pattern for us. Although we both have jobs, I cook more, clean more, and take care of our son more. (I’m accounting for the fact that he works five more hours a week than me.) He has his domestic tasks, including walking the dog, giving our son breakfast, and dealing with the recycling, but he can rarely be relied on when something outside of our routines arises. When you have kids, this happens all the time.
Contemporary parents live in more equitable homes than previous generations. Today’s dads spend three times as much time with their children and twice as much time on household chores than fathers in 1965. My husband does far more than either of our dads did, and he does it willingly and enthusiastically. (He’s never once “babysat” for our son.) Still, the housework and parenting gap persists, in my home and others, and it’s taking its toll on women’s careers and sanity.
Most working moms I know acknowledge that their husbands do less, but don’t try to incite change. They might complain, sometimes in front of their partners, but often with a tone of resignation, if not fondness. Men doing less is just how things are, they seem to suggest. In many ways, I envy them. Not only is bean-counting tedious, it’s also yet another line on that already burdensome to-do list.
Still, as someone who has spent years writing about motherhood and the unique burden it places on women, I can’t just carry on in the face of the minor injustices I regularly witness in our home. When I RSVP for somebody’s third-birthday party or notice that our son’s sock supply is running low and order new ones, or remember that we are snack parents, I am always aware that it’s me, not him, taking care of these things. I’m also always aware of how this labor affects my ability to concentrate at work or to enjoy a moment on a park bench with my son.
I used to turn each instance of imbalance into an existential dilemma that required a holistic response. My husband, who is eager to help more, even if not equally attuned to the needs of the household, was eager to comply. We made lists and spreadsheets, had long discussions, plotted weekly dinner menus, and scheduled nights off. Some of those plans were works of art, masterpieces of collaborative parenting that would have made us the change I so longed to see in the world. Alas, we never put them into practice. Our inertia stemmed not from resistance to change, but from the fact that we didn’t have the time or energy to implement a whole new life regime.
But I haven’t given up. Although making macro-level changes was a bust, I’ve found that dealing with our household work gap on a micro level can be effective. If my husband doesn’t check in about dinner until 6:30, or forgets to get a gift for Rex’s birthday, or only cleans the inner two-thirds of the baking sheet, I let him know, each and every time. In other words, I nag, and it works. It can take a few reminders before I see any change, and the change itself might be subtle and limited, but it’s enough to keep me hopeful. Maybe by the time we have another kid he’ll remember the snacks.