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Parents' Roles And Stereotypes: Who Does What In Your House?

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Let's play a game.

Who does the grocery shopping at your house? Takes out the trash? Puts the kids to bed? Walks the dog? Plans the birthday parties? Notices when the kids needs haircuts? Waters the indoor plants? Mows the outdoor ones? Pays the bills? Wrestles with the kids before bedtime? Is the fun parent? Is the disciplinarian? Is the better cook? Is more of a neatnik?

Why?

Is it because you enjoy (fill in the blank) more than your other half (assuming you live with one, because if not then you are obviously doing all of the above and we will get to that in a moment).

Or is it because it is assumed that (fill in the blank) somehow belongs to you? Are there unwritten and unquestioned divisions of labor in your life that tick you off -- assumptions made either by you or by someone else?

In an essay on her blog Mom 101, Liz Gumbinner tackled the often invisible, usually toxic, nature of assumptions. She wrote the essay to defend men, in general, and those insulted by a recent article in Working Mother in particular -- an article which describes dads as fun, sure, but downright incompetent. In the world according to Working Mother, fathers count "a leftover hotdog bun and beef jerky" as lunch, and actually take the kids to the park without "sunscreen, a hat, a snack, water bottles..." (Horrors!) They don't enter anything in the family calendar, nor believe in the "mom instinct" which can predict when a child is getting sick, or know how to match a pair of pants with a shirt. And they ignore their children in order to check their email and the latest sports scores.

Putting aside for the moment whether any of these things are de facto crimes, Liz Gumbinner calls foul on the premise that parenting strengths and weaknesses are determined by gender. You've probably never met Liz, or her husband, Nate, but based on what she assumes that you assume about men and women, she asks readers to guess which half of her household each of these sentences describe:

Forgets sunscreen when we head to the park.....

Makes wholesome lunches....

Yells at other parent for making peanut butter sandwiches with carrot sticks every day because [delete extra space]parent A would rather force the kids to try something healthy and new while parent B is happy just to know the kids are eating anything at all. ...

Knows exactly what to do with a hangnail....

Can't make eggs...

Gets yelled at for checking the phone too often ...

Believes that kids need to lose sometime and not everyone gets a trophy...

The answers, she says, are Liz; Nate; Nate; Nate; Liz; Liz; both Liz AND Nate. (That last one, she says, is a trick question.)

Her point? Pretty obvious, no?

Sure, there are some individuals who match stereotype. And yes, broadly measured, it is still accurate that mothers are still more likely to do "mother" things (work part-time, earn less money, perform a larger percentage of childcare and housekeeping tasks). But while those things are true, they are not as true as they used to be, and in so many instances they have nothing to do with your truth. I'm betting that, without much effort, you can think of parents -- probably even in your own home -- who are a scramble of expected and unexpected traits. And if you can't come up with an example from your own circle, I am happy to introduce you to any number of single parents or same-sex couples who are the ultimate proof that division of parenting labor (and parenting halos and demerits) are not determined by gender.

But wait, I hear you asking, if the old assumptions are still somewhat true, then aren't articles/books/movies/TV shows/coffee klatches that trade on those assumptions a) funny and b) valuable ways of exposing and potentially eradicating the old ways?

Actually, I thought parts of the Working Mother piece were funny. And I am all for pointing out unquestioned anachronisms wherever they appear. But as Gumbinner shows, there is a danger in trading in old stereotypes, mostly that it keeps us from noticing how far we've actually come.

Yes, women still earn less than men. But they are nearly 50 percent of the workforce for the first time in history, and are poised to outearn men within a few years. Yes, women still make more use of parent-friendly policies in the workplace. But the number of men is steadily increasing, and reaching parity in many workplaces. Yes, more women stay home with the children than men, but the number of men who do so has jumped in recent years (and seems to be staying at those higher levels even as the economy rebounds). Yes, many mothers are better at making lunches and keeping track of playdates and remembering sunscreen. But many fathers are, too.

And the reason that paying attention matters to this glass half full is because the more attention we pay, the more normative this becomes, which means the more it is likely to happen, until eventually we'll simply stop noticing anymore. If we start out by paying attention, the payoff could be a division of daily life not by Him and Her, or Mom and Dad, but Who Does What Best, and Who Compromises And Does Stuff They Don't Like.

Give it a name if you want. At its grandest, it's called Equally Shared Parenting, and it can be caricatured as an extreme -- with lots of lists, and charts, and measurement. But in its more practical, everyday form, it's just life -- or what life should be.

So, here's the version of the quiz from my house:

Who is the far better cook? Bruce

Walks the dog most of the time? Lisa

Is the parent the boys want when they are sick? Bruce

Never changed a diaper nor held a baby before our first child was born? Lisa

Sits around and watches sophomoric comedies with the boys? Lisa

Always knew he or she wanted to be a parent and pretty much had to talk his or her spouse into it? Bruce

Okay, your turn. Use the comments to share your own unpredictable divisions of talents and labor. Let's create a portrait of how mothers and fathers really make it all work.