I know of few mothers and fathers who feel they truly share the household responsibilities equally. Which is probably why Jennifer Senior's recent Wall Street Journal piece, "Why Mom's Time Is Different Than Dad's Time," got so much attention (nearly 200 comments). Senior, who just published her book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, clearly hit a nerve.
In her research, Senior found that, as far as hours clocked, the division of labor has more or less equalized between mothers and fathers. But it's the kind of work each does and how mothers feel about the work they do that makes them unhappy and stressed. For instance, even though men may be doing more housework than in previous generations, women continue to be responsible for the more time-sensitive (and therefore stressful) moments of parenting, such as getting kids out the door in the morning.
I'm not a researcher in sociology, so I can't evaluate the evidence Senior presents about how men and women divide their parenting duties. But what really hit me was that the perception of how time was spent seemed to be the greatest indicator of how women felt about the division of labor in their families.
As a trained psychotherapist, that made me think that regardless of how the tasks are divided up in your house, what matters is how you feel about it, how you communicate that, and how well you are understood when you do. If I were to write a guide to surviving marriage when you have children, I would start by stressing the importance of not minimizing each other's experiences. How do you do that? You listen.
When you don't listen to what your partner is contending with on a daily basis, and you don't strive to understand how that makes him or her feel, you can't appreciate your partner's contributions to the family or understand your partner's struggles.
The editorial director of SELENI likes to tell the story of how she and her husband once had a joint therapy session that she anticipated would drive home the point that she was doing all the work in the family. Instead, they walked out realizing that, with a new baby in the house, both were working to the breaking point. But each needed a neutral setting and an outside observer to help them see that.
Yes, all parents work very hard. But when we get stuck in the stories in our heads about how much work we do, we can't see how much our spouse is contributing -- and we don't get the help we need.
I was also struck by Senior's observation that moms feel they are the conduit for the emotional undercurrents in the home and how stressful that is. If there is an imbalance in the family dynamic, just feeling understood and appreciated can go a long way toward lessening the damage from that kind of daily stress.
Even better, talking through the demands placed on you not only gives you a chance to feel appreciated and understood, it also gives you both an opportunity to consider how to redistribute household labor.
Without open communication, there can be no empathy. And without empathy, you and your partner end up separated by a wall of built-up resentments. So I suggest that, however you feel when you read Senior's article (understood, enraged, confused), take that opportunity to sit down with your partner and talk about your feelings. Then make it a habit.
Even when we make changes, it's easy to drift back into old routines. So sit down together regularly (weekly, monthly, whatever works for you) to check in about how parenthood is going. Then listen to each other and agree on any changes you need to make.
And let's make this a community conversation. Let's shed more light on the emotional experience of being a mother and being a father, so that it's a comfortable conversation for anyone to join.
This piece originally ran on seleni.org and is reprinted here with permission.