Unequal Parenting in the 21st-Century

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A woman and man standing next to each other in the kitchen.The reality is that even in 2022, we live in a society where we are socialized to be unequal in our parenting.

I love my husband and know that he is a feminist in many ways (don’t tell him I said that – so many guys still see it as a dirty word). He regularly cooks dinner. He does all the laundry. And best of all, he fully supports me working and the sometimes-crazy hours or long trips I need to take to succeed.

But at the same time, he still grew up entrenched in a sexist society that makes us believe that the mom and the dad have specific jobs. A few months ago, this became abundantly clear when my job got a bit crazy. I was putting in a lot of extra hours, spending more days at work while he was spending most of his days working from home.

And on one of those days, I got home to a home-cooked meal with a sick kid complaining about their ailment, and apparently, the cat had vomited during the day. I sat down to dinner and said thanks for the lovely meal. I asked him about his day. He replied by saying it was terrible and that he “felt like the mom.”

I have to say I was in shock. And I was a little bit pissed. Yes, he had a rough day at home, and I breezed in after work to enjoy a nice dinner with my family. But at the same time, there had been many years in our family where the roles were reversed. The thing is, there was no way I was going to accept that the old habit was the “normal” or “right” way for things to be.

My family is composed of two working parents, two kids, two cats, and one new puppy. We have a hectic schedule that needs to be carefully planned. We are fortunate enough to have the financial resources to pay for the support of a wonderful babysitter who helps us every day after school to manage our routines.

But as a 21st-century family, we need to be able to give and take. Doing more heavy lifting at home isn’t the “mom” job anymore. It is the job of the parent that has the flexibility and energy to do the heavy lifting. It is the job of the parent that doesn’t have an impending deadline and work pressure to level up.

And yes, throughout the 20th century, the vast majority of the time, the person with the more demanding job has been the dad. But just because that is how it has been doesn’t mean that is the way it should be.

Thankfully, due to my many years of going to therapy and some coaching at work on having difficult conversations that can be constructive, I didn’t just flip out. I took a deep breath.

I asked him if he had heard what he had just said. As he thought, I waited. He was able to realize what he had said.

I then asked him what he meant by that and if he thought it was reasonable to expect that the mom was supposed to be the one doing all the heavy lifting at home. I silently waited while he processed my question. He then exploded with all kinds of thoughts and started to share all of his feelings of being overwhelmed by the crazy day.

I showed him empathy, and we had a long conversation. In the end, he realized how much his upbringing and his socialization had led him to take me for granted. And he apologized.

It was a great moment in our marriage. Ever since then, things have changed. He recognizes all the work that happens when he is out of the house and I am working from home. And regardless of where he is working, he lifts more of the family load.

For instance, he has taken the kids to the doctor three of the last four times they needed to go when in the first 12 years of our parenting lives, I took the kids to every single appointment. This is huge, in so many ways, not just for me but also for our kids. He helps the kids with their schoolwork more, orders supplies, and nags them to get their things done. 

Like many families, when the COVID Pandemic hit, our kids were sent home for virtual learning, and our employers were forced to start getting more comfortable with the idea of working from home. This change in company culture shook up our family for sure.

I think that we are working better together now than ever. We needed a little disruption and stress to shake us out of our roles to realize the stress and the hard work that the other was usually bearing.

I am sure I will one day write about how much I don’t envy the go-getter, stressful career, hard-working, every day is a grind to get more done at work parent (who before the pandemic was a much better description of my husband than me). But that is for a different blog post.

Until then, I can say that I am thankful that even if we have unequal parenting, I know that in my family, the scale can shift in both directions so that we can each achieve our working goals. We both know that the other will be there to help pick up the slack and keep our crazy household moving in the right direction. We are a team, and we are there for each other every step of the way. 

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Erika is a professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies and mom to two kids (2010 and 2013) plus two cats (2005 and 2019). A Midwestern transplant who has lived in 32 places, she has happily called Fairfield her home for the past 12 years. At work, she directs a program to support first-generation and underrepresented student success in science. In town, she can often be found driving her kids back and forth to their respective sporting events and teams or sitting in a coffee shop using the wifi to get a little work done before pick up. Erika loves spending time enjoying the water, cooking, theater, reading, and hanging out with her husband.

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