In this series of columns, we discuss how parents can be a strong team in the great – and sometimes amazingly difficult! – undertaking of raising a family. The results include well-adjusted children, a sense of harmony between their parents, and good solutions to the practical problems of everyday life.

Past columns have explored effective ways parents can communicate and negotiate with each other; the previous one covered how to “parent from the same page.” Here, we will discuss the (often heated) issue of who does what and how to share the load fairly.

What Load?

The amount of mental and physical work that comes with children is staggering. It ranges from figuring out what color to paint the new baby’s bedroom while you’re pregnant to – eighteen years later – helping him pack for college.

This work comes in three essential forms:

  • Tasks – These are all the specific things you do to raise a child and manage a home, such as walking a baby, washing clothes, settling a squabble between siblings, balancing a checkbook, arranging a playdate, making a living, or talking with a teacher.
  • Stresses – Besides your concrete actions, the work of raising a family includes the wear and tear on your mind and body. From the hormonal gyrations of pregnancy to the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence – with just a few tantrums, trips to the emergency room, and questions about body-piercing in between – parenthood as a package will be the most stressful experience of most people’s lives.
  • Responsibilities – Children live in your heart and weigh on your mind. You worry about what to do with the latest ear infection, which school is best, or why your daughter’s so-called friends seem so mean. The consequences of your decisions can be monumental: literally, the health and welfare of an innocent child. Yet the nature of parenting is learning on the fly, scrambling to deal with one weird situation after another that you’ve never seen before. No wonder you want a true partner, someone to bounce things off of, someone you can lean on from time to time, someone who takes it all as seriously as you do.

Who Carries It?

These days “the village it takes to raise a child” often looks like a ghost town, without the supportive networks of relatives and neighbors that helped families in past generations, the social context in which humans evolved to raise children over several million years. As a result, the work of making a family today falls mainly on the shoulders of just two people: the parents. (Or even worse, onto just one parent, a single mother or father.) That’s already more than they are meant to carry, pushing them out of Condition Green into Condition Yellow even when they have a strong partnership. The best they can do is to find ways to swim skillfully upstream against the currents of modern life that push pervasively against the needs of their family.

And if either does less than his or her share, the other one is shoved toward Condition Red: more things to do, less sleep, more stress, less time to eat right, more health problems, more guilt over not keeping every single ball in the air every second, more loneliness, more dismay and resentment and anger. Compounding things, the parent who is dropping his or her end of the log may have the audacity to wonder, “Why don’t we ever talk/go to the movies/make love any more?”

Many couples share the tasks, stresses, and responsibilities of making a family evenly and fairly, swimming upstream with tenacity, skill, and grace. But that’s the exception. Unfortunately, the rule tilts mainly against the one who cares for the kids:

  • Tasks – The average caregiver works altogether fifteen to twenty hours more per week than the other parent, whether he or she is drawing a paycheck or not. It’s not hard to get there: an hour in the morning, an hour at night, a few hours on each weekend day . . . it adds up pretty fast.
  • Stresses – Tending to young children, hour after hour, is more stressful than most jobs, as shown by the fact that parents who stay home generally have worse health than those who place their kids in child care and go off to the workplace. Therefore, the parent who stays home while the other one goes off to work has a day that is usually more stressful (unless that partner does something like air traffic control or undercover police work).

Even if both parents spend about the same amount of time doing tasks, one parent typically does high-stress things that are emotionally charged, constantly interrupted, require juggling several balls at once, and deal with factors that are often outside their control, such as a child’s health. The other parent, on the other hand, often gets to do more peaceful tasks that they can schedule at will and carry to completion.

  • Responsibilities – It is striking that, for all the advances for women in the workplace over the past thirty years, little has changed at the “Board of Directors” level in most families: it is still usually the caregiver who does most of the worrying, planning, and problem-solving where the children are concerned. It’s lonely at the top of the typical American family, particularly since there is rarely a community of supportive parents who can fill some of the vacuum of leadership.

Sometimes one parent will work sixty or seventy hours each week, including business travel, and then (in the best case) help as much as they can on evenings and weekends. The problem is that their job is like an elephant in the living room, crowding out his or her children or partner. Then everyone loses. Children grow up with a subtle sense of missing one parent. That parents misses out on a special time that will never be repeated, trading it for career pushes that could be postponed a few years in most cases. The caregiver becomes a de facto single parent. And if this goes on for more than a year or so, some spouses may be able to maintain a deeply intimate partnership, working around the elephant, but frankly, we’ve never seen it.

Clear Facts

The issues around sharing the load are often so charged that the best place to begin is by clarifying the facts. Then you have a solid foundation for establishing clear principles and agreements.

If you and your partner disagree about the facts, we suggest that you simply track, for at least a few days and ideally for a week, who does what and for how much time. Just jot down each day how you each spent your time, compare notes, and (presumably) agree on the facts of that day. Obviously, if your partner suddenly becomes an angel once the spotlight is on, you can comment on that. You could also suggest continuing to track time for a month or two, which would have one of three outcomes, all of which are good: (A) you might discover that you’ve had a better partner than you thought, (B) his or her true colors would be revealed over time if he/she could not sustain the miraculous transformation, or (C) what started as an exercise in looking good could become a habit.
You could each also make note of the stresses you experienced that day as well as the sense of responsibility you felt for planning, worrying, and problem-solving.

At the end of the period, compare notes. Try to agree on what the basic facts are. If you can’t, and the issues are significant, consider involving a third party as a kind of tie-breaker. Family counselors can help you and your partner mediate disagreements about sharing the load and come up with practical solutions.

Clear Principles

At bottom, the issues of sharing the load are moral ones. Here are some of the central issues, raised as questions, with some answers as points of departure for you to come up with your own:

  • What is in the best interests of my children? Among other things, it is to have parents who respect and support each other, and share equally the tasks, stresses, and responsibilities of raising a family. It is fine to do different things, such as one does the dishes while the other reads the stories. But significant inequities poison the well of a family.
  • What do I owe my partner? That my burdens are, in the main, no less than his or hers.
  • Is raising children as important as making a living? No. It’s more important. And generally harder.
  • Will I act according to these values? It’s not easy. But I need to try.

When your principles are clear, and when you can communicate them with dignity and gravity, you are much more likely to win the cooperation you yearn for from your partner. You are entitled to bring a moral seriousness to discussions of sharing the load, and to confront broken agreements for what they are, breaches of trust that erode the foundation of any important relationship.

Over the years, we have heard various objections to sharing the load fairly that we would like to anticipate and address. It’s unfortunate, but when it comes to inequities, there is no way to avoid talking about views expressed mainly by the family’s breadwinner, as in these sample conversations:

  • I do more than my dad did – That’s wonderful honey. But so what? Unfairness is unfairness. Just like you did not marry my mother, I did not marry your father.
  • You can’t pin me down so much, things change – If you had a colleague at work who said one thing but did another as often as you do at home, how would you feel and what would you do? You would probably feel let down and frustrated, and you would tell the person that there needed to be changes in the way he/she was acting. It’s the same here.
  • My job is so stressful that I need to rest at home – Remember how you nearly fainted with relief when I finally got home after you were alone with the kids that one time for a few hours? Now imagine that, for twelve hours instead of a few, and for a thousand days instead of one. If we’re talking about getting a break based on the stress level of our typical day, I’m the one who should be heading for a bubble bath right now.
  • I make the money, so you should handle the housework and kids – I do handle the housework and kids while you are making money (or driving to work, etc.). I’m talking about what you do when you’re not making money. It’s not fair for me to keep working, pulling a “second shift,” while you watch TV, read the paper, or fiddle with the Internet. How would you feel about someone at work who did that sort of thing while you were pounding away at your job? I bet you’d be resentful and eager for them to do their share . . . which is exactly how I feel. Beyond fairness, where are your principles? You wanted children and now we’ve got them. You can see that it’s best for them when we are both involved in the morning, at night, or over the weekend.

Clear Agreements

Once you come together on basic principles, agreements about practical actions usually follow. It’s pretty straightforward when you share a similar outlook. For example, it took a while when our kids were little, but we finally realized that we had to check in with each other about how we spent our time. We created a basic schedule that guided our week even if we never stuck to it perfectly. And we made some loose agreements about who would generally do what. We still became ticked off at each other sometimes, but we kept hammering away at our differences and resolved most of them over time. Many, many parents have done just the same.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.