by Anya Dunham, PhD
For millennia, across cultures, birth, postpartum, and baby care has been women’s work… but never the work of one woman (or any person) alone. Research points to 3 things that can make parenting together easier.
*Most of the research I cite here, and most of the research on division of labour and responsibility in parenting, has been done on heterosexual couples. However, I believe that the 3 main takeaways can help any family and parenting arrangement, and still apply to situations when your parenting partner is an extended family member or a nanny.
If you are parenting together with a partner and have a baby or young child... here is a question. When you are all in one room together, do you always tell each other when you're about to step out? Do both of you do it or only one of you?
In Western societies, the 1960s, when many mothers didn’t work outside the home, are sometimes thought of as family-oriented years. Today, the dual-income family is much more common, and working parents often feel guilty for not being able to spend more time at home. Yet studies across 16 Western countries show that today’s parents spend more face-to-face time with their children than those in the 1960s did.1-3
We live with the cultural expectation of “intensive” parenting.4 Today’s parents preserve and even increase the time they devote to their children by cutting down on their own leisure activities. And the number-one such “leisure” activity is… sleep.2
This trend — increasing the time we spend with our children — is true for both mothers and fathers. Fathers today are doing more housework and spending more time with their children than the fathers of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. But the gender gap remains: studies consistently show that on average, mothers are doing more work — and feeling more of the stress — that comes with parenthood.2,5
1. Learn together
When only one partner carries all the mental load of parenthood — anticipating needs, obtaining knowledge, identifying options, making decisions, and essentially being "the manager" of the family — it can be hard for them not to impose their insights or standards on the other partner. This can lead to gatekeeping.
Gatekeepers might do everything themselves or look over their partner’s shoulder, giving directions and subtly (or directly) criticizing how they interact with and care for the baby.
Gatekeeping can become a vicious cycle because the other partner backs off thinking they’ll never get it right; they engage less with the baby and feel less and less confident. At the same time, the gatekeeper is likely to feel overworked, exhausted, alone, and as if they are responsible for any and all mistakes.
To avoid gatekeeping, learn together by looking for evidence-based knowledge and by observing your baby. Share what you’ve learned and noticed. Take the time to discuss anything you disagree on; try to agree on big issues, especially those related to your baby’s health and safety.
2. Work together — but also apart
Usually one partner — often, though not always, Mom — spends more time with the baby. For the primary caregiver to get a break, and for the other partner to be truly involved, it helps to put some of the daily parenting tasks under the partner’s full responsibility.
When they consistently and fully take care of a task — for example, dinner or bath time — without having to be asked or reminded and from start to finish, the primary caregiver can truly let go of the task, physically and mentally.
If you choose to go this route, both you and your partner will need to accept that the other person might do things differently. Not necessarily better or worse, but differently. Whoever’s in charge of a task must have space to make their own decisions, not just execute the decisions made for them. And neither partner should look over the other’s shoulder or perceive their version as “less than.”
3. Appreciate each other
Should you make a special effort to distribute the parenting load equally? Probably not. Yours and your partner’s commitments outside your home, the needs of your baby, and your own needs and perceptions will continue to change, making it difficult, if not impossible, to be exactly the same amount of involved.
What matters is how you both feel about it. When it comes to housework, it’s often not the unequal division of labour that causes conflict, but the lack of recognition and appreciation.17 Perhaps the same is true for parenting together. Remember to notice what your partner does and to thank them.
And when it comes to emotional work of raising children, I once heard that partners should strive not for 50:50, but for 100:100. Connect with your baby fully and love her with all your heart; notice when your partner does the same.
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15. Schoppe-Sullivan SJ et al (2015) Who are the gatekeepers? Predictors of maternal gatekeeping. Parenting: Science and Practice 15(3): 166-186
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17. Ruppanner L, Brandén M, Turunen J (2017) Does unequal housework lead to divorce? Evidence from Sweden. Sociology 52(1): 75-94
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