Equality: Before and After a Baby
Addition & Division
Before we had a baby
Before we had a baby, it was pretty easy for Peter and me to be equally engaged in household labor.
Sans kids, “household labor” boils down to (1) keeping the house clean, (2) keeping household essentials and groceries in stock, (3) making meals, (4) basic yard work, and (5) fixing anything that breaks.
This is a reasonable amount of work, which occurs on a regular and predictable timeline. The list of to-do items doesn’t change much: we can assume dinner will be required every night, that the grass will need mowing, that we’ll need to clean the toilet and replace the toilet paper, etc.
None of this work is very high stakes, either. If we don’t feel like cooking, we can always make frozen veggie burgers and toss a salad, or if we didn’t grocery shop, we can order takeout. If the bathroom is dirty for an extra day, it’s not a big deal.
Peter and I have roughly equal abilities across this list of household tasks. Sure, we end up dividing some tasks based on preferences (I clean the shower, Pete mows the lawn) but we are both equally capable of doing whatever needs doing: cooking, cleaning, coordinating home repairs, etc.
We also share standards for these activities: we both prefer the house clean and organized, enjoy eating fresh food every day, like having toilet paper in-stock, and so on.
For these reasons, Peter and I never had much discussion about household labor before we had a baby. Dinner was cooked. Groceries were purchased. The house was reasonably tidy and clean. This was a low-friction situation.
Then we had a baby
In our experience, household labor before kids is reasonable and can be easily shared between equally skilled partners.
After having a baby, this starts to break down.
“Household labor” post-baby is an unreasonable amount of work. It includes what feels like endless meals for baby and for parents (one of whom is constantly handless due to holding said baby), constant baby bouncing or soothing, the Sisyphean task of getting the baby to fall asleep and stay asleep, researching and learning about whatever potentially worrisome thing is happening, managing baby inventory (diapers, clothes, and so on), managing baby appointments (doctor, lactation, etc), plus juggling paid work and childcare, plus all the household tasks that you had before. Insert head exploding emoji.
This work also occurs on a completely unreasonable timeline. Your baby is the craziest boss you’ve ever had, calling at random times with absolutely inane, often unintelligible requests that require you to drop everything you’re doing right now and attend to them. These tasks also take widely variable amounts of time - you cannot necessarily know how long it will take you to soothe the baby, or get them to sleep, especially in the early weeks/months. (Oh and your boss doesn’t acknowledge weekends or holidays. Or vacations. Or sick days.)
Finally, keeping a baby alive and (relatively) happy feels incredibly high stakes, a feeling that is amplified by the fact that nobody is sleeping very much.
It’s also really difficult, due to physical constraints (i.e. breastfeeding) and social standards (i.e. unequal and generally terrible parental leave) for both parents to be equally competent at these new childcare-based household tasks.
Why are moms so overwhelmed?
When housework and childcare tasks pile up, the data shows women take on much more of the burden. Emily Oster wrote a useful piece parsing the data: studies show that women do more housework. This holds true even if women make more money than their male partners. Not until women bring in more than 90% of the income (!!) does the housework time become equal.
As Oster shares, evidence from other countries (like Sweden) and same-sex couples doesn’t support these same findings. She concludes from this that, “There is no reason things couldn’t be split more evenly; they just aren’t.”
I think what Oster means is that there is no GOOD reason why household work couldn’t be split more evenly. There are, of course, reasons for why this gender divide is so strong, and why it’s so much stronger in the United States than in other developed countries.
As sociologist Jessica Calarco summed it up in this very good interview with Anne Helen Peterson, “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”
Physical limitations make this hard. But terrible social policies make it much harder.
The non-birthing parent does not have the same physical skillset as the birthing parent. This starts in pregnancy. By and large, mothers do the research about what to eat while pregnant, what doctor to choose, what birth options to choose, what baby gear they’ll need. While this makes sense on some level as this is the mother’s body we’re talking about, it also starts a chain reaction in which Mom is the researcher and planner, dedicating at least half her brain to the baby’s needs, even while said baby is still in utero.
Peter is what I would consider an eager and engaged partner. Nevertheless, with the exception of portions of Expecting Better, he did not proactively read, watch, or listen to any information to do with pregnancy/birth/infants without me. I researched birth courses, selected one, and then requested that Peter watch portions with me.
Next comes feeding. The physical reality is that breastfeeding and/or pumping is a specialized skill that only one parent has, and it’s required many, many times a day. Peter was always more than happy to feed Wren a bottle in the morning so I could sleep in, but I still had to pump that bottle at some point prior so he had milk to feed her, and then pump afterwards to ensure my milk supply was protected. This is not a 1:1 time replacement.
Parental leave is typically longer for the birthing parent/mom, if either parent has any leave at all. This exacerbates the skillset difference. Now the parent who is more capable at feeding the baby is also required to put in the time to be better at soothing them, getting them to sleep, changing them and knowing their changing preferences. Because Mom is likely to spend more time with the baby while Dad is back at work, now she is probably also the parent texting friends asking questions, Googling concerns late at night, researching and shopping for necessary items, and so on. When Dad clocks out of work, even if he immediately rushes to the baby’s side to help out, he is less competent at all this parental work. He just hasn’t put in the reps.
In our experience, parental leave for both parents is essential to ensuring infant care skillsets are as close to equal as possible. While I was CEO, our parental policy at Wild Friends was 12 weeks for a “primary caregiver” and 8 weeks for “non-primary caregiver.” I added this policy to our guidebook as a childless 23-year-old. I realize now that it makes no sense to have different policies, as this just perpetuates the idea that a “non-primary caregiver” should even exist. Everyone in a family should be providing care, regardless of their working hours: for the baby, the birthing parent, another kid, themselves, their homes, or ideally all of the above.
On top of it all, if men even get parental leave, there is often intense pressure in and out of the workplace not to take it. (Example A: Joe Rogan making fun of Pete Buttigieg for taking paternity leave. Rogan’s question - “Isn’t that supposed to be for the person who gave birth?” - demonstrates how massively misunderstood care work is.)
Unaddressed gender gaps only get wider
If your household labor is divided along gender lines pre-baby (i.e. female partner does more grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning because she is “better” at those things) having a baby will amplify this even more. Post-baby, the birthing parent has much less time to shop, cook and clean. If their partner can’t competently pick up the slack, it’s a recipe for overwhelm and resentment.
Author and podcast host Glennon Doyle released a podcast episode in which her sister Amanda shared her intense overwhelm. In the episode, Amanda marvels at the fact that when she tells her friends that her husband cooks and grocery shops, her friends tell her, “You are SO LUCKY.” And yet she can’t even imagine a world in which her husband’s friends would tell him the same thing about her contributions to the household.
I’ve pictured that scene a hundred times since: “Dude, you are SO LUCKY! Your wife takes the kids on weekends? Your wife vacuums the whole house - without being asked?” It feels so laughable that it’s basically an SNL skit.
I want to live in a world where everyone feels lucky to have help and care from their partners - not just overworked, under-praised mothers being told to feel lucky because their partners contribute.
The nuclear family is not enough.
This may or may not be surprising: Two people is just not enough to divide all this work.
A friend of mine had an “ah-ha!” moment when her therapist described sharing household labor in this way:
Household labor used to be a pie - which you can expect to divide somewhat equally with a partner. Now, it’s an all-you-can-eat pie buffet. You can no longer use how full you are as a gauge of whether your partner should “eat” more of the work. Just because you’re totally full doesn’t mean your partner isn’t totally full too. There is just a lot more work to do. The work is infinite, and it can’t be equally divided.
But what about all the moms - including our personal friends - who we see “doing it” online? The ones who post on their kids’ birthdays that they have “never experienced a joy like this” and who share one pot meal tips and seem to have the extra time to do their hair too?
”Mom-influencer” researcher Kathryn Jezer-Morton writes, ”Instagram is pure PR for the nuclear family, and it totally erases how much childcare has always been shared within communities — and how much families have always relied on each other to raise their kids.”
Wouldn’t it be great if every email we received from parents came with a signature line, sharing who was enabling their work? “This email is sent to you courtesy of my daycare, my mom who picks the kids up four days a week, the two women who come weekly to clean my house, and my partner, who got up at 3am with the sick kid and who grocery shopped and is making dinner tonight.”
For many people, this unreasonable household and childcare labor is piled on top of unreasonably demanding jobs. When paid labor demands more hours from parents than can fit in a manageable work week, what we end up with is women working overtime on childcare to make it all work.
For example, what my friend texted me when she heard I was writing about the concept of post-baby equality:
“[Equality is] a big complicated topic, like when your husband doesn’t get all his work done during the week and has to work on the weekend so the mom ends up doing more hours of childcare alone on top of the 12 hours she does every other day of the week. And the dad is like I’d rather be doing childcare right now and the mom is like I know but you’re not and I am. And I see you and I hear you and it’s not the childcare part I don’t like, it’s the inequality of it all. And sometimes, yes, I also want a break from childcare to do other things.”
What happens when work robs our families of collective time? Statistically, women step up and do more.
So while yes, there are tactics and plans we can hammer out with our partners to be equally invested in raising children and sharing a household, the reality is that raising a family is not a sustainable zero-sum game. As long as we think it should be, we’ll eat SO MUCH pie and remain resentful at our partners for leaving the all-you-can-eat buffet to take a nap. When in reality, what we need is more help, and more freedom to leave the buffet ourselves.
Nobody has a life hack to make that freedom magically appear for everyone. There is no app for that. As Calarco says, “Moms don’t need advice right now. They need politicians and business owners and community leaders and their own partners to step up and give them the support they deserve.”
The support we deserve (an incomplete list): wider and less restrictive social benefits, universal healthcare and universal preschool, ensuring universal access to affordable childcare, parental leave, and sick leave, and the consideration of bold programs like Universal Basic Income to (finally) compensate the unpaid care work so often done by women.
A note for Oregon people: I am currently following along with Family Forward Oregon. I’m hoping to get involved to help make more of these policies a reality here in Oregon.
Equality is a great societal target. But it’s not my personal focus.
I desperately want gender equality in my society. I want equal representation. I want equal pay. I want equal healthcare outcomes. I want equal freedom for women to have sex and not have babies if we don’t want them.
But within my family, I think labor “equality” is kind of a terrible goal. Not because it’s not what Peter and I might want in theory, but because to actively define and measure it on a household level does not feel worthwhile.
First of all, we would have to be pretty clear on what we think should be equal. Equal time spent on household tasks? Equal time spent on the baby, specifically? Or do we mean equal hours spent sleeping, or equal ability to pursue our careers? And so on.
Then we have to be clear on the timeline. Are we talking equal hours of labor in any given day? Each week? A year? Over the child’s lifetime? These are very different goals and would involve planning our lives differently.
I cheer on nationwide studies to understand the current state of gender equality in the home. But in my own personal relationship and home, I don’t want to conduct research studies.
I care less about whether everything “is equal” objectively and more about whether Peter and I each feel that our shared choice to have children is reflected in a shared investment in the labor it entails. Feelings aren’t a straightforward measurement for nationwide data, but they are (in my opinion) the most important measurements in a relationship and family.
So what does a “shared investment” in childcare and household labor feel like?
Here’s what a shared investment in the labor of childcare and household tasks feels like to me:
A shared strong interest in all members of the family having the same access to happiness and joy. This means Peter and I are observing each other, communicating, and taking on more than our “fair” share when our partner is depleted - not for the sake of “equality” but because we love each other.
A shared contribution of time to the “collective.” Our time used to be solely our own. Not anymore. All our time is now contributed to the collective good - then we request time out of the collective stockpile. Nap time? Gym time? Hobby time? Working extra hours or making up for procrastination on the weekend? These all merit a conversation with whoever will be providing or coordinating childcare while we perform our alternate activities. We agree this should be true for both parents.
A shared understanding of the insurmountability of the labor. We agree that we will require outside support from our community and paid contributors in order to “do it all” - and even then it won’t all be “done.” This mindset allows us both to do things for fun, rest, and happiness - and to leave the dishes in the sink when needed. This requires agreeing to drop our shared standards for cleanliness and timeliness significantly.
A shared interest in gaining competence in key childcare and household skills: feeding, naps, bedtime, playing/soothing, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, etc.
A shared willingness to release perfectionism, learn from the other, and to remain curious. As the “default parent” over here, I can attest this is HARD. When you think you’ve perfected the nap schedule, to then leave the baby with dad who you are sure will fuck it all up with his crazy scheme to take the baby on a walk at a random, non-sanctioned time (probably with too many/too few layers on), it’s hard to let go and think, “We’ll see what happens!” But guess what - it usually works out just fine! I’ve learned a lot about Wren’s flexibility and versatility from letting others care for her. The key is to get your head out of the day and focus on the long term.
That’s our big picture philosophy on equality in our household currently.
If you’re the kind of person who likes reading the nitty gritty of other people’s schedules (raises hand) then keep reading. If not, you won’t like what’s coming next…
Tactics and schedules: helpful, but insufficient
After 2500 words of what I have deemed necessary context (lack of social support, diffuse definition of “equality”, blah blah blah) here is our current set-up, including the tactics we find helpful right now to keep paid labor, childcare and household labor feeling like a shared investment.
I share this not because I think we have anything “figured out,” but because I believe the more we share the actual day-to-day details of care work, the more we can stop blaming ourselves for not being able to life hack our way through parenting, and we can instead focus on advocating for the larger supports our society so badly needs.
Peter works full time, but from home, and his hours are flexible.
I’m currently doing consulting work 8-10 hours a week. All my work is from home.
I took 4 weeks off completely from work and then did some hours here and there after that, moving up to my current schedule a couple months in. My leave was paid.
Peter took 2 weeks off right away. His leave was unpaid, and he can take up to 12 unpaid weeks in the first year. He is planning on taking 6 more sometime this year. Working from home has been incredibly important in ensuring Peter (a) remains competent at baby care activities and (b) sees and appreciates all the invisible labor that goes into baby care during the day when he’s working.
My mom does 10 hours of scheduled childcare a week plus occasional ad-hoc care. Peter’s parents usually do a few hours on another day. I usually work during nap time on other days. I think we will add some in-home care or daycare to this schedule over the next 3-6 months, so I can take on more consulting and advocacy work.
When we don’t have childcare lined up, during Peter’s work hours (M-F, roughly 9-5) I am in charge of caring for Wren.
Outside of Work Hours
Peter and I trade off morning shifts. Wren wakes up at or before 6am most mornings. So every other day, one of us does the 6am-7:30am shift, and then we trade off at 7:30am (she naps around 8:30am).
We typically tag-team Wren’s evening care 5pm through bedtime (~6:30ish). Peter cooks dinner or hangs with Wren in the evening, depending on which task I’d prefer to do.
Weekends are a similar tag team - we hang together a lot, but we also trade off care for personal activities like working out, naps, chores, or socializing.
Peter grocery shops and manages all household inventory (toilet paper, etc).
I do laundry, clean the bathroom, and scrape the accumulated spit-up, dirt, and mashed carrot off the floor every few weeks.
We both clean as we go constantly - tidying up Wren’s stuff, doing dishes, and so on.
We always make breakfast and lunch for two since we both work from home - we trade off here, no formal schedule, but it feels roughly even.
We’ve agreed to drop standards across the board. We eat more frozen food, only do dishes once a day, vacuum less often, and generally just tolerate a messier environment. I used to feel that I couldn’t work unless my office was clean and tidy and now I hop on my computer whenever I have the chance. I’ve never been more effective in so little time. It’s actually kind of cool to see.
Massive Privilege Caveat
Allow me to acknowledge the myriad layers of privilege inherent in all of this: we both work flexibly and from home, we live within a mile of both of our parents, all of whom are healthy, and we are financially secure. We live a relatively extremely easy parenting experience - and it still doesn’t feel easy! This experience informs a lot of my passion behind installing more social safety nets for families.
Whew, we made it.
There is so much to say on this topic.
On that note, I’d love to hear (truly, would love to, no detail too small or thought too rambling): how do you think about the concept of equality in your partnership (whether you have kids or not)? Reply and let me know.
This newsletter is brought to you by my mom and by Peter’s parents, who care for Wren during my work hours, by Peter, who invests in competence in childcare and home labor, and by my friend Caroline, who is a great mom and a great editor, too.
Thank you for this. My husband and I read this out loud to each other and nodded all the way through. We're hoping to start a family soon, and a lot of this has weighed heavy on my mind. It's immensely helpful to hear another, thoughtful perspective.
The idea of focusing on feelings as a measurement is so refreshing to me. So often I hear that the solution involves logisticizing my life & partnership, breaking down all the tasks, or coming up with a new system or chart (I am not great at these things nor do I have space for this type of task). And, especially as a woman, I am sometimes told to FEEL less!! I love that your "hack" does not involve adding anything wildly new, but is simply to feel & to let your partner feel (of course, checking in about those feelings takes time and attention). Thank you for writing this.