I’ve spent the past year interviewing married or cohabiting heterosexual mothers across the United States about the distribution of child-care labor in their home. Most of them did the lion’s share of the work and were angry with their partner. Yet many of them told me they were “grateful.” Over and over again, I heard women complain that they were doing more than their partner, only to then insist that they were lucky to have any help at all.
Take Andrea, a full-time marketing professional in Portland, Maine, and the mother of an elementary-school-age child. Although she sometimes feels that her husband, Patrick, who works for a health-insurance company, is “right there with her,” Andrea says he behaves like her junior apprentice in child-rearing. (These aren’t their real names. I granted my subjects anonymity in exchange for candor.)
“We had it out the other night, and then what did he say this morning? ‘I’m so sorry I can’t help you more. I feel so guilty about that.’ He’s helping me, instead of, like, ‘We’ve got to set up the conditions for both of us to be successful.’ But still, I have so many friends whose husbands have never put their child to bed, because it’s her job because she’s the mom. When I hear things like that, I feel really grateful.”
Andrea’s misplaced gratitude is not only common, but also an impediment to the elusive goal of equity in the home.
The number of mothers in the labor force who have young children hit its peak and leveled off two decades ago. So, too, did the parenting contributions of men. For the past 20 years, research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistently found that women employed outside of the home shoulder 65 percent of child-care responsibilities, and their male partners 35 percent.
Studies have also found that fathers who work long hours have wives who do more child care, while mothers who work long hours have husbands who sleep more and watch lots of television; that working mothers with preschool-age children are two and a half times as likely as fathers to get up in the middle of the night to tend to their kids; that men with babies spend twice as much weekend time engaged in leisure activity as their female partners do. Mothers remain more likely to miss work to tend to sick kids, to spend time with kids in the absence of another adult, and to maintain overall responsibility for managing the details of their children’s lives.
In 2017, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development called the uneven distribution of unpaid labor between men and women in the home one of the most important gender-equality issues of our time. And the problem isn’t going away; it afflicts even relatively young parents. “Millennial Men Aren’t the Dads They Thought They’d Be,” read a 2015 New York Times headline. MenCare, a fatherhood campaign working toward child-care parity in 45 nations, estimates that at the current rate of change, it will be another 75 years before women achieve gender equality in the home —a more optimistic figure than the 200 years the United Nations International Labour Organization predicted in March, on the eve of International Women’s Day.
Reports of the modern, involved father have been greatly exaggerated. As the social psychologist Bernadette Park has put it, any change “is more in ‘the culture of fatherhood’ than in actual behavior.” The so-called marriage-between-equals discourse, ever present in certain corners of the country, bears little resemblance to what really goes on in the home. Even among couples who say they’ve achieved equal partnership, studies find that their mutual decisions tend to favor the needs and goals of the husband much more than the wife.
Still, many mothers, well schooled in the importance of sugar, spice, and everything nice, resist protest. They don’t give public voice to their sense of injustice. Instead, “when a dad comes” to a mommy-and-me class, “we clap,” reported Jay Miranda, a mother and blogger in Los Angeles.
Women’s gratitude is doubtless a result of the well-known, deeply felt fact that while domestic labor isn’t equal now, it was even less equal before. The 65/35 division is certainly better than the 80/20 women lived with in the 1970s and ’80s. One family-studies professor I spoke with told me that her mom is always telling her how lucky she is: “She’s comparing my husband to my father, who did nothing, but I’m comparing him to me, and I know I do way more!” Yet she said she “hit the jackpot” when she found her husband.
Men perpetuate the notion that women should keep in mind the extremely unequal past, or perhaps other people’s extremely unequal present, and not focus on their less unequal lived experience. Laura, a New York City business owner and mother of a 4-year-old, is married to her child’s father, but told me she feels like a single parent. When she tries to address the imbalance with her husband, his standard response is “I do a lot more than other men.” Laura doesn’t disagree. Further discussion is quashed. These conversations transform her vivid anger into lukewarm appreciation.
One Oklahoma City mother, a court bailiff, broke it down for me in the starkest terms: “He thinks he should bring home a paycheck and do nothing else, but it could be worse. He doesn’t beat me. He doesn’t drink excessively.” The possibility of an ever-lower bar only highlights how nonsensical such gratitude can be.
Although appreciation goes a long way in a marriage, that doesn’t make it a positive or even a neutral force if there’s a legitimate grievance. Misplaced gratitude, by supporting a couple’s unequal status quo, can help destroy rather than maintain a romantic relationship. Women who report that they do more child care than their husbands are 45 percent less likely to describe their marriages as “very happy” than women who say responsibilities are shared. Studies in the past decade in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the United States have all found that couples with low levels of male-partner participation in domestic chores are more likely to separate than couples in which men do more.
Social psychologists commonly distinguish between “benevolent” and “hostile” sexism. Benevolent sexism flatters women while also undermining their ambition and autonomy. Hostile sexism devalues them altogether. One study out of Germany exposed women to either benevolently sexist statements (“Women have a way of caring for others that men are not capable of”) or to hostile ones (“When women work together they often get into catfights”). Later, the women who’d read the benevolent statements were significantly less likely than the others to say they would participate in social action to rectify gender discrimination.
Gratitude is a brand of benevolent sexism, a force that repels change. To offer thanks for whatever contributions men happen to make reinforces the implicit idea that parenting is women’s work, that 65/35 is a very fine place to stop. For too long, women have paid for this imbalance with their well-being—financially, emotionally, existentially. Only once gratitude is relinquished for righteous anger will gender rules in this realm be rewritten. Then we can land somewhere different: not grateful, only glad.