Last week the Pew Research Center released a report that echoed my experience. The report, titled “Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load,” found that “56 percent of working parents say the balance of work-family is difficult.” (I’d love to meet that 44 percent who seem to think it’s a breeze.) And women, according to the survey, seem to be still―26 years after Arlie Russell Hoschschild published The Second Shift, the now-classic explanation of this working woman’s dilemma―getting the short end of the stick. Even in households where both parents work full-time, mothers tend to do more when it comes to certain household tasks. (Interestingly, fathers were more likely than mothers to say that the jobs were divided equally.)
The semi-good news is that having both parents work seems to exert some pressure to even things out. In households where the father works and the mother doesn’t, or the father works and the mother works part time, the gulfs are wider.
So, the answer seems to be, at least for someone like me for whom having a professional life is essential: keep working. But how? I wasn’t exaggerating (much) when I described those white-knuckle weeks when I’m scraping by on my own. I wouldn’t be writing this if I had all the answers, but here are a few promising ideas I’ve stumbled across.
Go 90 Percent
Plenty has been discussed about the Mommy track, but less well-known, at least to me, is the idea of having both parents scale back, just a little. In a 2008 article, “When Mom and Dad Share It All,” New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin describes a family in which both the mother and the father went “90 percent,” meaning that they alternated taking off on Friday. That meant a 10 percent salary cut for both of them, but also, presumably, resulted in a reduction in child-care expenses. It also meant increased bonding time between parent and child, and the opportunity to get a jump start on the chores that can be the worst part of Saturday morning. (Granted, this idea has been around for a while but hasn’t taken off as far as I’m aware, which may mean that companies are not too favorably inclined toward it.)
Look to Gay Couples
A study cited in Belkin’s article found that lesbian couples (gay couples had not been studied as extensively at the time) tend to avoid the uneven balance that many heterosexual couples fall into. Straight parents argue about who is doing more; lesbian couples, according to the research Belkin cites, fight over who gets to spend more time with the kids.
But how to get to that state of happy antagonism? To start: work on abandoning preconceived roles. “Free from provider father and ideal mother expectations, gay couples share labor more fairly and split tasks based on what people like to do or are good doing,” Brigid Schulte wrote in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. According to one researcher Schulte quotes, “The biggest difference we see between heterosexual and gay couples is the trait of openness. And because of that, gay and lesbian couples tend to be more egalitarian.”
Push for Paid Parental Leave, Not Just Maternity Leave
A federal policy mandating paid maternity leave (like all other countries on earth save for Papua New Guinea) would be a nice start, especially since this is something that 80―80! are you paying attention, Hillary and Marco?―percent of Americans think employers should offer.
But, since we’re dreaming big, how about a policy that would ensure paid time off following the birth of a child for fathers as well as mothers? “Fathers who took solo parental leave were more likely to spend more time with their children…and to spend more time on housework,” writes Schulte. “Numerous studies show that the best way to engage fathers is through paternity leave,” Josh Lev writes in All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses―And How We Can Fix It Together. When I spoke with Lev over the phone, he underlined this point: “When a woman is given time to stay home and a man is not, it reinforces a pattern of traditional gender norms.” (In other words, it makes us less like the gay couples that should be our co-parenting lodestars.) In the apt summation of journalist Liza Mundy, paternity leave is “a brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering.”
Confronted with a picture of her journalist husband in Afghanistan, Schulte found herself afflicted by pangs of jealousy. “In my world of crashing work deadlines, teacher phone calls, late Girl Scout forms, forgotten water bills, kids stomachaches, and empty cupboards, all I could think was this: Man, all he has to do every day is go to work,” she writes. Indirectly, Schulte seems to advise channeling that resentment into ambition. “Traveling to research the book was, honestly, probably the best thing I ever did,” she writes. “Tom was forced to learn how to be the primary parents, and I left the ideal mother in storage and got to be just myself again.” Of course, not everyone gets a book deal that whisks them out of the drudgery of the day-to-day. But it seems important to take everyday opportunities that arise to push yourself and your career. There are other ways to take a “trip,” to absent yourself from domestic tasks to prioritize self or work…like, benignly ignoring your son when you’re trying to finish an article.