Sharing Responsibilities: How to Find a Balance at Home

For some families, the 'go-to mom' and 'less-involved dad' model is outdated. They're striking a balance, so one isn't carrying so much of the load.

Tossing socks, jeans and the occasional pajama top into the air, your 12-year-old son calls out randomly, “I can’t find my soccer uniform!” Who do you think he asks to find it? Let’s try this again: Your kindergartner forgot to mention she’s supposed to bring in 26 cupcakes for a class party. Tomorrow. Who does she ask for help? Or what about a squabble between your kids over a prized toy? Who steps in to squelch the fight?

If you answered “Mom,” you’re probably thinking along the same lines as many of our Metro Parent readers who responded to a Metro Parent Facebook post asking, “Who does most of the child-rearing duties around your house?” Again and again, the answer came back from a chorus of mothers saying, “I do!”

Their responses aren’t a surprise. According to a study by the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Families and Households a few years ago, the amount of work women do inside the home – both housework and childrearing – hasn’t changed much in the last 90 years. The New York Times summed up the results of the study, saying, “Where the housework ratio is two-to-one, the wife-to-husband ratio for childcare in the United States is close to five-to-one.”

Although many attitudes about women’s roles have seemingly progressed over the years, when it comes to the home, moms seem to be shouldering more of the responsibilities than their partners.

And yet that’s not the whole story. Finding an equal balance of responsibilities at home isn’t always easy – or even possible. Instead, many local moms have found their own version of balance that works for their family. Their experiences might give you some ideas about what you could try in your family – or it might let moms know that they’re not the only ones wondering, at times, “Do I do most of the work around here?”

When 50/50 isn’t the goal

Marc and Amy Vachon wanted to create a different sort of family life than either of them had growing up: Marc’s father worked long hours while his mom took care of him and his five siblings in Boston, while Amy, an Ann Arbor native, was raised by her mother, a widow.

The two decided they wanted to share equally when it came not just to their parenting, but in their home life and careers, too. They were married in 2001 and welcomed their first child in 2002. Today, they manage to interweave their work life – 32 hours for each – around caring for their two children.

They wrote Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents to help other parents understand what they could do to work toward a more balanced family life.

“Many people like to talk about 50/50, of splitting up chores and tasks. That’s not what we’re talking about here,” says Marc during a phone interview – which, appropriately, included both Marc and Amy taking turns answering questions. Instead, he explains, their goal as a couple is “purposeful sharing.”

“For parents, there are four main domains of their life together: raising children, housework, career and time for themselves,” says Amy. By looking at how to share the responsibilities in each of those domains, “you create an equal partnership between the parents and a balanced life for each parent.”

They both acknowledge, however, that splitting work schedules isn’t always possible – or the preference – for all families. Yet any couple may benefit from taking a look at how to better balance home life and parenting.

Dos and don’ts for dads

“Society’s expectations for dads (are) pretty low,” says Marc Vachon. He offers the example of a dad pushing a stroller down the street. “You might see people comment, ‘That’s so wonderful.’ And yet you see women doing this every day and no one bats an eye.”

The stereotype goes beyond the idea that dads are clueless parents and that any even-partial attempt to parent should be heralded. Going further, the assumption is that mom is the better, even more intuitive, parent. Marc brings up a list of adages, most of them some form of “mother knows best.” For dads, it takes effort to overcome this notion that they are the secondary caregiver.

To work in the direction of sharing home and child responsibilities more, Marc gives dads three points: be flexible, be competent and be yourself. With flexibility, dads need to be open to trying out something different with schedules, whether both parents are working or not.

As far as competence goes, Marc cautions dads “not to take the easy way out.” Marc and his wife refer to this as “the daddy pass,” where a father might presume that it’s either a mom’s job to take care of something with their children – or she’s better at it, so why bother? That brings up the point of parenting styles.

“With two parents, there are two different ways of doing things regardless of the gender,” explains Marc. Maybe mom is the stricter disciplinarian, or dad is the one always enforcing the rules. Marc and Amy suggest that parents agree on certain rules and guidelines for their kids and then give each other latitude to parent in their own way. For example, bedtime might be at 8 p.m., but if dad wants to rile the kids up before then, he can go for it.

Moms’ challenge: letting go

Dads aren’t the only ones who need to rethink their parenting style to become more balanced. For moms, even if they need more help, often they want this help done their way.

“I think the biggest challenge for women – and I’m certainly not immune to it – is to let go,” says Amy Vachon. “We get that on the surface, we know that we’re holding on to the reins of being the primary parent in big ways, but it’s also in small ways.

“It’s easy to underestimate how much we need to let go.”

Krissy Powe can relate. The Belleville mom of six works full-time as an insurance analyst, while her husband’s more-flexible work schedule allows him to take kids to school and pick them up – plus take care of homework.

Still, Powe says she and her husband have very different ways of doing things when it comes to the kids. When both parents decided the kids needed to tidy up more, her husband’s response was to tell the kids “to go clean up the kitchen.” But Powe felt like she needed to show the kids how to clean up the kitchen, so they’d understand what “clean” meant. Otherwise she’d just have to rewash the dishes herself.

Now, that’s what they do when it comes to certain tasks: Powe will explain how to do it to their children, and dad will be the one to make sure they do it. For instance with showering, Powe helped the kids understand how to shampoo and to wash, and dad was the one to tell the kids to “go shower.”

“What I’ve learned is a lot of times, as women, what we do and what we take on is so much more than we can do,” says Powe. “We have so many responsibilities and we like to control things a lot. It’s very hard for me to transition to letting go of some of the housework and not having it done in a certain way. We can’t do it all.”

For Powe, that means as long as things get done, it doesn’t matter who does them – or how. But she still tries to make time for “the good stuff.” She loves to do her three daughters’ hair in the morning, so she often gets up early to help them out.

Beyond control, Amy points out another reason moms might be reluctant to not have things done their way: blame. “There’s a strong cultural pressure that (moms) are ultimately responsible. Even if we let go, all the blame is going to go on us. All around, we get these messages that we are the go-to parent – and we’re going to be the ones to take the fall if your child forgets to bring the cupcakes to school.”

Finding balance

“I’ve lived both realities,” says Lori Warner, Ph.D., a family psychologist and the mother of two. She’s been the stay-at-home mom while her husband worked long hours, and she’s been the full-time working mom.

Today, she’s the director of the HOPE Center, which is part of the Center for Human Development at the Beaumont Children’s Hospital in Royal Oak. She juggles taking care of her kids with her husband and the help of a nanny.

But it’s an imperfect balance, she explains: “I fully admit that I feel put-upon. We have a fairly traditional division of responsibilities.” In other words, Warner is the one planning and making dinners, doing laundry and picking up around the house while her husband is the one handling the upkeep of their cars, the house and the yard work.

When Warner took a closer look at how much time each partner was putting in to keeping their family life running, though, she made a discovery – they were both doing fairly equal amount of work. The work just didn’t happen at the same times.

Says Warner, “The things I do are recurring. They’re everyday, like laundry. But my husband does the bigger projects that don’t happen all the time. We’re very traditional with how we broke down our responsibilities, and we’re comfortable with that.”

Warner cautions that there may be times when moms feel like their family life is out of balance. In those instances, they need to carefully evaluate the situation and figure out whether it’s happening all the time – or whether they’re just having a bad day.

“You need to figure out what’s really bothering you,” suggests Warner. “Think through, Do I feel like there’s an imbalance? And if so, Do I feel like it’s not OK? Some days you might be the one carrying more of the load and other days your partner might be the one shouldering more of the responsibilities.

“If you just need to blow off steam, call your girlfriend. But if you really feel like there’s a problem, think about how you want to approach the conversation before talking to your partner.”

Be open and clear

Open communication is key, says Warner. “The best thing to do when you feel like there’s an imbalance at home is to communicate openly about it, without making it emotional. Sometimes that can be hard when you’re feeling overwhelmed, and I fully admit that I’ve approached it wrong before.”

But, if possible, Warner says to start the conversation as an exploration instead of as accusations. “No one wants to continue a conversation when they feel like they’re being attacked.” For example, you can tell your partner, “I’ve been feeling overwhelmed/frustrated lately and I’m wondering if you’re feeling that way too.” Where the conversation goes from there depends on your needs and your spouse’s.

Melanie Galambos Young admits, “I feel like I’m on duty 24 hours a day” to care for her two boys, ages 4 and 8, and run their household in Newport while her husband works on the line for an auto company. “Except for 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., I’m pretty much on my own. And when one of the kids wakes up in the middle of the night, I’m usually the one to deal with it because my husband has work the next day.”

When she’s expressed her frustrations to her husband, she says he tries to understand how he can help. The general advice is not to let the discussion become a conversation about divvying up tasks. But for Young, she explains how their conversation differs.

“My husband likes to say, ‘I’m not a mind reader.’ So I need to explain to him exactly what I need him to do.” While these conversations don’t happen very often, Young’s noticed that her husband often picks up on what needs to be done around the house.

“A while ago I would have to ask him to pick up the breakfast dishes, but now he always takes care of the breakfast dishes – and sometimes he’ll vacuum, too, little things like that.”

While Young says she sometimes feels overwhelmed, she also feels lucky. “My husband is a wonderful man, a wonderful husband and a wonderful father. All I have to say to him is that I need this, and he does it. If he weren’t like that, I think I’d go insane,” laughs Young. “I think my frustrations are pretty typical for a mom.”

Indeed, figuring out your own version of balance may be the real secret to finding real balance.

This post was originally published in 2011 and has been updated for 2016.


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