Feb. 18, 2005 – In the new book “The Lazy Husband: How to Get Your Men to Do More Parenting and Housework,” Joshua Coleman explores ways to get your lazy man out of his cave and into doing some house chores. It’s for every woman who wants to get beyond her partner’s defensive behavior, so he can become more of a loving man and a team player. Read an excerpt from the book below.
The Perfect Mother
Most of the adults of my generation were raised in some version of a “children should be seen and not heard” era. Boy, have times have changed. Contemporary children are growing up in an environment where children should be seen, talked to, validated, encouraged, supported, and developed. They have gone from being quietly kept in the background to being loudly and proudly paraded into the foreground. In many households, it’s the parents who are seen and not heard, and children are the axis upon which the household turns.
My wife and I were as guilty of this as any contemporary parent. When our children were young, our living room looked like a display center for a Toys-R-Us outlet. Lego sets and Lincoln Log constructions dotted the floor like an architectural layout for a dilapidated shopping center. Our refrigerator was transformed into a display case for finger paintings and doily cutouts. Spellings and misspellings of words from multicolored magnetic plastic alphabets competed with macaroni-and-paste compositions of turkeys, flowers, and semideranged faces. And that was just the front. The side was, and remains, a freestanding magnet-reinforced album of their three lives starting from birth to the present, gradually occupying more and more space until every time we put a new picture up, an avalanche of history risks cascading to the floor.
The New Era of the Child
Our culture’s shift toward children’s well-being has dramatically affected our identity as men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. At the same time, changes in the economy, marriage, and divorce have created confusion and turmoil about who’s supposed to do what with the house and the kids. This chapter will examine the many ways in which the burden of these changes has fallen onto women’s shoulders, and what may need to change in your household for your partner to do more, and for you to do less. We are today cursed and blessed by an unprecedented amount of information that any parent can now get at any time to answer any question they could ever have about any of their children. Internet Web sites, newspaper articles, and whole sections of bookstores are dedicated to serving this eager and anxious population.
Magazines with titles such as Child, Parenting, Pregnancy, Pregnancy and Baby, Babytalk, Twins, Mommy Too, and Working Mother, to name a few, testify to this insatiable parenting market. On the one hand, this increase in information and awareness has relieved suffering for millions of families. For example, the relatively recent ability to pinpoint such problems as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and countless other psychological and educational disabilities have positively changed the lives of millions of adults and their children. In addition, easy-to-access information has made the sometimes heartbreaking and confusing journey of parenting a far less brambled path. However, with education comes guilt and fear of doing the dreaded “wrong thing.” As parents, we’re terrified of blowing it. A distraught mother recently said to me, “Last night I lost my patience with my two-year-old and bawled him out for the first time. I don’t usually do that, but I’m worried that I scarred him for life.” Worry that some small parental loss of control will result in long-term damage is a common concern that I hear on a daily basis in my psychotherapy practice.
Homework and After-School Activities
Residents of the United States currently hold first place for working more hours than any other nation, and we now appear to be moving our children in the same direction. As job security and long-term financial security seem less and less assured, schoolwork and grade performance are more important than ever. As a result, many parents are exhausted not only from jobs, housework, and parenting but from their children’s homework and the hundreds of activities in which many children are involved. Parents whose children are in public schools have to work increasingly hard to make sure that their children get an adequate education, while also worrying about their physical safety.
Wealthier parents are moving their children to private schools as the public schools worsen every year from a lack of funding for teachers and educational supplies. This increased emphasis on a hands-on education means more and more work for overwhelmed parents as they try to lessen the load for their overwhelmed children. Playing has been replaced with play dates, free time has been replaced with structured time, hanging out in the neighborhood until dark has been replaced by hanging out in the neighborhood under the watchful eyes of kidnap-wary adults. Our view of parenthood has also been changed by the fact that many parents of today have gone through their own psychotherapy and gained a thorough understanding of the ways that their parents harmed, neglected, or mistreated them. As a result, they know firsthand the damage that can be done through parental errors, and feel terrified that they’ll hurt their children in the same way that they felt hurt by their parents. Knowing the mistakes of their parents may cause them to be fiercely committed to be the kind of parent that they never had. Unfortunately, many pursue this entirely noble task at the costs to their own health and the health of their marriages.
While men are hardly immune to these worries, women are bearing the major brunt of this child emphasis. This is because this increased consciousness occurs at a time when, among other things, mothers are less likely than ever to have the time, resources, and energy to do what they would like to be good mothers. While women now have unprecedented opportunities to enter the workforce and to establish meaningful and rewarding careers, many feel torn by the division of loyalties they feel between their children’s needs and their needs to support their families or to maintain outside interests. Paradoxically, this new cultural emphasis on children occurs at a time when our society’s commitment to parents is lower than it’s been in decades. More and more employers are demanding workloads and schedules that create chaos for families, and introduce even greater obstacles to maintaining healthy and intact marriages. Studies show that parents who have to work night shifts or rotating shifts have a greater likelihood of divorcing than those with more stable schedules. Because at least half of today’s marriages will end in divorce, women and men feel an increased sense of worry and insecurity about whether their particular family will still be together in the next month, year, or decade. Many become preoccupied with their children because it’s the one stable relationship that they can expect to have in the future.
As our view of childhood has changed, so has our view of parenting changed in recent decades. From the 1920s to the 1970s, Americans steadily shifted their child rearing emphasis from valuing conformity, church loyalty, and obedience to focusing on children’s autonomy, tolerance, and the ability to think for themselves. This change was accompanied by a transformation in the family climate from an authoritarian to a more democratic and permissive one. As a result of these developments, the boundaries between adulthood and childhood began to blur. For example, when I was growing up, I couldn’t stand my parents’ music, clothing, and a few of their friends. I would no sooner have put on a Bing Crosby record than they would have worn a tie-dyed T-shirt, smoked a bong, or waxed poetic about the intensity of a Jimi Hendrix solo.
They were the adults — foreign, unfathomable, living in a world I scarcely deigned to penetrate except to get the keys to the car. However, when my daughter became a teenager, I knew precisely which pile of clothes and books to dig through if I couldn’t find something from my CD collection. Her choice of clothing in adolescence was not too different from what I might have worn as a teen; thrift-store chic. In addition, I relied on her to tell me who was new and interesting to listen to [since most of my friends think that anything written after 1972 is an abomination before the rock gods of our generation]. As with parental education, this blurring of generational boundaries has had many benefits. My daughter, now a young adult, discusses her life with me in a way that I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing with my parents.
However, this blurring makes many parents confused about what distinguishes a harmful from a helpful application of parental authority. Studies show that the most effective parents are authoritative. Authoritative parents are defined as being affectionate and loving with their children, but strong in their ability to set limits and make demands. Authoritative parents are contrasted with authoritarians, who are highly controlling and show little affection or tenderness toward their children. They’re also contrasted with permissive parents, who are loving and affectionate but unable to set appropriate limits. Both authoritarian and permissive parents are less likely to raise well-adjusted children than authoritatives. While earlier generations of parents were more likely to err on the side of being authoritarian, today’s parents seem more likely to make errors of permissiveness. For example, many mothers feel a lot of guilt about being away from their children to work outside the home. As a result, it’s not uncommon for them to have a hard time setting appropriate limits when they’re home because they worry that they’re already hurting their kids with their absence. A mother recently came to my office wanting advice about how to deal with the anxiety of Chloe, her nine-year-old daughter.
Over several meetings with the parents and child, it became clear that Chloe was anxious because her parents were so worried about making a mistake that they refused to provide guidance for her. They allowed her to yell at them and to make parental decisions such as when she would go to bed and what she would eat. Chloe’s anxiety stemmed from a feeling that she was stronger than her parents, and that no one was big enough to watch over her. Both of Chloe’s parents worked long hours in their careers, and felt guilty about spending so much time away from her. As a result, they worried that setting normal limits were unfair, given how much time they were already gone. This dynamic is much like the one that I see with divorced dads in my practice. Because they have so little time together, it pains them to see their children upset in the inevitable ways that occur with limit setting. As a result, they don’t set the limits that their children sometimes need. Many of today’s stressed out, guilt-ridden, full-time parents make the same mistake due to a similar kind of guilt and anxiety.
Losing Time Sadly
Our worry about our children getting enough time with us causes many parents, mothers in particular to create time for them by giving up on time for themselves. Whether it’s a decrease in sleep, hobbies, or a social life, women, more than men, pay for time by decreasing the amount spent on other personal needs and interests. Gwen: When I was growing up my mother worked hard but she had one job and that was being a homemaker. She had plenty of time with us because that was her occupation. If I want to get time with my girls, I have to make sacrifices somewhere; less sleep, less time with my friends, less time for relaxation, whatever. I used to play tennis, work out, do yoga, whatever– but since I’ve become a mother, I just feel so selfish taking time for myself. It isn’t even that I want to spend every waking second with them. It’s more like I feel like if I don’t, it means I’m a terrible mother.
The other area where women create time for their children is by giving up time with their husbands. A recent poll showed that couples now spend far fewer hours together than they did just twenty years ago. Some parents allow their children to sleep with them from infancy onward, in part, because they feel so deprived of time with them during the day. While there may be good reasons for a “family bed,” it’s not always a decision that benefits a marriage. This is because a mother’s anxiety about her child can override her concern about her husband’s needs to also have her attention. There’s a saying that goes, “A man gains a child and loses a wife.” Many men feel hurt and rejected by the central focus that a child gains in his wife’s life. Men who feel displaced, hurt, rejected, or devalued by the arrival of a child are more likely to retreat from doing housework or parenting. Their “laziness” is a protest for feeling displaced and unimportant. Bill: Since Hank was born last year we don’t do anything together without him, including sleep. I’m crazy about the little guy, but I feel like I’ve fallen off the map in terms of Debby’s interest. It’s not just sex, it’s like he’s become everything and the marriage isn’t that big of a priority to her.
Today’s mothers are also compromised by messages that parenting should be a source of ongoing fulfillment. The reality is that parenting can be boring, frustrating, anxiety provoking, and infuriating. Researchers Linda Thompson and Alexis Walker18 found that while around one-third of mothers find parenting fun and meaningful, another third don’t find it that meaningful or enjoyable, and the remaining third have pretty mixed feelings about it.
Messages that mothering should be a source of endless fulfillment creates guilt, anxiety, and shame for women who don’t feel particularly thrilled by their role. Men, on the other hand, understand parental boredom and frustration all too clearly. They also experience relatively little lack of conflict over those realities. Their ability to prioritize and pursue activities that they enjoyed prior to becoming parents may be one of the reasons that their stress levels out much sooner than mothers after the birth of a child. Because fathering doesn’t play such a central role in a man’s identity, few feel as many pangs of conscience when they’re bored, annoyed, or unfulfilled by being dads. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to see this as a personal flaw in them as women. Clarissa: I hate talking to my sister about parenting because she makes me feel so inadequate. She always talks about how wonderful it is being a mother and how fulfilling it is, and I just don’t feel that way. Maybe someday I’ll get into this whole maternal-bliss thing, but right now I just feel stressed out and exhausted. I sometimes wonder if something is wrong with me that I don’t feel more excited about being a mom.
Our experience of ourselves as male or female is something that’s created and affirmed on a daily basis through our work, our families, and our relationships. Part of women’s relative passion about parenting over men’s has to do with the way in which mothering is more central to women’s identities. While many men take pride in their children, their homes, and in their abilities as fathers, they don’t experience those activities as fundamentally central to their identity and self-esteem. Social expectations about what men and women do play out in the housework realm as well. For example, a single man who lives alone and is a slob is commonplace. Anna Quindlen’s statement that most men live like “bears with furniture” is an affectionate testimony to this. People aren’t surprised when single men are slobs, yet few blame a messy house on a husband once men get married. A woman who lives alone and keeps her apartment like a pigsty is more likely to be viewed in a critical way by both men and women. Women do even more housework when they marry and men do even less. This gender difference also plays out in expectations of what men and women do or don’t do as parents. For example, few would look at a child who went to school with peanut butter on his face and dirty clothes and wonder, What was this father thinking?
Despite our culture’s drift toward more involved dads, mothers are still seen as the primary caretaker of the house and child. This perspective that “mom’s in charge” means that women who aren’t as involved in maintaining their homes or kids are far more likely to be censored by a society that tells her that it damned well is her job to care. In other words, women’s identities are more influenced by house and children, in part, because others are more likely to judge them by those yardsticks. Interestingly, the idea that moms are to blame for a child’s behavior hasn’t always been the case in the United States. Before the industrial revolution, fathers were considered the authorities on raising children, and therefore received the blame or credit for how well their kids turned out. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the blame began to shift to women as a “cult of domesticity” evolved, instructing women that their place was in the home.
While there have been important changes since then, the belief that home and parenting are women’s work persists into the present, and causes many women to feel unentitled to make demands of a fair exchange for all of the work that they do with their house and kids. As author Ann Crittenden writes in “The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued,” the myth that men “support” women as well as children prevents many women from seeing themselves as valuable economic players and equal partners. She notes that it’s hard to feel cheated of the fruits of your labor if you don’t believe that what you’re doing is labor. Let’s take an example. Robert earns thirty dollars an hour as a mechanic while his wife earns fifteen dollars an hour as a librarian at the state university. They both believe that she should do more at home because her time is not as “valuable” as his. While this is true in the marketplace, that calculus only makes sense if raising children is considered unimportant. Mothers who buy in to the marketplace argument of parenting begin their negotiations from a far weaker position than those who see their contributions to their children, their marriage, and their husbands as priceless.
Who’s Got the Power?
Historically, women have entered marriage with far less power than men. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, women didn’t have the right to own their own property in the United States, and had no legal say in family matters, including determining how money would be spent even when it was earned through their own labor. When a woman became a widow, her husband’s estate was passed on to his heirs, and it was up to them to provide for her. In 1848, this began to change with the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act permitting married women to hold property and to gain protection from their husband’s debts if they became widowed. This act later gave them the right to share joint custody and to an equal inheritance with their children in the case of divorce. However, it wasn’t until 1980 that a married woman could obtain property without her husband’s consent, or use legal recourse if he mismanaged their property or shared assets. Jobs and Motherhood Women’s wages have been well below those of men up until the recent past. For example, from 1930 to 1980, the earnings of full-time working women were only 60 percent of men’s earnings.
This gap narrowed dramatically in the 1980s and early 1990s, though an earning gap of at least 20 percent has persisted for the past twenty years. Despite these gains, when women become mothers, their power and bargaining position decreases because their financial power typically decreases. This is because women who take more than a brief maternity leave are punished by being taken off the fast track to promotions and career advancements. This decrease in financial stability also makes women who become mothers more dependent on their husbands. Those who prided themselves on their independence prior to childbirth may suddenly find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing financial and emotional support from their husbands in new and unexpected ways.
Among other reactions, this may raise unresolved anxieties from childhood about needing help and not having it be forthcoming. Many couples begin to experience problems for the first time when a child comes on the scene because both have to newly navigate this shift in roles and responsibilities. This may explain why a majority of couples experience a big decrease in marital satisfaction after the arrival of children. While a woman may experience an increase in stress and a decrease in power, a man may feel burdened by the increase in financial obligations, especially if his wife doesn’t go back to work. In addition, men who enjoyed their wive’s independence and activity level prior to children may feel burdened by her expressions of dependence or anxiety after a child arrives. Gerry: Before our kids were born, Shauna and I did everything together. We went hiking, bike riding, river rafting. It was a really adventurous, romantic life. I had never met a woman like her who was so independent and strong. That all changed when she became a mother.
Now it seems like she worries about everything and whatever activities we did together have pretty much ground to a halt. It drives me crazy! Shauna: We had a blast before kids, but I feel like Gerry hasn’t made the shift into being a dad. It’s like he still wants to spend as much time doing all of the things we used to do and ignore the fact that we have to cut back on our expenses and other things. Besides, since I’ve become a mother, I don’t feel as big a need to always be out doing things. I’m happy to hang out with the kids. It feels like he wants to pretend we don’t even have children.
Compared to What?
Studies on families reveal something surprising: when women are trying to determine what’s fair to expect from their husbands, they don’t compare themselves with what their husbands are doing; they compare themselves to what other women are doing. This causes both men and women to accept a standard of participation from the husband that is problematic for the wife. Both men and women are also hampered by the lack of role models to navigate this new domestic order. When women look to their own mothers for examples, a majority find someone who did the majority, if not the entirety of the parenting and housework. Recalling what their fathers contributed doesn’t provide much guidance because, in all likelihood, he had his feet propped up before and after dinner, and was out with his friends on the weekends. This lack of models is one reason why women continue to carry the second shift despite its unfairness.
What are the Husbands Thinking?
While many men recognize that their wives are doing more, and may even feel guilty about it, they also look at other men’s behavior to help them figure out what’s fair. In addition, they look at their own fathers and come up looking good in comparison. Jack: I don’t recall my father doing anything around the house growing up. I mean, he’d work in the yard and fix things, but I think my brothers and I were pretty much my mother’s responsibility. And I definitely never saw him do laundry, mop a floor, or cook a meal with the exception of the occasional Sunday barbeque. Compared to my father, I work my butt off and my wife still complains about me!” What men don’t factor in is that their wives are also doing a lot more than their mothers ever did, and usually with bigger financial and social demands.
In addition, while men’s roles have changed a bit in the past thirty years, women’s have changed enormously. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild found that men who did the most family work were those that had the most distant relationships with their fathers.38 This is probably because these men were the least interested in using their fathers as role models, and the most motivated to distance themselves from them. Men who are close to their fathers may behave more like them because of the guilt, loss, or sadness they would feel if they behave too differently from them.
While many guys use their wive’s standards as an excuse to get out of work, some mothers create or participate in the creation of a Lazy Husband by gatekeeping the quality and quantity of his involvement. Gatekeeping is a term that sociologists use to explain how much a spouse allows the other spouse to participate in some activity such as parenting, housework, or managing the finances. People often gatekeep by complaining about the other’s standards, by redoing tasks, or by refusing the other’s offer to help. Women’s gatekeeping can occur for many reasons. Some women gatekeep as a way to prevent their partners from butting into an arena where they enjoy a sense of authority. This may be taking care of the family’s needs, or ensuring that the house and parenting are maintained to a certain standard. While gatekeeping is common in traditional households, it can also occur in homes where both parents believe that the parenting and housework should be shared equally. It commonly occurs when women feel guilty or inadequate sharing a role that they saw their mothers perform without a man’s involvement. Evelyn: I just don’t feel right making Rick do as much housework as I do. I know we both work full-time but my mother would have never let my father do the laundry or wash dishes.
It just doesn’t feel right to me. Gatekeeping is an important behavior to understand because the ambivalence that generates it causes many women to be manipulated or warned off by their husbands’ excuses or rationales. It may also make them less likely to assert themselves when they need to. A common reason why women gatekeep around housework is because they don’t like how their partner cleans– if he cleans! This difference in standards is a frequent battle in many homes. Paul: Harriet thinks I’m a slob and I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t keep the house immaculate, but that doesn’t make me a slob. I also only have so many hours in a day and if I get a free hour the last thing I’m going to do is spend it cleaning. Besides, whenever I do clean she just goes over what I did anyway, so why bother? Similarly, a mother might gatekeep a father’s parenting out of a fear that he’ll do it wrong. As a result, he doesn’t get a chance to learn on his own. Jeff: I pretty much feel like whatever way I parent it’s the wrong way for Michelle. “Watch out for his neck!” “You know, it’s a lot faster if you lift up his legs with one hand and put the diaper under him with the other.” “That’s not the kind of baby food he likes.”
I’m starting to feel like, “Fine. You want it done your way, be my guest!” This isn’t to say that men are the innocent victims of women’s cruel and heartless gatekeeping behavior. Many men ensure that they won’t have to do family work by maintaining low standards, forcing their wives to act as managers, acting incompetent, waiting to be nagged, or doing the tasks far less frequently than their wives would like. Sometimes a man’s lack of participation has less to do with his partner’s gatekeeping than with his unwillingness to get involved under any circumstances. These are all important themes that we’ll talk about in upcoming chapters. Because, whether your partner is uninvolved as a result of your being overly involved or uninvolved because he’s a stubborn dude, you’ll need a new set of behaviors and strategies to create change in your house and marriage. And that’s where we turn next.
Excerpted from “The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework,” by Joshua Coleman, St. Martin’s Press, copyright 2005.
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