Why Dads Don’t Share Housework

by Fernanda Moore

Why Dads Don’t Share Housework

One recent morning, after several nights spent staggering from my 2-year-old’s crib to our bed as my husband, unfazed, snored on, I opened my e-mail to find a forwarded message from my best friend. The first line of the article she’d sent: “According to a new study, only a quarter of fathers wake up to tend to their crying baby.” But it was the next sentence that really killed me: “The study also suggests mothers start to resent their husbands for not getting up through the night.”

No kidding.

My husband, Greg, works full-time, cooks and cleans as much as I do, and is unfailingly patient and loving with our two sons (Zander, 9, and our bad sleeper, Thad). And I have many friends who count their blessings every day when they consider how committed and devoted their husbands are to their children. So why do we inevitably end up carping about our mates’ child-rearing idiosyncrasies when we get together? Are male and female parenting tactics inherently different  — and, if so, must we overlook these differences?

Nope. We can try to change them (and we might even succeed). Here’s how to handle some of the most annoying things dads do.

Contributing editor Fernanda Moore has written for New York magazine and other publications.

They fail to follow the schedule.

You say: “Have a great time! I’ll be home by five o’clock. Remember, we’re supposed to go to your mom’s for dinner.”

You mean: Lunch is at noon, naptime’s at 2:00, and snack follows nap ¿just like always.

What happens: You walk in the door at 5 p.m. to find a houseful of starving, exhausted, hyperactive children who are bound to behave atrociously at Grandma’s house.

How to deal: While you may have learned the hard way that a certain routine works best for your kids, don’t assume your husband knows exactly when you think it’s prudent to settle down with a story or break out the cheese and crackers.

If you want him to follow your routine, make sure to be very specific before you part ways, says David Wexler, Ph.D., executive director of the Relationship Training Institute in San Diego and author of When Good Men Behave Badly: Change Your Behavior, Change Your Relationship. “It can help to work backward  — say, ‘Okay, your mom expects us at six, so everyone needs to be dressed and ready by five-thirty. So be back from the park at five…’and take it from there.”

And if he chafes at your instructions? Bite your tongue and see what happens. A hellish evening with whiny, exhausted kids will serve as irrefutable evidence that forgoing naptime is a swift road to disaster  — next time, he’d be smart to follow your plan instead.

Of course, sometimes your time-tested routine isn’t the only one that works. That’s what Julia Litton, of Afton, Minnesota, discovered on a vacation she took with her husband, Steve, and Patrick, her 3-year-old son. One morning, Patrick spent hours at the beach and the pool with his dad without so much as taking a sip from the juice box Litton had packed, let alone eating lunch or taking a nap. “Steve got lucky when Patrick woke up bright and cheery right before we left to eat dinner with some relatives,” Litton says, adding that their evening was a success.

The lesson for us all? Sometimes it’s better to relax and roll with your mate’s approach.

They’re not sufficiently vigilant.

You say: “It’s a nice day. Why don’t you take the baby to the park?”

You mean: But not on the red slide, it’s too high. And watch out for big kids who throw sand. And remember her sun hat!

What happens: Your child comes home with scraped knees and a sunburn. “I go big slide by self!” she says with a big smile.

How to deal: At my neighborhood playground just the other day, a gaggle of mothers watched in horror while the only dad in sight pushed his toddler daughter way too high on the swing. But guess what? That little girl was having the time of her life. A few minutes later her dad gently lifted her down, and the two of them wandered off hand in hand.

The moral? Different styles of play are beneficial to a child. Barring real danger  — and remember that a skinned knee isn’t the end of the world  — it’s great that your mate lets your child take risks you’d shy away from.

However, you want to avoid what Sharon Hays, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and author of The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, calls the “worry gap”  — when one parent does all the worrying. So if your husband is the more easygoing one, you might tell him, “I’m going to be anxious unless I know you’ll pay attention to these three things”  — then list your main concerns. “That way, you’re asking him to change out of love and respect for you  — which is always better than nagging,” says Hays.

They won’t multitask.

You say: “I have to run errands. I’ll be back in two hours.”

You mean: Hold down the fort in general, and consider making yourself useful  — there’s a load of laundry in the dryer with your name on it.

What happens: When you get back, the house looks like a tornado hit it. Your husband claims he didn’t have time to eat lunch, and there are seven messages on the machine because he couldn’t even answer the phone.

How to deal: Watching the kids, to a man, often means just that. His excuse? Unlike a woman, who can comfortably converse with a friend while folding laundry with one hand and feeding the baby with the other, he claims he’s simply no good at domestic multitasking.

But that shouldn’t constitute a get-out-of-chores-free card. “It’s very difficult to teach someone to multitask,” says Wexler, “but it’s not impossible. If he’s sufficiently motivated  — say, at work  — he’ll find a way to get things done.”

Reminding your husband that he’s Mr. Efficient at his job can be an excellent way to ramp up his enthusiasm for household management. As Wexler points out, “When you’re trying to change someone’s behavior, it’s always better to profess faith in his competence than trash his incompetence.”

Hays is more skeptical of dads who claim they can’t clean and watch a toddler at the same time. “So many women make excuses for their partners as they do all the dirty work themselves. Fact is, it’s much more fun to play with kids than do dishes.” Her advice: Point out examples of how he multitasks at home  — like the way he takes the dog out when he goes running  — and suggest how he can do the same type of thing with the kids.

If your mate can’t immediately match your multitasking prowess, at the very least he’ll gain a new appreciation for your talents. My scientist husband, who recently tried to write a grant proposal while Zander and Thaddy hovered around, told me he had no idea how I wrote anything while taking care of the kids. (Videos! But I’ll never tell.)

They expect a medal for doing once what you do every day.

You say: “Could you please help with the kids this afternoon?”

You mean: Like I should even have to ask. And why “help”? They’re your kids, too.

What happens: He watches the kids, then talks about it as if he’d just scaled Everest without supplemental oxygen. You fume silently.

How to deal: “Successful relationships are never about dividing everything fifty-fifty  — inevitably, certain areas belong to one person more than another,” says Wexler. “But if you look to the grand ledger, over time you’ll see a reasonable balance.” In other words, stop noticing so much. It might help to think of another area in which your husband shoulders more than his share of the burden  — does he balance the checkbook? Clean up after the dog? Frequently wash the dishes without comment?

If he really isn’t doing anything around the house, Wexler suggests sitting him down and giving clear instructions of what you need done. “If you give a man a specific assignment, he can run with it,” he adds.

If it’s his “bragging” more than his inaction that gets under your skin, understanding his motives may help you feel less resentful. Maybe he’s taking more credit than he deserves, but that doesn’t necessarily come from narcissism  — he’s just proud of being a dad.

They play too rough.

You say: “Almost bedtime! Daddy will help you get ready.”

You mean: Daddy will read you a story in a calm, soothing voice… and sing a nice relaxing song or two.

What happens: Daddy improvises a chapter of The Ferocious Tyrannosaurus and His Pajama-Clad Prey, and chaos ensues. The story’s hero gets completely overstimulated and can’t fall asleep until 11:00, after which he awakens 17 times with nightmares.

How to deal: “Nothing used to frustrate me more than when I’d have the kids ready for bed  — which meant I was minutes away from being off duty for the rest of the night  — and then John would come home and start horsing around with them,” says Jenn Fallon, San Francisco mom to Liam, 5, and Claire, 4.

But from a kid’s perspective, playing with Dad at day’s end is much more important than getting to sleep right on time. And the roughhousing can be just fine, provided the mom doesn’t get stuck picking up the pieces when playtime is over.

To avoid precisely that, says Fallon, “I told John, ‘Look, if you rile the kids up, then you put them to bed.'”

If you decide to follow her lead, hide upstairs or leave the house if you have to. (I’ve been known to flee to a nearby bookstore to avoid hovering around, grinding my teeth as bedtime drags on and on.) A few evenings spent wrestling hyper kids into bed will prompt your husband to reconsider the wisdom of nighttime pillow fights much more quickly than reminders from you.

In the end, one of the most important things a mom can do is to step back and let her partner find his own way. Try to resist the temptation to set yourself up as the micromanager, or as Hays puts it, the responsible parent, while your partner’s the fun one. Fallon agrees. “The other day I overheard a mom saying that her husband was ‘babysitting’ the kids that weekend, which I found strange,” she says. “I mean, since when is taking care of your own kids ‘babysitting’?”

It can be difficult to relinquish control, especially if you’re the so-called primary caregiver and your husband only takes over from time to time. But when he does, don’t sabotage his efforts. It might help to keep Fallon’s point in mind: Not only is your husband not babysitting for you, he’s not supposed to be you, either. He’s supposed to be himself.