Here’s a myth that hasn’t been debunked nearly often enough and fervently enough: There’s no such thing as a 50/50 marriage. Let me explain. There are certainly interdependent marriages, a term that describes a relationship in which both partners healthily depend on one another, collaborate often, and share responsibilities.
But what there isn’t is a marriage in which both participants give and receive equally, with tasks and chores divided perfectly, with responsibilities and duties divvied up identically.
And yet, there seems to be a growing group of women who wish that a 50/50 marriage did exist, in a sense. One in which the responsibilities that are on her plate are equally on her husband’s plate too. One in which her husband gets up with the newborn the exact same number of times she does, or does the laundry exactly as often as she does, or spends the exact same amount of time with the kids as she does every day.
Why Do Women Want a 50/50 Marriage?
The desire for a husband who sees family and home life as under his domain and responsibility doesn’t come out of a vacuum. There are a few reasons why so many wives wish their husbands would take on more household and parental duties, and it’s not even an inherently bad thing for women to desire – men should be involved with their children. But let’s talk about why we’re seeing an uptick in women expressing irritation about the way duties have been divvied up.
For starters, the notion that husbands are “babysitting” their children any time he’s left alone with them for an hour or more is one that many women bristle at. And it’s not hard to see why – it treats the children as solely her responsibility, as if she had them all on her own, and not with the help of her husband (and not to mention, it’s oddly degrading toward the role of the father, demoting him to the position often held by a teenager in the neighborhood).
Along with that, it’s no secret that mothers who stay home with their children feel their contributions are consistently being devalued. Cultural voices degrade motherhood by likening it to slavery, suggest raising your children and homemaking is unpaid labor, state that having children will make you miserable, or insist that being a mother isn’t nearly as important as being a surgeon or a judge. So it’s no wonder that mothers would seek to have someone understand that their role isn’t for the faint of heart, to feel that her duties as a mother are valued and understood by her husband.
And lastly, mothers often feel that they suddenly have a lack of autonomy once a baby enters the picture – far more so than their husbands. Getting a full night’s sleep, taking long, uninterrupted showers, and having unlimited time to pursue a career, hobbies, and friendships aren’t on the menu like they used to be. Studies show that for the first few years of a child’s life, they desire their mother’s touch, presence, and affection far more than that of their father. It’s not uncommon for young mothers to lament the fact that they’re the “default parent” and grow envious of their husband’s seemingly retained freedom – and if her husband isn’t one to lift many fingers to help with the kids, this breeds resentment in her.
How Modernity Has Contributed to This Perspective
Throughout the 1800s, some of the most common jobs belonged to farmers, railroad workers, and stonemasons. One hundred years ago, some of the most common jobs belonged to factory workers, mechanics, iron and steel mill workers, and coal miners – in other words, jobs that required quite a bit of physical exertion. Today, some of the most common jobs belong to sales representatives, office clerks, and general managers – in other words, jobs that don’t entail hard physical labor.
In the days when coal miners and railroad workers made up a large number of workers, it was expected that women’s roles were to raise the children and tend to the home – and compared to the idea of working in the fields all day, women didn’t necessarily think of being at home as getting the short end of the stick. Now, however, men’s and women’s roles aren’t so starkly different as they were back in the olden days.
Mothers often feel that they suddenly have a lack of autonomy once a baby enters the picture – far more so than their husbands.
Today, wives see their husband going to work at an office, getting lunch with his colleagues, and clocking out at 5pm, all while she stays home with fussy toddlers and is, more or less, “on the clock” at all times. This, paired with the cultural devaluation of motherhood, makes it seem to her like she’s getting the short end of the stick.
While this isn’t the case with all husbands (or even most), there are men out there who won’t empathize with their wife’s unique plight, refusing to change a single diaper or help clean up after dinner, citing his 8-hour work day as an excuse.
What Women Are Failing To Consider
Women’s reasons for desiring their husbands to take on part of the duties on her plate are understandable, but they also fail to consider the fact that their husbands have their own plight – one that’s distinct from hers, but valid all the same. Men have their own worries and responsibilities and workloads and difficulties that their wives don’t understand, experience, or wrestle with – which they don’t expect of her.
It’s common for women to express that their role as a mother and a homemaker is taken for granted, but what we don’t often pause to consider is that many men, too, feel that their contributions of spending at least 40 hours a week in an office, sitting in traffic for more hours, fighting his way up the ladder at work, and paying for bills and affording a comfortable lifestyle are taken for granted. Just as women feel that their taking care of the children is treated with an attitude of, “Well, of course,” men feel the same regarding their going to work and providing.
Often enough, what is being asked for when a wife wants equal time between her and her husband spent with the baby is closer to a 75/25 marriage than a 50/50 marriage. She’s placing extra expectations upon him without taking stock of what’s already being expected of him.
So, What’s the Solution?
What’s an exhausted mother to do, then? How can women feel that they’re being supported and having more of their needs met while being realistic and fair to their husbands?
First off, it’s imperative that we stop telling ourselves that it’s unfair for our husband to not have the same plight as we do. It’s true that his plight doesn’t include pregnancy and changes to his body, being the “default parent,” and potentially struggling with the emotional ups and downs of postpartum depression. These are simply issues that are unique to women, and reminding ourselves that he has his own problems that we’ll never understand can help us recognize that we aren’t the only ones making sacrifices.
We can’t expect that tasks will be divided equally, but we can expect that both spouses will have equal investment in building a family.
Our natural role in marriage and in a family, as women, is good, valuable, and beautiful, and it isn’t the same as a husband’s. Not because of unfair gender norms that ought to be reversed, but because of biological realities. Mothers are able to nurse their babies. Children seek to be comforted by their mother before their father. A 2004 study found that teens who felt supported by their mother were more likely to score positively on social competence, self-worth, and sympathy.
In seeking equality in marriage, we should seek equality of value and intention rather than expecting sameness. We can’t expect that tasks and duties and responsibilities will be divided up equally, but we can expect that both spouses will have equal interest and investment in building a family.
More practically speaking, turning to friends, sisters, and mothers-in-law is a healthy way to seek support from women who’ve been through the trenches of motherhood before. Look for help taking care of the kids, organize playdates with other young mothers, and ask trusted friends to watch them for a couple of hours. If it’s in the budget, hire cleaning help. Consider meal prep companies during particularly exhausting periods of life or spend one weekend making a bunch of freezer meals to make the rest of the month easier.
But women aren’t the only ones that can adjust their behavior and expectations. The truth is that being a mother is exhausting, and it’s essential that husbands understand just how much of herself she’s pouring into their kids. And while a husband can’t nurse a baby and won’t typically be the parent a toddler first runs to, he can find ways that he can support his wife – whether that’s making breakfast on the weekends so she doesn’t have to worry about it, or putting aside money for her to get regular massages while he takes the kids to the park. A husband can’t fulfill the unique role of a mother, but he can get creative about how he supports his wife and owns his responsibilities as a father.
Husbands and wives are always going to have different responsibilities. This isn’t something to fight against, but instead, something to own and embrace. Men won’t ever understand what it’s like to be a mother, and it’s detrimental to attempt to insist that they do. What we should expect from husbands, rather than an exactly equal number of diapers changed, is support that allows both us and him to lean into our unique roles in the family.
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