Updating The Division of Labor

changing diaper photo

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My father-in-law has some false memories. At least once a visit, he mentions having changed his share of diapers. The only problem is that… it isn’t true. In fact, Clancy’s mother can’t remember him once having done so. Which doesn’t mean that he never took part in the changing of a diaper, but probably means that he never actually changed one. The first couple diapers are the hardest ones, and if you don’t know what to do and your spouse does, you get help! And if his wife did help him, she would likely remember that.

I find his need to have created this memory to be an interesting thing. Perhaps it’s related to a need of having taken a larger parental role than he did. He was a division-of-labor person, though, which meant that he viewed his job as bringing home the paycheck and his wife’s job as taking care of the childrearing. Which was not an uncommon deal at the time, and is not an unfair deal, but that was the deal and it did not involve him changing diapers, bathing the kids, or anything of that sort. It involved disciplining and helping with homework, for the most part, as well as playing with them and going to organized events as time permitted.

If my father changed diapers, he never mentions it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, but it was not a part of their division of labor. What he did do, though, was give us baths. When this started, Mom was a bit taken aback because she figured that would be something that she would do. It hadn’t been discussed, but apparently Dad did it because his father did it for him. So naturally, that fell in the Dad realm. There are also logistical reasons also why it does make sense. Basically, for the same reason that Clancy more often than not reads Lain her bed-time stories. Since she misses out during the day, it’s a chance for some concentrated quality time. In a break with the Truman tradition, I do the bathing. Often because I’m getting started while Clancy is settling in arriving home after a long day at work.

Acculturated has a couple of pieces, one by Jonathan Last and another by Ashley McGuire, on Ashton Kutcher’s desire that men’s restrooms should have changing tables.

Honestly, it’s not really a problem I’ve had. Or perhaps I simply take for granted that men’s restrooms won’t all have changing tables. I figure, perhaps wrongly, that’s true more generally. When I don’t see one, it’s usually because it’s a small bathroom. Or, at least, I don’t see a good place where one should go and yet is not there. There could be an issue with the original layout of men’s and women’s restrooms where the latter are larger and therefore are more likely to have the space to begin with. That would be a grandfathering problem. Either way, experience is kind of built in.

I change Lain’s diaper around 99% of the time, even when Clancy is around to do so. I’ve become quite the expert at doing so quickly. Lain also seems to put up less resistance when I do it, for whatever reason. Last writes:

Fathers run the gamut in terms of what duties they assume. My wife and I don’t keep score, but I do a lot of diaper changing. Because we’re all hostage to our own experiences, I assumed this was the norm. Then a few years ago I found out that one of my friends does zero diapers. As in: None. Through two kids. This arrangement seemed freakish and weird to me, but his wife doesn’t mind and his kids turned out great and they’re a happy, wonderful family.

By the same token, I always assumed that husbands and wives fight through the midnight feedings and sleep training wars side-by-side. But then another buddy of mine admitted that every time his wife had a kid, she and the baby would spend the first several weeks in the in-law suite in their basement. This way he could stay upstairs in their bedroom and get enough sleep to handle the other kids and his day job. When he first told me about this arrangement, I was kind of gob-smacked. I didn’t think marriage could work like that. But some of them do. And they can work really well. (When I joked with him about his wife’s omni-competence, he deadpanned: “She’s like a Terminator sent back in time from the future. And I’m just hoping her mission is for the good.”)

When Lain was tiny, Clancy did almost everything. Which sounds great, but it strained her and left me feeling pretty bad considering she had to get up and go to work in the morning and I did not. I offered pretty regularly to help her, the logistics of it all were that it made more sense for her to do most of the tasks. A lot of them involved her boobs, which give milk in a way that mine do not.

It also had to do with how we were raised. Women, it really seems, are raised to be childrearers in all sorts of subtle ways that men are not. While I had to tendency to assume that her knowledge of the intricacies of taking care of a little one involved her medical training, she has assured me repeatedly that they do not and it’s just stuff she has picked up over the years. Guys don’t especially talk about these things even in passing. So even the things that did not involve boobs, I just hadn’t the slightest clue how to do. And no matter how we handled our domestic arrangement, there are just instinctual or conditioned assumptions about who will do what. They’re hard to unravel.

Over time this faded by necessity and I simply had to start doing more because I was around and she wasn’t. I have the added benefit of having a poor sense of smell, thus making diaper-changing (for instance) a comparatively Trumwill-friendly activity.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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37 thoughts on “Updating The Division of Labor

  1. I sometimes get frustrated when mens rooms don’t have changing tables but it is what it is. I also have no issues changing diapers in public places, up to and including on public streets. You gotta do what you gotta do. And our world isn’t particularly baby friendly.

    What I have found interesting is how wrong it can be to assume that all women do absorb these parenting skills/lessons through social osmosis. Zazzy did not, in large part because her parents weren’t ideal models for a whole host of reasons. That isn’t to say she is a bad or incompetent parent (she isn’t), but that she had a steeper learning curve than many might assume given that she is a woman with a background in bedside nursing.

    She is also hamstrung by having very few friends with children and therefore not the same opportunity to discuss parenting. I, on the other hand, have many friends (mostly male but some female) with children and we talk parenting tons.

    I think it important that we recognize parenting as a skill set as opposed to some essence a person either has or doesn’t have (or should have or shouldn’t have).

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  2. I’m also realizing how atypical my male friends and I still are. We are all very involved in parenting… changing diapers, doing midnight feedings, and routinely running solo with the babes without it being seen as “babysitting” or some such nonsense. There is probably some self-selection bias going on there, with us becoming and remaining friends because of certain qualities that lend themselves to these sorts of arrangements.

    But then I talk with female colleagues and they tell very different stories. Many of them have more traditional dynamics, with husbands/dads as breadwinners and wives/moms as caretakers.

    I think it is important to recognize that the traditional dynamic can take a toll on both parties. The pressure on women can be huge. But so too can the pressure on men. Pressure to make more money, work longer hours… to win more bread.

    Marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. There is no instruction manual for either nor a right or perfect path to success. Ideally, each couple works together to establish a dynamic that meets both parties’ needs and which is respectful of and responsive to the pressures both can face.

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    • It could be that because your circle of friends all went through the same experience at roughly the same age? In the circle of friends my wife and I hung around witth 5-10 years ago, three couples had twins within a year. We don’t really see or hear from these people anymore as my child is 21, putting me outside the perameters of that group, who are all still pretty tight from what I hear.

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    • “But then I talk with female colleagues and they tell very different stories. ” – could part of this be that you are in what gets labelled in academia as a “faculty spouse job” (well, TRADITIONALLY as a faculty wife job, but I’ve updated that in my own mind)? I know as a library staff person (but even for the librarians), we have the jobs that pay way less than our spouses’ jobs do, and also are more understanding / flexible about caretaking roles and how they sometimes lead to a need for more time off. Most of the people on our staff are women, but the guys on our staff are also in this position: their spouses (male or female) make more money, and have less flexibility / time off allowance at work.

      Likewise with my sister and her husband, though to a greater extreme because she makes mid-six-figures, and he actually made the decision to take time off completely while their kid was young.

      So maybe the reason your female colleagues tell different stories has as much to do with the type of job they (and you!) are in, as with your friend group being unusual.

      (There’s still plenty of sexism flying around, don’t get me wrong. I just think to some extent one of the ways this issue is sorting itself has to do with maintaining a binary, but removing the gender requirement from the binary – while still expecting it to be the case most of the time. Not in love with this solution, but perhaps it is an intermediate step to something better.)

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      • Interesting point, . I make no bones about one (of the MANY) appeals that teaching has for me is that it is a “family friendly” profession. There are very few, if any, late nights or working weekends, among other aspects of the job.

        But there also lies the possibility of perverse feedback loops, no? Why do certain professions get labeled “family friendly” or “spouse jobs”? Is it because they have been traditionally filled by women? It becomes a chicken-and-egg thing, it seems.

        I also should have been clearer in discussing the distinction. Many of my female colleagues talk with frustration of their husbands’ relative lack of involvement in childrearing. Now, maybe they are momentarily venting… we all do that sometimes and it is important to have space for that. But if they are truly frustrated with the arrangement, it seems like something should change.

        On the other hand, their husbands may be frustrated that their wives aren’t contributing as much to the financial situation. Which, again, means maybe they should rework the arrangement.

        An inability to find the right balance was a major contributing factor to the deterioration of Zazzy and my relationship.

        Ideally, I think each couple should be positioned to determine the “division of labor” that works for them independent of outside pressures and influences.

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        • My job, despite being a programmer, desperately wants to be “family friendly” — mostly because they can.

          I find out after the fact that if I had wanted to work from home for a month or three (because of not-me medical issues), they would have been okay with that.

          There are jobs that are “family friendly” and they don’t have to be the “pays less” spouse jobs.

          Most jobs want to be flexible when they can be (cheap way to get better employees).

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    • I think they may be two dynamics going on here.

      The first, and most obvious, is that the data does suggest that even in modern life, women tend to do more “women’s work” around the house, including on the parenting front — even when both are working full time.

      The second is that it’s also a fairly human trait to notice in great detail all of the things that you do, and notice far less the things other people do — including (and maybe even especially) your spouse.

      It’s always hard to parse with other couples how much of differing opinion between the two is due to one or the other.

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      • Re: 1 – No argument there. And I am not necessarily saying it HAS to be different. Only that it isn’t always as such.

        Re: 2 – This is very true and can be a real sticking point. I think open and honest dialogue between partners is likely to be the best remedy but isn’t without its drawbacks. These conversations can be very difficult to have and are often avoided. Consequently, you often have both partners “suffering in silence” and failing to understand the other’s experience or perspective.

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  3. As I’ve said before, my mom ran an in-home daycare center from the time I was 10 until just a few years before her death. I’ve changed more diapers, bottle fed more babies, etc. than a large percentage of my peers. My wife has told me that the fact that I have always been very comfortable around babies and small children was one of the things that made me attractive to her.

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  4. You are probably onto something with women being raised to be child rearers more consciously or not than men. I don’t really have any younger siblings or cousins. I wonder if women are pushed to change diapers on their younger siblings more than men. Basically be parent 2.

    Despite many advances of gender equality. A lot of old stuff still remains. I think men are still expected to be at breadwinner level when they get married even if their wives have good careers. I think it is societally more acceptable for women to be less advanced in their careers when married.

    I have felt this during my past few years while struggling on the slack legal market. My thought is “How can I expect anyone to be my girlfriend or wife considering the state of my career?” Yet I’ve met many female lawyers who are victims of the same slack legal market and are dating and getting married and sometimes pregnant with kid no. 2 while taking week long temp jobs at not great pay rates.

    I have no idea where this idea on not being husband ready because of my career state cane from.

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    • What you discuss there at the end is part of what I’m referring to in terms of the pressure on men.

      In short, strict gender norms/expectations are limiting and restrictive for everyone. They might do more harm to one group or another — and can confer certain benefits — but they seem to, on net, be negative.

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      • Getting rid of strict gender norms/expectations is a tricky business though. They have just as many defenders as critics. For than a few of the critics of strict gender norms/expectations at least want to defend the strict gender norms/expectations that benefit them. Some gender norms/expectations might be more biological hardware than societal software and that will make getting rid of them even trickier.

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        • I don’t object to traditional roles that are assumed voluntarily; it is the pressure that I think is problematic. So defenders can assume those roles themselves and pursue others who are similarly on board.

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          • The pressure is problematic but I think that we might be as far as we can with reducing the pressure realistically for the moment. Most of the critics of traditional roles are more ambiguous about their feelings towards them than the defenders. They might hate them overall but they do like traditional roles in some circumstances or when it benefits them. This means that more people are defenders than critics because critics can act as defenders at times.

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  5. My father-in-law has some false memories. At least once a visit, he mentions having changed his share of diapers. The only problem is that… it isn’t true. In fact, Clancy’s mother can’t remember him once having done so.

    What this tells us is that you’ve decided that your mother-in-law’s memory is authoritative and your father-in-law’s is not.

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  6. “There could be an issue with the original layout of men’s and women’s restrooms where the latter are larger and therefore are more likely to have the space to begin with. That would be a grandfathering problem.”

    Actually it would be a fathering problem, in re: dads changing diapers.

    ******

    PS oh look another really good argument for unisex single-user restroom facilities!

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  7. My husband and I have fallen into more traditional roles (mostly because I had major job dissatisfaction when kiddo #1 arrived), so I am home with the girls and he is the breadwinner. But kid related stuff is still relatively evenly divided. We refer to it as being “parent-in-charge”. The PIC takes the lead on kid stuff, but the other one helps out as needed. In the infant stage, there definitely were things he couldn’t do (boobs), but he changed most of the diapers, made sure I was fed consistently, and brought baby to me for feeds and put baby back to bed after. With #2 his focus was on keeping our toddler happy, healthy, and fed.

    The thing that makes my husband different from the typical (stereotypical?) husband is he prioritizes family over work even though he is the “breadwinner”. If I need him to be home with one kid while I take the other to an appointment, he makes it happen. He does zero work from home in the evenings. He has always been protective of his work/life balance. I am convinced that part of this is because he isn’t American.

    Our choice of family division of labor works for us…most of the time!

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      • The funny thing about stereotypes is that my best personal example of an equally-labor-sharing couple is as American as apple pie. Like, that husband was born in Alaska, goes hunting, drives a truck, had a dad in the Air Force (who was a good ole boy), and digs on 5 or 6 different nerd fandoms. He and his wife have shifted in and out of who is the majority breadwinner and/or split things evenly in the money department for as long as I’ve known them.

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        • Yeah, that was sort of my point. I actually think most of the stereotypes about typical American husbands fit very few of them in reality. Well, that goes for stereotypes across the board, doesn’t it.

          Did I just make a stereotype about stereotypes?

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          • I agree and I think the reason is that stereotypes about the other generally tend to flatter ourselves. Stereotypes about lazy, unconcerned husbands exist to flatter put-upon wives who feel overwhelmed with domestic chores. And stereotypes about shrewish wives exist to flatter husbands who feel ineffectual and not stereotypically masculine enough. It’s a way of externalizing our own feelings of inadequacy.

            Also, because they’re totally true… sometimes.

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            • Stereotypes allow us to see people two dimensionally. Looking at a father who doesn’t do nighttime feedings but ignoring that the primary reason for this is because he works 14 hour days is just dishonest. Similarly, looking at a woman who doesn’t work but rings up the credit card but ignoring that she does all the household shopping.

              That said, different cultures (for whatever definition and size of culture you prefer) have different values that these values can impact behavior.

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  8. I’m largely indifferent to other people’s division of labor, but I think it’s great that more and more people are getting into relationships that involve an effort to consciously negotiate it.

    What I do find interesting is that, while there is one narrative about things being better as strict gender norms erode, there is another narrative that suggests the opposite. Just last night, I was reading this old article from The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/07/lets-call-the-whole-thing-off/307488/

    My main takeway from that piece is that Tsing Loh is a lunatic and perhaps not the most reliable narrator. But her story is full of women who are essentially lamenting their new age-ey husbands and longing for some return to when “men where men.” I don’t spend too much time thinking about which is right, but it does raise a bunch of questions about relative levels of happiness. Are people more or less happy in their marriages today than before? Are more women? Is this really about gender roles or something else?

    I don’t really have any answers, but the questions are interesting.

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    • I read of a different study that found couples who bucked traditional gender norms had higher rates of divorce, but the likely cause was not the bucking and the fact that couples who tended to buck also tended to have less traditional views of marriage and were more willing to get divorced in the first place.

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      • I would say that ones view of the institution of marrige is as important as any other factor in determining if a couple “makes it.” My first wife and I both came from families that had split, so the idea that marrige is forever was not there for either of us. But, on the flip side of that, we didn’t want our son to go through what we did, and so took careful pains to end the marrige on even terms, with both of us going out of the way to make sure that he was first in our lives and that we didn’t use him as a proxy in our relationship.

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      • and

        I agree that views on marriage are an important part, if not the important part. The thing that sticks out to me in that Atlantic piece is that the women in question have a view of marriage (ie their husbands and kids and homes, etc) as a collection of accessories, something in addition to their “real “lives. My guess is that the anxiety isn’t coming from tension around gender roles, but from the fact that these women have effectively splintered their identities into a bunch of different pieces that don’t fit well together. And the craziest thing is that they seem to have done this on purpose.

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        • Well, that just seems like a uniquely perverse mindset but, hey, to each their own.

          That situation sounds somewhat similar to mind in some key ways, namely how we are attempting to work things through with the boys as our foremost priority.

          I similarly came from divorced parents and seeing how both of my parents — my mom in particular — were much happier in their new relationships than their old one communicated to me that divorce wasn’t an inherently awful thing that doomed everyone to misery. And, in fact, divorce could be a positive for children depending on the specifics. My siblings and I all responded to my parents divorce different for myriad reasons, but I saw it as a largely beneficial change in my life (and not because it excised an abusive parent or anything of that sort).

          It definitely made the ultimate decision to separate not easier, but more palatable.

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    • jr,
      The woman married to Ian would be granted a divorce easily in Jewish culture — simply because he was failing to satisfy her sexually.

      That whole “four personalities” thing is bullshit, serious serious bullshit. Not the LEAST of which is because women’s preferences for men change based on where they are in their monthly cycle.

      Note that getting divorced seems to enforce — in their white-bread culture — division of labor between father and mother. No longer is one spouse “put upon.”

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