In honor of Father’s Day this weekend, NYT Parenting has Nathaniel Popper’s piece about the state of American paternity leave. Despite the fact that the majority of Americans support paid leave for fathers, the benefit is still not available to most men, and even the men who do have the benefit don’t always take it. Popper delves into why.
Paternity leave benefits babies, of course, but it also benefits relationships and spouses: Men who take paternity leave are less likely to get divorced, and a Swedish study found that when fathers were offered up to 30 days of flexible leave while their partners were on maternity leave, their spouses are less likely to be on anti-anxiety medication in the postpartum period. When you look at the body of research around marital satisfaction in the transition to parenthood, this makes total sense — one of the biggest gripes new moms in hetero couplings have is that their once-egalitarian relationships have become lopsided.
Though there are lots of male partners who do their fair share, there’s an area of parental labor that remains frustratingly resistant to change for many couples: It’s called “worry work” or, colloquially, the mental load. Both terms describe a constant, thrumming, low-level anxiety over the health and well-being of your children, and women tend to do more of the worry work than men do. It’s an endless list of organizational tasks that runs through your head like ticker tape: We’re out of milk when do we need to apply for preschool is the baby outgrowing her onesies. According to the 2017 Bright Horizons Modern Family Index, working women are twice as likely to be managing the household and three times as likely to be managing their kids’ schedules as their male partners.
So how do you begin to root out this pernicious imbalance in your family? A modest proposal that worked for me: I became basically incapacitated for six months when I was pregnant with my younger daughter, which revealed to both my husband and me how much organizational work I’d been doing. Because the morning sickness medication I took pretty much knocked me unconscious during all non-working hours, it forced my husband to take on a bunch of tasks he has kept doing to this day. He’s still the one in charge of all pediatrician well-visits and has taken the lead on planning weekend activities for our family, and he’s responsible for gift-giving.
I’m being a little cheeky, but what happened to me is also what happens when men take paternity leave: They feel in their bones how much work it is to manage the family in a way that’s deeper and longer lasting than just having a discussion about it. (It’s worth noting here that men who were raised by single mothers may understand that work innately).
While you can work to more equitably distribute the actual tasks, that low-key anxiety is going to be tougher to share because of societal expectations of mothers, said Susan Walzer, a professor of sociology at Skidmore College who discussed the term “worry work” in a 1996 paper called “Thinking About the Baby.” The mothers Dr. Walzer interviewed in her research spent more time worrying about being good mothers than the fathers worried about being good fathers.
For example, mothers worry about bringing a sweater for the baby, because they don’t want the baby to get cold; but also, if the baby gets cold and they are unprepared, they will be judged for it, while a father probably wouldn’t be. “Part of the reason mothers worry more is because it’s perceived that’s what a ‘good mother’ does,” Dr. Walzer said. It’s a frustrating tautology.
Though I’m pretty happy with our balance at this point, occasionally I wish I could transfer some of that useful organizational anxiety over to my husband. But I can’t force his brain to start thinking about summer camp in January the way my brain does. That’s not a realistic goal, and it wouldn’t be a useful or efficient one.
What is a realistic goal is to expect an empathetic conversation about mental load, said Dr. Walzer. Men shouldn’t dismiss discussions of mental load with “stop worrying so much” — a common response. Be empathetic, and offer help where possible. For example, we had a leak into our apartment that jacked up our floor right before NYT Parenting launched, so my husband offered to take over all communication with the insurance company and found us temporary housing. It was an enormous weight lifted off me.
Which is all to say: Try to stay on the same team, said Dr. Walzer. “Think about how things are going for your partner, because that’s going to protect your relationship, and that will serve you” — and your baby — “in the end.”
P.S. Thank you to everyone who responded to our call-out for stories about the decisions your family made about working or staying at home. We have a round-up of some of those stories here, and they include ambivalence, joy and pumping in closets.
P.P.S. Passive-aggressively forward this email to a dude in your life. Follow us on Instagram @NYTParenting. Join us on Facebook. Find us on Twitter for the latest updates. Read last week’s newsletter about pinworm, the Human Centipede of childhood maladies.
Want More on Equalizing Your Relationship?
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
I figured out a way to get my kids excited about cleaning: writing down tasks on little pieces of paper and then having them draw their task out of a bowl. It blows my mind that this actually works, but it does!
—Mary Ann Blair, Spokane, Wash.
If you want a chance to get your Tiny Victory published, find us on Instagram @NYTparenting and use the hashtag #tinyvictories; email us; or enter your Tiny Victory at the bottom of this page. Include your full name and location. Tiny Victories may be edited for clarity and style. Your name, location and comments may be published, but your contact information will not. By submitting to us, you agree that you have read, understand and accept the Reader Submission Terms in relation to all of the content and other information you send to us.