Resetting Roles: A Challenge for EveryoneA new study by Forbes Woman and the pregnancy website found that 92 percent of working moms and 89 percent of stay-at-home moms feel overwhelmed by trying to balance responsibilities as a worker, homemaker and parent.

Meanwhile, a survey of fathers working at Fortune 500 companies conducted by the Boston College Center for Work and Family shows that although more than half of the men would consider not working if the family could live on their wife’s salary, they did not view the daily tasks of taking care of children as a top priority.

While women routinely make compromises with their careers in order to take care of children, it seems that fathers aren’t stepping up to the plate in the same way. They reportedly want to be more involved with their kids but they rarely cut back on work hours. Although most men have good intentions regarding doing an equal share of keeping hearth and home, it rarely happens. The result? 70 percent of the working mothers reported feeling resentful toward their partner because of all they felt was left up to them.

The resentment isn’t limited to women in the workforce, either. 68 percent of stay-at-home moms also complain that their partners feel free to take a break for personal interests and relaxation but don’t support them in doing the same thing.

The Forbes study, as reported by Reuters, then puts the responsibility for the disparity in household workload on mothers. It claims that women can’t let go of tasks because it makes them feel less like a mother when they do. The suggested solution is that women swallow their pride and have a conversation about housework with their partners.


Hold on! In my experience, the situation is much more complicated. It will take far more than an honest talk with our male partners to fix.

For perhaps millions of years, men protected the family and quite literally brought home the bacon, or mastodon, or antelope while the women cared for the children, gathered what they could for food and fuel, and kept the home fires burning. More than 40 years of feminism isn’t a match for millions of years of history. Despite the fact that physical strength is no longer the determiner of someone’s ability to protect; despite the fact that women are now able to hunt up what is needed to sustain the family; despite the fact that men are able to nurture and care for children; the default in most of us is to go back to male = provider, woman = nurturer, even when the natural inclinations or talents of the real people involved argue for the opposite.

Women aren’t to blame. Neither are the men. It takes time and real, concerted effort on everyone’s part to change the settings that have been established by time.

I suggest that there is urgency to making such changes. It wouldn’t surprise me if a major cause of discord in marriages and ultimately in divorce is that very resentment the Forbes study identified. Women start to feel some version of, “If I’m doing this on my own anyway, why should I have to accommodate him?” He feels, “I’m working so hard and I come home to an irritated, resentful wife. Who needs it?” Nether wants to do housework. (Who does?) Both want the other person to do it so they can get a break. Meanwhile, the kids clamor for time and attention and everyone is stressed to the max.

Change first requires a commitment by all involved. Unless both members of the couple are willing to reevaluate roles and make substantive changes, all the honest communication in the world isn’t going to make it so. Moms who have the idea that nurturing has to be done only their way have to let go. Dads have to pick up the less than wonderful aspects of parenting (changing diapers, doing laundry, and washing the kitchen floor) as well as the tasks that are sweeter and more fun (reading bedtime stories and going to the park). Women need to refuse to be the managers and to insist on a model of co-leadership in the household. Men need to stop looking to their partners to delegate the responsibilities. Men need to be sure that their partners get the time to do their jobs well and to have a regular break. Women need to stop feeling guilty if they don’t pick up the slack when things start to unravel at home. Men need to be willing to advance at their jobs more slowly so they can be real partners in parenting. Women need to give their partners the room to learn how to do tasks of homemaking their fathers didn’t teach them to do.

Accomplishing all this is a very, very tall order. Partners who are on the cutting edge of this big evolutionary and cultural change will find that there isn’t a whole lot of guidance out there for doing it. Worse, they may find that they don’t get support or credit for trying from family and friends who see it as a threat to the natural order of things or who have an investment in more traditional roles.

Resetting Roles

Partners who are trying to redefine gender roles and distribute tasks more equally do have some things in common:

1. They have taken the time to really talk out their mutual goals.

They agree they want a family and that it’s important for both of them to be actively involved in the care of the children and the maintenance of the home. They support each other’s career goals. When fate happens and there is an unexpected opportunity for a promotion or an unexpected pregnancy or a change in one or the other person’s career goals, they take the time to rethink everything and come to new agreements.

2. Once they’ve established the overarching goals, they get specific.

They outline what each will do in each of three areas: work, family, self. They do everything they can to keep all three in balance – for both of them.

3. When dividing tasks, they acknowledge that equality doesn’t have to mean sameness.

Sometimes it makes more sense to follow individual talents and preferences. If someone loves to cook and the other person really hates it, let the foodie do the cooking. The partner can do the cleanup. They divide the tasks in a way that both people feel is fair.

4. They have a back-up plan for taking care of the kids when school is called off or someone is sick.

Instead of assuming that mom or dad will be the one to stay home, they have a fair system — set out in advance – for who stays home on what days and in what circumstances. This avoids the stress of the “whose calendar is more important today” debate.

5. They set aside time to have a regular “staff meeting.”

A weekly meeting to manage calendars, budget, and responsibilities and to make sure both are in the loop about important family information prevents a whole lot of problems.

Sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that we’re still on the cutting edge of redefining how to best manage a household in a way that supports parenting, careers, and the need for each partner to have at least a little time for themselves. Talking it out and putting some structures in place that ensure that all three areas get time and attention can prevent an unequal load and the resentment that comes with it.