Last summer my fiancé and I asked a couple celebrating their 40th anniversary what their secret to a long, happy marriage is. They thought for a moment and said, “Do your own laundry.” They were dead serious. Taking responsibility for their own laundry, a chore neither of them wanted to do, meant that the task always got done but never rested solely on one partner or the other.
It was a smart idea, my fiancé and I agreed. Then we continued to mix our laundry and get in squabbles about who was doing more loads of it.
I have shared a home with my fiancé, a cisgender heterosexual male, for several years. Finding a division of household tasks that feels fair and equal has definitely been a topic of (sometimes heated) discussion in our home. But overall I feel lucky to have an equal and progressive partner and am happy with the balance we’ve found: We switch off on meal prep, team up for apartment deep-cleans, and now alternate laundry loads.
But as we began wedding planning last fall, I couldn’t help but notice how the gender-focused traditions around marriage made me more sensitive to the dynamics in our relationship. Almost immediately I was struck by how much of our planning to-do list naturally fell to me, simply because I’m a woman and likely know more about wedding prep than my partner does.
In some ways, that made sense: The fact that I grew up on a steady diet of “fairy-tale wedding” movies and have several close friends who’ve gotten married meant that I have at least some sense of how wedding planning works. Plus, let’s be honest, the vast majority of the gorgeous wedding guides and websites out there—with their soft colors and pretty florals—are presumably geared toward women. It wasn’t that my fiancé didn’t want to help; he simply had no idea where to start.
So I stepped into the role of primary planner, with only the tiniest chip on my shoulder. As I scoured wedding websites, launched spreadsheets, and reached out to vendors, I started thinking of other areas in which women are often presumed to be the experts and therefore tasked with planning, assigning, and executing. At the top of that list: parenting.
“One might just say women should make different choices. But then no one in the family would have clean laundry or dinner.”
I’m not a mother yet but hope to have children in the near future. Over the years I’ve watched mothers I know navigate the terrain of maintaining domestic parity with their male partner—something that can be even more difficult to achieve with the added demands of having kids.
A complaint I hear all the time: Male partners don’t always understand the amount of behind-the-scenes, unpaid work that women put into raising children. Seemingly small tasks like scheduling doctors’ appointments and play dates, meal prep, and cleaning really add up—and it’s sometimes hard to get male partners to share those tasks or make them a priority, even if they’re more than happy to take the kids to school or spend time playing with them.
Moms often end up taking on the less fun (but unavoidable) tasks just so they get done, and I could feel myself doing the same—and fretting about it—with wedding planning. As my fiancé and I talk more about having kids, I couldn’t help but think about how that could supercharge tiffs over laundry or who’s in charge of calling the caterer (or, down the line, the babysitter).
Recently I found myself stewing over all of this as I listened to author and clinical psychologist Darcy Lockman give a keynote speech at the In Good Company conference in San Francisco. The title of her talk? “The Patriarchy at Home.” She had my attention.
Lockman’s keynote offered a peek into the future, should my fiancé and I have children. Drawing on research for her most recent book, All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, she confirmed that our current domestic squabbles would be nothing compared with what we would face if we have kids. While most millennial couples agree that the workload at home should be divided equally, statistics show that the balance changes dramatically after they become parents. Women end up putting in more hours than their male partners and pull it off by sacrificing leisure time and cutting back on sleep and self-care. “One might just say those women should make different choices,” Lockman says, “but then no one in the family would have clean laundry or dinner.”
Full-time working mothers today spend just as much time caring for their children as stay-at-home moms did in the 1960s. They take on 65% of the childcare labor in their homes, while their partners shoulder only 35%—numbers that peaked around 20 years ago and haven’t changed since. Only when husbands are unemployed and their wives are the sole breadwinners do couples spend a nearly equal amount of time on childcare-related work. (And even in that case, mothers still spend slightly more time than their male partners do.)
It’s one thing to suspect that there may be a gender imbalance at home based on anecdotes shared among friends—the father who never makes school lunches, the husband who’s incapable of putting together a grocery list or pulling his weight in laundry—it’s another to realize those stories are backed by statistics.
When I bring this up to my fiancé, he reassures me that our future parenting duties will remain as equal as our current division of household labor. And after I look around at our many male friends who appear to be hands-on dads, it seems like it could happen. But given the numbers, is that naive?
“In the last couple decades, we’ve gotten familiar with the story of the modern father who is much more involved with his kids than the generations that came before,” Lockman explains to me after the conference. “While it’s true that fathers spend more time with their kids these days, what that fact obscures is that they aren’t doing more of the work that having children entails.”
Many women are blindsided by the labor inequality that develops at home after they have children, Lockman says. And once those patterns have been established, it can be even harder to even the playing field. “It’s the outgrowth of having grown up in a patriarchy,” she explains, “and not because he’s a bad guy or she’s a martyr.”
For one, boys are often raised to think about their own needs and priorities, while girls are raised to think of the needs of the group—behaviors that can continue to play out in our adult lives. I wasn’t the one tackling our to-do list because my fiancé refused to, nor did I get pleasure from waving it in his face that I’d done more. Consciously or not, I have been primed through media and cultural norms to prep for “the best day of my life” since I was a child—but there’s no pressure for my fiancé to do much after the proposal.
Admittedly, listening to Lockman’s keynote and reading All the Rage left me feeling, well, full of rage. As a society, we still have a lot of work to do in finding parity at home (and in some cases, getting those who benefit from the patriarchy to admit there’s even a problem). One statistic from the book stung in particular, given where I am in my personal journey: “Longitudinal studies find that marital satisfaction peaks around the time of the wedding and then declines, and at twice the rate for parents as nonparents.”
Yikes. But also: How can my fiancé and I keep that from happening in our relationship?
Lockman found that couples who mutually committed to making sure their homes were not modeled off patriarchal behavior were most successful in finding a balance of labor that left everyone feeling good. They understood that the bulk of childcare labor would likely fall to mothers if left unaddressed, and put extra energy toward finding a more equitable balance.
While kids are still in the future, my fiancé and I figured it couldn’t hurt to try this now, with wedding planning as our testing ground. So we took a break from our to-do list to figure out what “balance” means for us in this particular scenario. I committed to being more vocal about when and why I was feeling overwhelmed, and he actively takes the lead on more of our task list. We got clear on what we really want our wedding and the planning process to feel like, and completely redesigned our celebration based on that goal.
Now we have a big task at hand, we try to divide and conquer as much as possible. We sit down together ahead of time to get clear on what needs to be done and who’s doing what. If a task comes up that one of us doesn’t have time for or isn’t confident tackling on their own, we are up-front about it so we can find a solution. It’s more transactional, but so far it’s working—and when we’re stressed, we’re at least stressed together, which relieves a lot of the frustration on my part. As Lockman pointed out in her keynote, “Equality is not so much of an endpoint as a process.”
Will we be able to maintain a similar sense of balance if and when we have kids? I know it will be a lot more challenging. But we’re hoping that by intentionally opening the dialogue now, we are laying a more egalitarian foundation for whatever the future holds. In the meantime, at least we’ve got our laundry sorted.
Larkin Clark is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in San Francisco whose work focuses on wellness, travel, lifestyle, and women’s issues. She has lived with type 1 diabetes for more than 25 years. You can follow her work and travels at larkinclark.com and @larkinclark.
Originally Appeared on Glamour