Studies have shown that, even in very equal relationships, heterosexual couples experience a shift in household responsibilities after children arrive on the scene. This may be true for LGBTQ+ families as well, but there’s not as much research yet (and I’m a cis-het lady with a husband, so that’s my experience).
This imbalance, where in most cases the majority of housework and childcare fall on the mom, can cause a lot of resentment and stress at home. This unequal load happens regardless if both partners work or not.
Sound familiar? Because I get this question a LOT.
Heads up, I'm going to explain using heteronormative language based on my work with clients, and also for search engines. If your partner isn't a cis dude, let me know if your experience is similar or not!
Why Doesn’t My Husband Just Help More?
When your identity shifts to “parent” from “partner,” his expectations shift accordingly. If you don’t have the same ideas of what “a mom” does, this can cause a disconnect. My unscientific theory after hearing about this from many clients is that new dads either expect that you’ll do what HIS mom did, or what he WISHES his mom had done, but may not verbalize that to you.
You might need support in new areas and he may not intuitively know what those are. You also may have a hard time knowing what you need, or even explaining it, especially when you’re recently postpartum.
Particularly if he’s working outside the home, and you’re on leave or staying home with kids, he may think of him bringing home a paycheck as his contribution “providing” for the family. That may be important financially, but you also need him to supervise kids and do housework, especially if you have more than one kid, and especially if modeling that division of labor is important to your values.
Are we the only ones struggling with this?
My husband and I were married for 6 years before our oldest was born, so we had a decent amount of relationship behind us already. We still grappled with this after having a baby! It’s taken a lot of communication to get to a much better place, and adjustment after each baby arrives.
If your kids are old enough to talk, an easy way to see how this is going is to ask them who cooks, cleans, grocery shops, does dishes, works, etc. See what they say! They're sponges, and sometimes we don't realize what we're saying and modeling in subtle ways.
How Do I Get Him to Help Without Nagging?
No one likes being told what to do. Often we start by asking, then if it doesn’t get done, we feel hurt. If a division of labor isn’t explicitly stated, we may be assuming that the other person expects us to do certain tasks or misunderstand roles.
One approach is to work together to divide up tasks. Ask him to sit down with you and make a list of all the household tasks that need to happen. This is especially helpful if he’s gone all day and doesn’t see some of the work being done. Then take turns choosing tasks that you actually want to do.
For example, I prefer to be in charge of paying the bills, and my husband doesn’t. Do I love paying the bills? No. But claiming that as my responsibility helps me take ownership. My husband likes to do yard work, whereas I forget that it exists. I take the kids to the doctor, but he’s in charge of scheduling their dental checkups. We start with what we are most interested in taking on, then work through the list. Then we both see the other person taking on tasks they don’t want to because someone has to do them.
Then discuss the frequency of said tasks, agree on how to remember to do your part, and how to check in with each other about it.
Eve Rodsky, in her book Fair Play, contends that taking true ownership and responsibility of a task means all three parts: conception, planning, and execution. So an improvement on one partner reminding the other would be the responsible party setting a reminder in their phone, with a smart speaker, or on their forehead with Sharpie if that’s what they choose.
This is important because he’s not “helping you,” he’s actively participating as a member of your household who also lives there and uses dishes and wears clothes.
Something I talk about at my events is how my husband and I don't mingle our laundry. I don't expect him to do mine, and he doesn't expect me to do his. It happens occasionally, but it's a nice surprise and not the rule. It's been working for us for 15 years!
Why Doesn’t He Help More With the Kids?
There are several possible reasons for this.
First, we often fall into those traps where women are “better” at childcare and we become default caregivers.
There are entire books written on the topic so I’ll leave it there. It literally may not occur to him, especially when kids are very young. Babies often do prefer the person who gave birth to them (they recognize your scent when they're a day old!) and may be their sole source of food. If Dad didn't have much parental leave, you also start with more experience that can lead to learned helplessness and maternal gatekeeping ("I'm better at it/I'll just do it myself.").
Next, we might have different ideas of what “playing with the kids” looks like.
Men (and I’m generalizing here) tend to socialize by doing activities side-by-side: watching sports, playing video games, fishing, etc. Women tend to socialize face-to-face. So when a dad plops a kid on his lap to watch TV, we don’t think of that as playing WITH them, but he actually might.
Discuss what type of engagement your child might like, have a list of ideas handy, or suggest an activity if he can’t come up with one himself.
Last, I often hear the same complaint from moms.
When I ask for an example, it’s usually something like this: The sink was full of dirty dishes, but I couldn’t wash them AND play with the kids. I told my husband and he just kept scrolling on his phone and I was so upset!
This is twofold. One, he may not realize that you’re asking for help. It may be obvious to you, but that doesn’t mean it is to him. “The dishes need to be done” might bring him to respond, “Oh, you can just do them later.” He thought you needed a break, permission, or just to be acknowledged. Even though you think you're being clear, he can't read your mind.
Two, he may not understand what you need. I suggest what I call “The Toddler Approach,” where you give two clear choices that are both helpful. “The dishes need to be done, but the kids are awake. Would you like to wash the dishes, or entertain the children?” Both need to happen, and you can’t do them both. Giving him options is direct, clear, and gives him a choice.
How to Explain Why You’re Upset
Most men were raised with the idea that they can’t express feelings, so when we get upset, it’s very stressful for them. They likely never learned to hold space for emotions, or to manage their own feelings which they tend to stuff down. They may not even know that's what's happening. That’s how our society likes to socialize boys (let’s do better for our kids, please).
So when we try to express our feelings, it can be hard for them, especially if we’re not communicating clearly. This can be a challenge when we’re already sleep deprived, and using up our energy managing our kids’ feelings all day. The last thing we want is to feel like we have to manage our partners’ feelings so they don’t feel bad when we tell them how they messed up!
But if we simply unload a list of their transgressions, they’ll feel shamed and defensive. That's not likely to be productive, even if it's cathartic in the moment. If this is a pattern for you both, therapy or counseling can be helpful to have a third party involved to smooth out communication channels.
That said, you can do this on your own (I believe in you), and the more you practice, the easier it gets. Instead of, “It made me mad when you didn’t take out the garbage,” try, “I felt hurt when you told me you would take out the garbage, then didn’t. You weren’t home to smell the stinky trash, so it felt like you didn’t care that I had to.”
Keep it to how you FELT as a result, not what they DID (or didn't do).
Another strategy I love is Brene Brown’s phrase, “the story I’m making up.”
“Hey, when you don’t take out the trash when you say you’re going to, the story I’m making up is that you feel like I’m not doing enough around the house, I’m a terrible wife and mom, and you don’t care that I’m already feeling stretched thin. I know that’s not true, but that’s how I feel about it.”
And that’s why we’re actually upset. We’re not mad about the trash, we’re mad about him not keeping his word and how that impacts us. Your feelings are valid.
What If This Sounds Like More Work for You?
Sometimes when I talk about this with clients, they ask why THEY have to do all the work of bringing up the topic, setting up a meeting time, and breaking down all the tasks. Isn’t the whole point that you're already doing more work?
I hear you. And it does feel unfair. The problem is that the one doing less work isn’t likely to change until they have to, and they understand why. If you’re doing a lot of invisible work, they may truly not realize how inequitable the load is. Even after 14 years of marriage, my mantra is still, “My spouse is not psychic. I have to tell him what I need.”
If you could use some support with this approach, or other topics, schedule your free call with me and we’ll talk through what you need.
Julie says, “It’s good to have perspective outside of my own vantage point, and it puts [my husband and I] both on better footing to understand each other and get along. Coaching helps me see from another point of view so I can be more empathetic and less defensive, and develop a plan to address issues with my partner.”
- Book your free call now and we can talk for 20 minutes (no pressure) about what you need.
- My podcast interview with marriage coach Janna Denton-Howes (with transcript) discusses how relationships change and how we've navigated that ourselves and with clients.
- How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn has a click-baity title, but actually has wonderful advice with a real-life example by the author. They go to therapy for you!
- Fair Play by Eve Rodsky is mentioned in the post and actually has a card deck you can purchase to "play" the game she outlines in her book.
- The Gottman Institute is an amazing resource for relationships.