Things You Can Learn from Non-traditional Families

Family Matters on 05.12.11
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As the primary caregiver to our almost-two-year old twin girls, I spend a lot of time with moms.  At the playground, on playdates, in the blogosphere.  I even belong to an Asian mommy group (my wife is Vietnamese; I'm a Euro-mongrel).  

We talk about the usual stuff--kids, kid gear, kid behavior, schools, cool places to take kids.  You know: mom talk. 

One thread of conversation that almost always comes up is the perceived difficulty of taking care of twins.  Of course, twins are all I've got, so I have no reference point from which to determine the degree of difficutly.  I usually just act like it's no big deal, hoping that my interlocutor takes that as a sign that I'm a preternaturally competent parent.

But eventually, I have to admit that my parenting workload is not often overwhelming because I have a lot of help. 

I have enough sense now to tread lightly when I get to this point, because I've worked myself into an uncomfortable conversational impasse on a couple of occasions.  Here's an example of a version of this chat that I had when I was new to the SAHD gig, and perhaps a little overcaffeinated:

Playground Mom: I just can't imagine having two toddlers.  It must be exhausting.

Me: I guess.  I mean, it's my only parenting experience, so...

Playground Mom: Right, yeah.  But still...just, two of everything.

Me: Well, they're all synched up as far as naptimes and eating; and they wear all the same sized clothes and diapers, so everything is all in one pile.  I always figure it's maybe thirty or forty percent harder than having one toddler--definitely not twice as hard.

Playground Mom: That makes sense.  But you've also got twice the dishes, twice the laundry.

Me: Yeah, sure.  But, you know, I've got plenty of help.

Playground Mom: Yeah...

Me: Oh yeah.  It's not like my wife is Ward Cleaver or something.  She doesn't just come home and kick her feet up, dispense some wise words to the kids, and then bury her face in the paper until dinner is ready.

Playground Mom: Mmm hmm...

Me: Once she gets home from work, she does mom stuff right up until the kids go to bed.

Playground Mom: Okay...

Me: And then she helps clean up the day's carnage and prepare for the next day.

Playground Mom: *sighs*

Me: Yeah!  When she's home, we split up the workload right down the middle.  And on the weekends, she probably does more of the childcare, so I can get other stuff done.

Playground Mom: *crosses arms*

Me: It really works out well.  If she weren't as involved in the parenting and housework, then I might be singing a different tune about how easy it is to take care of twins.

Playground Mom: Yeah.  Must be nice.

Me: Oh.  Heh. Yeah. *mumbles*

Playground Mom: Well, I better get going.  Got to get dinner on before my husband comes home.

Me: Okay then.  Good talk.  Let's do it again soon.

Before our kids were born, I read an excellent book by Jeremy Adam Smith called Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American FamilyI would recommend it to anyone, regardless of the configuration of their family.

In the book, Smith argues that in non-traditional families (e.g., same-sex parents, or breadwinning mom/stay-at-home dad), the "unpaid family labor" tends to be divided more equitably.  Smith presents evidence from studies showing that non-traditional families "specialize" less, so that the roles of breadwinner and family worker shift as needed.

And even though the "traditional" family (breadwinning dad/stay-at-home mom) is becoming quite rare, the vestiges of its influence can still be seen today.   Although men are doing incrementally more housework, women still do the bulk of it, even if they are working full time outside of the house.  There are also some interesting descrepancies between how much unpaid family work men report doing and how much they actually do.

Most of the families I know consist of two working parents who are both heavily involved in the parenting.  I try not to pry into the matters of who does the glamorless tasks around the house, since that tends to be a sensitive subject and it ain't none of my bidness.  But when I read studies and hear anecdotal evidence of labor inequity in the home, I have to believe that a lot of moms (and certainly at least a few dads) are getting the shaft. 

I have no idea how a parent who is shouldering an unfair amount of the family labor burden would go about changing their situation.  It's not like there are unions for parents.  I would only point out that, as almost endless new configurations of families emerge, there are plenty of models for sharing responsiblilities and workloads fairly, and being aware of those examples may help us move toward a future where equity is the norm rather than the exception.