“You don’t think any of it is genetic? None of it has to do with inherent gender differences? The ability to multi-task, even?” This was the question I asked a colleague as we discussed an article that concluded, yet again, that women do more than their fair share of parenting, regardless of whether or not they work outside of the home. This colleague is the only woman I know who seems to have gotten pretty close to a 50-50 parenting split with her husband. Among other things, not only has she changed very few diapers, but she has also never given her 19-month old son a bath. Never. “Please,” she said. “That very question—why men do less—is asked through a cultural lens. It’s all learned incompetence.”
“Be careful about the patterns you set early in her life; they’ll be hard to undo later.” Those words were spoken to me by another female colleague, warning me that my job flexibility would lend itself to a division of parenting between my husband and me that would tip in his favor. One year into parenting, it turned out she was right; the scale did, indeed, favor him. She’s wrong, however, that the pattern began early in my daughter’s life; rather, these are patterns that have been setting long before my daughter’s birth. There may, indeed, be a genetic basis for different brain wiring that make women better at multi-tasking, coordinating, or scheduling. But the parenting imbalance we witness today in so many marriages is more nurture than nature. It’s learned; learned incompetence on Dad’s part, and learned competence on Mom’s.
And so it is that my learned competence began 30 years ago, having witnessed my mother run our household without my father’s help. She’s a consummate scheduler and meticulous planner. She did all the food shopping, and coordinated all of our meals. She did all of the school shopping, from new clothes to classroom supplies. She signed all permission slips, orchestrated all doctor and dentist check-ups, shuttled us to all sporting events, signed us up for extra-curricular activities, and nurtured any new interests we had. She kept track of our family life, our social life, and our academic life. Although formally married for all of my childhood, functionally she was a single-parent from the start. And she was damned good at it.
After having my own baby, I picked up where she left off. My husband is not my father, and is eager to do his share, especially if I ask. Nevertheless, I insisted on becoming the expert in baths and hair washings, mealtime and sleep time. I made the toy and clothing purchases; I scheduled the doctor’s appointments and play dates. Because my work schedule is fluid, I picked up the care-giving slack, pushing my work off to late nights and weekends. And at the end of my daughter’s first year of life, I was out of balance because of it: tired, out of shape, and often resentful of my husband.
“I have to take responsibility for what I let happen in my relationship,” my mother says of her marriage. I used to think it absurd that my colleague had never given her child a bath, but today I applaud her for refusing to become the expert in all matters of child-rearing. I now recognize the brilliance of learned incompetence on Mom’s part. My colleague was right: the patterns that I set, patterns that I began learning a long time ago, are indeed hard to break. But my mother is also right; achieving balance in my parenting life is partly my responsibility.
The other part of the responsibility belongs to my husband, and despite the difficulty of breaking old habits, my partner and I are setting new patterns. On most days, he takes care of our daughter for half of her waking hours all on his own, and in recent months he has given me a few tips about mealtime. My learned incompetence has resulted in a better balance, and my well-being, as well as that of my family, has improved because of it.