Learned Incompetence

“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.

4 thoughts on “Learned Incompetence

  1. The division of labor sets itself EARLY in a relationship. Long before keys, sings, and babies.

    If you get a man in your life and you are not aware of just where that man falls on the domesticity continuum you are basically anticipating carrying the whole load.

    Anyone woman who has ever known me knows that I have been fully domestic since age 12. Thats as much who I am as anything else.

    Once children came along, the conversations never involved if…but how much and to what degree.


  2. So, so, so, true! We are working towards 50/50 every day, without even acknowledging it. I drop the kids off; he picks them up. I do breakfast; he does dinner. I can’t remember the last time I actually washed a child in the tub; but he doesn’t wash hair. I don’t deal with potty training or wiping butts; he’s all over that. He makes lunch every day. We were at a park today, and I had no idea what to order them to eat; he knew exactly what they would eat despite what they said. At first, it was frustrating to me to have to defer to him. I’m like, I should know this, they are my children. I was literally in the middle of the food court, as they were climbing all over me, yelling his name because I had no idea what to do. He came over, calmly, said don’t buy this, buy this, and everything was good. It actually felt so good to have him there, that he had some information that I didn’t have, that he knows their eating habits and I don’t have to keep that STUFF in my head.

    I am still, however, the main communicator with teachers, doctors, babysitters, etc; when teachers tell him something they make sure to talk to me afterward. I don’t know if that is simply because I just know more about children in general, and am a better organizer than he. But in any case, the balance is so much better than it was when they were really little. All moms should develop some incompetence in an area of their child’s life – you really don’t realize how stressful it is keeping all that stuff in your head until you don’t have to, and being able to call on another is so easy.


  3. I love the idea of learned incompetence! I shared that thought with my female students today, as I almost cancelled my class when my son’s school called to tell me that he needed to be picked up because he was sick. I immediately started planning to leave campus, but decided to call The Hubby to see if he could leave work early. He did, and I met my class. When I told them, my students applauded! I remembered that I was the one who assumed that the sacrifice should be mine, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Thanks!


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