"We don't always have the time or energy"
When change feels exhausting
A few weeks back, I shared a story about one reader’s struggle between serenity and courage— i.e., whether to accept the cognitive labor imbalances in her relationship as inevitable or fight to change them. Daria’s dilemma struck a chord with many readers, including a woman from Vienna who I’ll call Aria. With her permission, I’m sharing our emails back and forth (lightly edited for clarity), because Aria reminded that it’s not really a binary choice - change/no change - but a much broader spectrum of options.
What a great post! I really loved it and felt so identified, almost with every line of it. I am in my late 30s, and my partner is as well. We have a 3-year-old daughter and also work both full time remotely with good professional expectations. We have been together since university times (our first "apartment" was the university dorm) and have grown up together (personally and professionally). I come from a traditional family model, with my mom being a stay at home mom and my father working outside with professional success. It was always important for me to be economically independent and have a 50/50 relationship. And I believed my husband and I had achieved it (as best as one can achieve 50/50 in the real world and at least by our own definition).
However, since our daughter was born, there has been a huge imbalance (towards my side). On the physical labor side, it is partly explained by nature. While we both returned to our professional jobs very early after the birth, I continued breast-feeding her for almost 2 years (not sleeping in the night, pumping at work, etc). However, I still did my part of the physical household chores the same as before the birth. Breastfeeding is over now, we sleep better throughout the night, and her dependency on me diminishes as she grows. I feel things are getting better there. However, overall, you can say I did extra work during those 2 years for the benefit of the entire family. This extra responsibility felt unnoticed/not sufficiently recognised.
On the cognitive labor side the imbalance is still there. I can't understand why this is, because we consciously aimed to have a 50/50 relationship in the past. But, I suspect, social patterns still play a big role. Why does everybody, including his family, ask me as the mother what our daughter should receive as presents, what the size of her shoes are, or to send cute pictures to the family group? But I also think that we have different thresholds and meanings (your points 2 and 3 in the post). While he would not care that it is already November and we have not ordered our daughter's winter jacket, I care and fear the store will be out of the size we need. While he would not see the mess in the laundry room, I see it and it adds to my already high stress level.
And so, I find myself asking this question: is this something to just accept?
After all, I am still a much more 50/50 mother than many other friends, who carry more of the household chores, and some of whom left their careers and now take over everything that society believes is the mother’s job. Inside I still resist accepting it, but I am reaching a conclusion that sometimes accepting is not a sign of weakness, but maybe it’s emotionally pragmatic. I don’t know.
We are starting to talk about child #2, and this is the biggest issue I have for not having another. I like the concept of having a second son/daughter, but I don’t want to go through the same again or, even worse, to add more to the current imbalance. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I would accept having a child if HE would get biologically pregnant (with all the consequences, stresses on your body and mind, hormones, sleepless nights, worries) and the cognitive load associated with it.
Thank you so much for writing! It means a lot to hear that the piece resonated with you, but I’m sorry for the challenges you’re facing. For better or worse, the story you describe (pretty equal before kids, pretty unequal afterward) is incredibly common. It makes total sense to me that you’d be reluctant to go through it all again with another child!
My question for you is this: what does your partner say about all this? Have you talked with him about your feelings? What’s his response? Could you enlist him as an ally working with you to help change things in your household? That won’t be a magic solution, of course, but it might make you feel a little less alone.
Yes, I’ve tried talking to my partner and it definitely helps a lot. We both become more aware of our own behaviors and biases, and also of the societal influences that shape our behaviors.
The thing is that we don’t always have the time or energy every week to replay or discuss all the topics.
And when we are in the middle of the weekly routines and stress kicks in, that’s when those imbalances accentuate. I guess it takes constant awareness and practice to keep them at bay.
You’ve got me there! I’ve said again and again, here and elsewhere, that it’s important to talk things through with your partner. To decide rather than default. It’s unlikely that you’ll stumble upon an equitable division of cognitive or physical labor, so you have to be intentional about it.But, as you so rightly point out, intentionality is exhausting.
It quickly becomes One More Thing in the never-ending stream of things one must/should/could do.
While accepting the inequality might require you to do some emotional jujitsu, it probably wouldn’t be so darn tiring.
So I’d like to suggest a middle ground between serenity and courage, or between accepting the status quo and fighting for change. Start with just one problem—or, as my consultant friends would say, “pain point.” What is a common task, interaction, or pattern that really drives you crazy? Based on your email, it sounds like examples might be keeping track of your daughter’s wardrobe needs or remembering to send photos of her to the family Whatsapp.
Instead of aiming for something nebulous, like “rebalancing the load” or “getting to 50/50,” just focus on this single issue. Together with your partner, start by carefully observing the sequence of events. What is triggering you to take/send photos? Maybe your mother-in-law texts you to ask for a picture, and you respond with an image of whatever is happening at the moment. Maybe you remember that she gave you a hard time when you were last together, and so you’re in the habit of snapping a photo anytime your daughter does something cute.
On the flip side, what is preventing your husband from remembering to capture those everyday moments? Maybe he rarely carries his phone with him when he’s moving around the house. Maybe he isn’t included on the text chain, and so nothing prompts him to pull out the camera and send an image to his mom. I’m spitballing here, but hopefully you get the idea. Think of yourselves as detectives trying to solve a behavioral mystery. Once you’ve got a hunch or two, start experimenting. If your husband just isn’t in the habit of taking pictures, how might he build a new habit? Perhaps every time he sits on the floor to play with your daughter, he snaps a photo of whatever they’re doing together. Perhaps every time you get a text asking for photos, you screenshot and send him the message. [For a lot more on the science of habit design, I recommend the book Tiny Habits, which I’m currently reading—and mostly enjoying, despite some of the cringe-y self-help elements.]
If you solve this one small problem, will your life be revolutionized? Nah. But I suspect that this small change is a lot more likely to happen than a massive overhaul. And this victory might spur you on to make further changes. Eventually, little by little, you and your husband might come to see your home life differently, as something you are both responsible for.
You’re in the lucky position of having a partner who’s bought into the goal of equality. But you’re in the unlucky position of having a very hectic life and habits that have been engrained over years, and of living in a society/world that reinforces the gender binary at every turn. So, start small, celebrate incremental progress, and don’t blame yourself for the inevitable setbacks.
In my research (and in my reading of the academic literature), I’ve found that some people do seem to stumble on an egalitarian division. I’m still working out what makes these unicorns different from the rest of us, but in the meantime it’s not a great strategy to simply hope you’re in that 1%. Because if you’re dissatisfied with your division of labor, chances are you are not, alas.