Mothers, fathers and the myth of equal partnership

A new book highlights how progressive relationships often become traditional ones when children arrive on the scene.

Gender Equality


Women and men have to challenge and keep challenging stereotypes that assume that mothers are the main carers in their families, even if doing so leads to tensions, pushback, excuses and denials, according to a new book.

The book, All the rage by Darcy Lockman, says equal parenting is, for the most part, a myth. Although men may be doing more than their own fathers did, both men and women tend to exaggerate how much they actually do, says the book. She highlights how many mums excuse lack of equality and say, for example, that their partner is happy to do something if they ask. However, Lockman says, this asking – and checking that what has been asked has been done – is yet another task for women to do.

Studies also show that when the power issues behind this inequality are discussed they are generally framed not in terms of what dads need to do, but in terms of women needing to be more assertive – as if it is the women’s fault and responsibility that men are not doing more. Another ploy is to claim women are naturally more attuned to domestic work or to use what Lockman calls “benevolent sexism” to flatter women about the jobs they do in the home. “Lauded for loving kindness, mothers do not feel inspired to resist,” she writes.

Lockman, a psychologist, has spoken to large numbers of women for the book, which focuses mainly on heterosexual couples where both parents work full time, including those families where women are the main breadwinners. She cites a wide range of research to back up what she is saying. For instance, she draws on studies showing men’s involvement in housework declines the more children are born and that low levels of male participation in chores is linked to greater underlying anger in a relationship, dampened sexual desire and greater likelihood of relationship break-up.

Lockman quotes one woman saying: “You hope that when the kids get older, things will get better. But I tell my friends, I’m one gas tank away from a small town and a new identity.”

The impact of this anger and sense of unfairness is not just relationship breakdown but depression, she states.

Mental load

She catalogues the tensions between women’s expectations of equality and the reality of men not doing an equal share of domestic tasks and of not even knowing that certain tasks exist. Such tasks include all the organising and planning that goes into parenting – the so-called mental load. While men do do some tasks, says Lockman, and often only when asked, they are happy to leave most of the organisation and planning of them to women. These kinds of issues are rarely discussed before the baby is born, she comments.

Lockman writes: “Women not only monitor the emotional temperature of the home, keep the mental lists, and perform the bulk of routine housework and child care; they also feel more responsible than men for this work no matter their income, outside commitments, or ideology.“

Lockman writes too about how work has changed over the years to demand more time-wise of employees when, with working mums often facing a double burden, time is the one area where women cannot compete. She adds that, when women rise higher up the ladder they may do less of the domestic chores, but this is probably because they have hired cleaners and nannies, rather than due to a more equitable sharing of the load.

Mothers are also being hit by the rising standards set for ‘motherhood’. The standards demanded of mothers are impossible, argues Lockman. They include a whole range of activities children are expected to be ferried to, expectations about involvement in school activities, costume-making, cake-making and much, much more. Working mothers are expected to be working while also living up to the image of a stay-at-home mum.

The role of nurture

A large part of the book, which bristles with anger and includes a lot of examples from the author’s own life, is given over to interrogating why men don’t do more at home. Lockman investigates the way boys and girls are raised, the different expectations of each gender that begin from an early age. This is reflected later in life, she says, in the fact that combining work and family is still seen primarily as a women’s issue rather than a human one or, for instance, the fact that it is still more culturally acceptable for women to seek to justify their work by saying it makes them a good role model rather than just saying that they like to work.

The only way forward is for both women and men to acknowledge the expectations and underlying power issues at play with regard to parenting rather than denying them, says Lockman. That means men being honest about the lack of equality and doing something about it. She writes: “When men deny their sexism, they gaslight their partners, compounding an already painful problem by insisting that its clear and obvious precursors are the imaginings of a hysterical mind.”

Lockman also touches on the whole maternal gatekeeping issue. Although she doesn’t believe maternal gatekeeping is the main driver of men doing less at home, she says it can exacerbate an existing imbalance and may be the result of women feeling unhappy to cede the power they have in the home sphere. They have to be convinced that they are gaining something when they do, she states.

Work vs home

Lockman links the issues at home with those at work. She says, for instance, that women often do the extra tasks at work that no-one else wants to do because they don’t lead to promotion. Men rarely volunteer for these. She says at one point that the biases with regard to expectations of men and women mean that “men see nothing to gain in becoming more like women”.

Moreover, Lockman argues that women are often complicit in their own subjugation because it is easier than constantly challenging unfairness. In short, women don’t want to upset men. “Women are so good at child care, we continue to assert,” she says, “taking that trade-off, complicit in our own subordination. To remain at peace in a system we feel powerless to change, we swallow justifications that support our ongoing servitude.”

The book ends with a clarion call not to give up, to keep striving for equality by communicating with each other about our expectations and by mothers and fathers sharing responsibility for doing so. “Equality,” says Lockman, “is not so much an end point as a process.”

*All the rage by Darcy Lockman is published by HarperCollins, price £15.99.

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