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Dear Care and Feeding,
One year into our first kid, I’ve learned my husband is a “just tell me what you want/need me to do” father. I didn’t see it coming, as he’s not like this in other areas of life. It’s exhausting constantly having to do everything unless I specifically ask for a certain task to be completed. I’ve tried different strategies—making lists, dividing tasks to give him ownership, I even suggested counseling (that received a hard no). Absolutely nothing has worked to change this dynamic, and I can’t do it for the next 17+ years. Honestly, I’m on the verge of telling my husband I think this will lead to divorce, so that he understands the level of seriousness here.
But my question isn’t about my husband, it’s about our son. How do I make sure he doesn’t grow up to be like this, especially if he grows up with us divorced? How do I make sure he knows that every task in a household is a shared responsibility and that being a good partner means carrying your portion of both the physical and mental load? Before our child, I would’ve said my husband understood that. Now I’m seeing it’s apparently not a transferable idea when a new part of life is reached.
— Just Tell Me What I Should Do
Dear Just Tell Me What I Should Do,
Ah, the dreaded “You should’ve asked” Dad. The problem with this mindset is beautifully explained in this viral French comic that perfectly explains the burden for women of being forced to act as “project manager” for the household. (Maybe leave some copies of it laying around the house?) While I do hope your husband comes to understand the mental load he is putting on you with his behavior, yours certainly wouldn’t be the first marriage to end in divorce as a result of these very issues.
The dynamic that is modeled in the household is obviously a huge part of what children learn about gender dynamics and the division of labor. But I think there are other important factors that you can work on as your child gets older.
I try to resist the urge, for instance, to do things for my son once he becomes capable of doing them, even though it’s often quicker and easier to just do it myself. Moms are used to doing and it sometimes comes naturally to me to just start picking up the trail of discarded objects he leaves behind rather than reminding him to pick up his things. But I try to catch myself in those moments, because he will never learn to notice the work that needs to be done if I’m quietly doing it for him.
Also, part of the issue is that men and boys are often not taught the actual skills of domestic labor, so I try to make sure I’m actively teaching my son the things he’ll need to know to manage his household as an adult. Studies show that the gender gap starts in childhood, with girls spending more time performing household tasks than boys, increasingly as they age into the teen years. Your son is currently too young to help make dinner or clean his room like mine does, but by 2 or 3, children can begin to manage simple chores – this article includes a list of tasks kids can likely manage at each age range. Whether you and your husband stay together or split, you can emphasize that everyone who lives in the household is responsible for contributing to taking care of it. Being intentional about how we raise our boys is the only way to change this frustrating and all-too-common dynamic for the next generation.