A post titled “32 Competent Things Men Do That We Find Sexual, Ranked” on the Hairpin a few weeks ago was a hysterical and slightly heart-breaking commentary on the allure of even minimal efforts by men at basic tasks. Though obviously meant as humor—there were items signaling basic decency like “Knows the names of two of your friends” and oddly specific ones like “Kicks your feet, propped up on coffee table, out of the way so he can walk around you”—some hit a bit close to home, at least for me. “Takes groceries out of shopping bags” and “Holds a baby” were two that I’ve been known not just to find attractive when performed by men but tempted to reward. A recent study on the division of labor following the birth of a child indicates that I might not be alone in this appreciation. It turns out that having an ideological commitment to an egalitarian sharing of household and parenting duties doesn’t always mean that real life will reflect those values.
“What’s interesting is that these couples are ideologically egalitarian yet they still fall into these traditional gender traps.”
Recently researchers at Ohio State University asked highly educated, dual-earning heterosexual couples—who also split household labor equally—to take surveys and keep time diaries of their work output (paid work, childcare, household chores) following the birth of their first child. “What’s interesting is that these couples are ideologically egalitarian yet they still fall into these traditional gender traps,” says Jill E. Yavorsky, a co-author of the study published earlier this spring in Journal of Marriage and Family. That both new parents increased their total workloads was unsurprising, with women adding 21 hours of total work per week and men adding 12.5 hours. But despite those added hours, men actually dropped five hours of housework per week following the birth. Women engaged in more childcare than men, and, of the childcare men did perform, it was largely limited to engagement childcare, like reading and playing, as opposed to physical childcare, like cleaning, feeding, and dressing the baby. These findings would all be unremarkable if it weren’t for the fact that these couples had shared household and paid work equally before the birth of the child.
What was more concerning than the amount of work that women added compared to men was how much men perceived their work loads to increase when they had not. In surveys, men over-estimated their total work per week by 26 hours while women over-estimated by 19. The time diaries, which are considered a more accurate metric of categorizing time spent on an activity, told a different story. Men had actually dropped five hours per week of housework, but they believed that they had added 15.
While it is tempting to blame men’s phantom workload on self-aggrandizing delusions, these delusions are socially reinforced when we congratulate men for participating in these duties at all. The woman who leaves work to pick up her kids senses the collective eye roll from her colleagues, while a man doing the same is considered a model citizen. These are not just women’s feelings of being a burden in the workplace: A 2013 study in the Journal of Social Issues found that men are more likely to be granted flexible work schedules by managers when they request them than women are.
“[F]athers’ desires to be present for their children,” the researchers noted, “may not carry through to their daily involvement in care-giving tasks.”
Other recent studies that have focused exclusively on fathers show a similar disconnect between how men perceive their role as parents and what duties they actually perform. A study from earlier this year in Academy of Management Studiesfound that men who are more involved with their children have higher job satisfaction but that involvement doesn’t necessarily translate to care. The researchers asked men to rate the importance of paternal tasks on a scale of one to five, with five being “extremely important.” The task of “doing your part in the day-to-day childcare tasks” averaged only a 3.9, ranking below providing discipline, financial security, and emotional and loving support. “[F]athers’ desires to be present for their children,” the researchers noted, “may not carry through to their daily involvement in care-giving tasks.” In other words, men are less likely to prioritize the more laborious and often mundane tasks that go into actually keeping infants alive, like feeding and bathing them.
It is tempting again to blame men for over-valuing and over-estimating their contributions, but the pernicious belief that men are less competent at caring for infants might also inform their understanding of how they can add value. A 2009 study in The Journal of Advanced Nursing found that fathers have far lower confidence in their parenting self-efficacy than mothers do. This is in sharp contrast to men’s self-perception in the workplace—where they over-estimate their performance by 30 percent—and in the dating pool—where men are foundto over-estimate the level of sexual interest that attractive women have in them.
Surely there is room for expanding the genre of actually skilled things that fathers can do with their babies, like cleaning them, feeding them, and soothing them when they cry.
Men doing less physical childcare is also the result of maternal gatekeeping, wherein the mother dictates which of the tasks involving infant care are done by her and which are done by the father and others. A Family Relations study published in 2005 found that the mother’s beliefs about the role of the father were influential in how involved the father became. This is not because women are shrill control freaks. “Maternal gatekeeping, in part, exists because a woman’s status is defined by how good they are at motherhood,” Yarovsky says. “They have a lot of incentives to maintain that area because that’s where much of their perceived status comes from.” Men’s status, on the other hand, still comes from perceived competence at breadwinning. The same study that found involved fathers were happier also found that men who prioritized time at home with their children were often passed over for promotions or salary increases. Even when a couple is sincerely committed to sharing work equally, outside forces often reward traditional understandings of masculinity and femininity, trapping the couple within them.
One of the most important ways that fathers become more competent caregivers is by spending alone time with their infants. Alone time necessitates the development of competence in all areas of care and builds the confidence of the father to perform these tasks, which alleviates the labor burden on new mothers. This is an opportunity that Portugal recognizes: The government provides a bonus leave on top of mandatory paid paternity leave for fathers interested in spending time alone with their kids. The rest of the world is slow in catching up. In the United States, suggesting that more men take their allotted paternity leave when we remain the only country in the industrialized world that still lacks any mandatory paid leave for new mothers—much less new fathers—is unfortunately wishful thinking. Adopting the generous Swedish parental leave model tomorrow would be ideal but even their paternity leave policy has been 40 years in the making. In the fight to create federally mandated paid maternity leave, we would be well advised to champion leave options for fathers at the same time.
It would admittedly be a bummer for women to miss out on witnessing all of those sexy, competent moments of simple baby holding. But surely there is room for expanding the genre of actually skilled things that fathers can do with their babies, like cleaning them, feeding them, and soothing them when they cry. And there are likely more than enough exhausted mothers who could come up with more than 32 other tasks they would love help with too.
The Science of Relationships examines the sexual, romantic, and platonic connections that we all share.