Straight Husbands and Fathers: It’s Time to Get Your Shit Together

by Gordon Haber

Don’t be like this guy

Note: I pitched this piece to a few places and was met with silence. Rather than keep pitching and get paid somewhere between zero and and $50, I decided to post it here. Let me know what you think. —GH

Late in 2020, I noticed among female friends and colleagues a certain desperation creeping into their online messaging. There was fear about the upcoming presidential election, but also exhaustion, real exhaustion, mental and physical depletion from parenting and housework and their job (if they still had one). They were wondering when it would all end and how much more they could take. They were crying in their cars, or gaining weight, or screaming at their kids, or drinking too much, or all of the above.

These crises de coeur, by the way, were almost exclusively from straight married women. Which made me wonder: Where were the dads? Why aren’t they complaining?

The Primal Scream,” The New York Times series on motherhood during the pandemic, explained a lot. Of course the pandemic has been hard on everybody, but it has been harder on women. Women—especially women of color—were more likely to lose their jobs than men. (The Center for American Progress calls it a “she-cession” and sees little hope for a rapid recovery.) And regardless of their work situation, they are enduring a substantial increase in housework and childcare—an additional three, four or five hours of extra non-paying work per day. (The IMF calls it “The Mom’s Emergency.”) 

Men are doing more non-paying work as well. But not as much as women, and the fathers’ perception of their contributions doesn’t jibe: according to a McKinsey report, “70% of fathers think they are splitting household labor equally…but only 44% of mothers say the same.” 

(It’s not an issue with same-sex parents—they’re desperate and exhausted too, but they don’t profess the same imbalances.)

I wanted to hear from women who were in the thick of it, so I asked around. Here’s what they had to say:

  • A woman with three children under ten and a part-time job: “If the coffee is set to go off in the morning, I am pleasantly surprised. If you adjust your expectations to zero there’s no disappointment.” 
  • A woman with two small children, and a third in college, and a mother with dementia, and a full-time job: “My husband isn’t working. He helps the smaller kids with homework but does nothing else: no cooking, no cleaning, no chores. He plays video games and watches TV.”
  • A woman with three children between the ages of nine and seventeen and a full-time job: “My husband does a lot around the house. Laundry, dishes, grocery shopping. But I do all the emotional labor of parenting, which in a pandemic is the equivalent of being repeatedly bull-whipped, while on a rickety roller coaster, which is on fire.”
  • A woman with no children and a full-time job whose husband won’t pick up after himself because “that’s not part of my job.”
  • A woman with a full-time job and one child whose husband “is a super dad but in terms of straight-up household chores? What he thinks he does is in direct INVERTED relationship to what he actually does…which is nothing. Seriously. Nothing.” 

The obvious conclusion is that the pandemic has precipitated a crisis in the division of household labor, bringing mothers to their breaking point. Except they can’t break, because they’ve got kids, and they can’t expect their spouses to pick up the pieces. 

So let’s cut to the chase: straight, married men are screwing up. Big time. They need to put aside ego, and religion, and politics, and anything else getting in the way of them understanding the needs of their families. Because their partners are suffering.

And now to anticipate your counterarguments

Before we get into how straight men can do more for their families, let’s address some of the reasons they will put forward for weaselling out of it. Because while I’ve been looking for female sources on social media, I’ve also been fielding missives from men who think I’m dumb.

One male acquaintance points out that the commentary from women is “anecdotal.” Which is true. The studies demonstrate that women are doing more non-paying work than men. What they don’t show is how women feel about it. So yes, it’s anecdotal evidence. I’m not sure how that negates the ethical responsibility men have of closing the gap.

Another acquaintance called my ideas “hackneyed and trite,” of playing into the stereotype of the “bumbling dad.” He was incorrect. I don’t think the men in question are bumbling. I’d put them somewhere between “not noticing” and “not giving a shit.” Again, credible sources show that women are doing substantially more non-paying work than men, and from what I am hearing this situation is making women miserable.

Now, some may say that in arguing for straight men to pull their weight, I am not going far enough, because our patriarchal system is a much deeper problem. We need a complete overhaul in gender relations. We need to renovate American society like it was an eighties co-op. 

Unfortunately, much like reimagining race in America is an enormous amount of work for Black people, “dismantling the patriarchy” means an enormous amount of work for women. And right now, I believe that priority number one is getting through the pandemic alive and getting the kids back to school without sending mothers to the funny farm. 

Finally I am sure some will dismiss my argument as “virtue signaling.” They may be right! Otherwise why go through the trouble of researching and writing this piece? Especially since the pay would most likely be between zero and seventy-five dollars? So I wouldn’t discount my own ego. Still: ask your wife if she thinks I am virtue signalling. If you’re still married.

How to get your shit together

Let me assure you that I am far from perfect. I have many days during which I feel like a failure as a husband and a father, and I have many memories of my single days that make me cringe with regret. 

The one thing I am pretty good at though is non-paying labor (which is a terrible term but that’s for another time). I cook, and I clean, and I look after my son, and I do it every day no matter how much work I have, no matter how badly I’d rather be writing or playing guitar. So I know how to do it, and I know life is better when you try for an egalitarian marriage.

So here’s my advice:

Cook something. If you can remember Arizona’s third string receiver for your fantasy football team then surely you can follow the directions on a box of spaghetti or make a sandwich. Start preparing food for your family now, and do it regularly, not just for Mother’s Day, and — this is very important — don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t expect to be overpraised or rewarded for doing what you are supposed to do. 

A word on screwing up. If you passive-aggressively screw up a meal knowing that your wife will take over, then you are demonstrating contempt for your partner and reinforcing in your children that motherhood equals servitude, and she will resent you for it. If you screw up because these skills are new to you, then do what you advise your children to do when learning a new skill — practice. (Feel free to ask me cooking questions; you may also try Dad’s Own Cookbook, which an editor friend recommended.)

Pick up after yourself. Stop leaving your socks or towels on the floor. Put that stuff where it belongs and get your kids to do the same. Start today, and do it every day, and again don’t make a big deal about it — you’re a grown man you don’t need M&Ms for pooping in the potty.

Cleaning often becomes a bone of contention between couples because people can get very particular about how they want things done. So you’re going to have to negotiate that with your spouse. But surely you can sweep or vacuum every morning — of course in addition to cleaning up the kitchen because of all the cooking you’ve been doing.

Take care of your children. Which is more than taking the kids to park on Saturday. Stay abreast of their schooling and their schedules and provide time every day to supervise and guide them. Because they are your responsibility as well. (Women bear more of the psychological burden of parenting, and it’s damaging their health.) I don’t care if you are Mr. Important Person at Very Important Company. Get over yourself. Unless you’re intubating COVID patients nothing in your life outranks raising responsible egalitarian children.

Some men struggle when they are out of work or when their wives earn more than they do. I do understand how, as men, our self-esteem is tied up in our work. I’m not going to tell you to ignore those feelings or pretend they don’t matter. But I will tell you to take care of your kids anyway, if only because it feels good to be useful. 

Don’t forget that you are creating memories for your children. Would you like them to remember that when you were out of work you spent more time with them, or sat in the basement watching Ozark?

Talk to your wife. Ask her: What is the one thing I could do regularly that will make a difference for you? For one woman it’s bathtime: “I just want someone else to wash my kids,” she said plaintively. Think about it: bathing three children, getting them dry and into their pajamas — that’s an hour, maybe two, and it’s got to be exhausting. Where is her husband during all this? What are the choke points for your own spouse?

Shut up about it. Don’t crow. Don’t look for a pat on the back. Your reward is doing the right thing. Your reward is your wife won’t stab you in the face. Your reward is staying out of divorce court. And do all of the above even when you’re tired, even when you don’t feel like it. Because guess what? That’s what your wife has been doing. And she’s drowning. 

Look, we seem to have come through the worst of the pandemic, in the U.S. at least, and I think we have cause for optimism. So some men may be tempted to drag their feet when it comes to childcare and housework. I’d advise against it. The pandemic isn’t over yet, and when it does end we’re going to see a lot of women with PTSD and clinical exhaustion. At the very least, women have been building up resentment for over a year, and it’s got to come out somehow. Better to face it with an honest conversation instead of waking up with a fork in your neck. 

So figure out how you can ease your partner’s burden. And how you can take more responsibility for your children. Because that’s what real men do, isn’t it? Show up for the people they care about?