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How Dads Can Be Equal Teammates in Domestic Labor 

click to enlarge Keegan with daughters Coraline and Penelope - COURTESY OF KEEGAN ALBAUGH
  • Courtesy of Keegan Albaugh
  • Keegan with daughters Coraline and Penelope

I opened the refrigerator door and peered inside, immediately noticing the lack of leftovers. After a brief hesitation, I pulled out a pack of tortillas along with some SunButter and jelly. Coraline and Penelope — ages 4 and 22 months, respectively — would be getting rolled-up tortilla snacks for lunch.

As I assembled the roll-ups, food-prep thoughts took over my brain: What nights could I cook meals this week? What vegetables did we have left from last week's farm share? How many cans of garbanzo beans were still in the basement? If I needed to make a run to the grocery store, how much free space was in the fridge, and how many cartons of soy milk could fill it?

In our home, I'm the food person. The responsibility for most of the meal planning, shopping and cooking falls to me — and it occupies a sizable chunk of my mental space.

And I'm OK with that. As a committed partner and father to two young daughters, I try my best to be an equal teammate in all things related to raising our children and keeping up with household chores. That requires a lot of honest communication between myself and my partner, Stephanie, as the balance continually shifts due to life's other commitments and responsibilities.

Let's be honest, though. The bar is lowered for fathers a lot of the time. Speaking to the dads out there, how many of you have ever been in public with your children and heard something along the lines of: "It's so nice you're giving Mom some time off"? As if spending time with our own children and taking care of them is just a gift to our partners. When that bar is set so low, it doesn't take much to look good in society's eyes.

And when the expectations are low, the results can be less than satisfying. According to research from the University of Maryland — which examined more than 20,000 mothers' responses from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey between 2003 and 2012 — when there's a man in the house, moms actually spend more time on chores than single mothers with no partner present. Additional research, examining that survey between 2008 and 2013, found that married women who were the sole breadwinners averaged almost an hour of housework each day, compared to an average of 11 minutes by married men when they were the sole breadwinners.

These trends have continued during the COVID-19 pandemic. A poll of 2,200 adults completed by Morning Consult for the New York Times in April 2020 found that "seventy percent of women say they're fully or mostly responsible for housework during lockdown, and 66 percent say so for child care — roughly the same shares as in typical times."

The same poll found that 45 percent of men felt they were responsible for a majority of the work helping their kids with remote learning, while only 3 percent of women said their partners did a majority of the academic support. How can there be such a large discrepancy between these two perspectives? I'm pretty sure I do an equal share of the work at home, but this data makes me wonder if I'm actually doing my part.

The idea that men still aren't doing their share, yet think they are, should raise some eyebrows. Statistically speaking, fathers are still behind. According to global organization MenCare's 2019 State of the World's Fathers report, in order to reach a 50 percent share of unpaid work around the home, men would need to increase their time spent on such tasks for a minimum of 50 minutes each day.

So, what can you do in your own home? Here are some tips that have worked for me and my partner:

  • Have honest conversations. Talk about household duties often and openly. Try not to get defensive, know your triggers and make sure each of you is communicating how you really feel. Avoiding future resentment is one of the top priorities here.
  • Have a shared understanding of expectations. Does each partner know what the other expects of them and what needs to be done? It's important to identify who needs help with what and to be on the same page about it.
  • Play to each other's strengths. My partner is great at scheduling appointments, and I'm aware of how many leaf bags fit into the back of our Subaru. A lot of times, we divide tasks based on what we know and what we're good at.
  • Be encouraging. When your partner helps out, don't immediately point out the imperfections. I'm not suggesting you cheer them on like you would a toddler attempting to tie their shoes, but make sure you're recognizing the effort, even when things aren't up to par.
  • Don't enable. If you want your partner to help with the laundry, and you've articulated that but they continue to avoid it, don't do it for them. If someone came by and mowed my lawn for free every week, you'd better believe I'd stop doing it myself.

Although most of the conversations Stephanie and I have around chores and childcare revolve around logistics — such as work schedules, what needs to be done and our own capacities — it's really so much more than that. When I'm doing my fair share, I'm showing my two daughters that they should expect men to contribute equally around the home. I want them to look back on their childhood and remember their dad folding laundry while cooking dinner. I want them to remember their father packing lunches for hikes in the woods and making sure everyone had sunscreen on. And I want them to know that, in the future, it isn't their sole responsibility to keep their homes clean and children fed.

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