In the craziness of parental responsibilities, even simple frustrations can cause a ripple effect on the family. For example, let’s say Jack needs his caffeine fix to start the day off right. Tired from a broken night of sleep, thanks to toddler tantrums and a fussy newborn, his morning routine goes off the rails when he can’t indulge in his favorite homemade latte. His wife Sarah, who does the grocery shopping, forgot to buy his oat milk. So, cranky, under-caffeinated Jack texts Sarah about her error: “You forgot oat milk.” Those four little words turn Sarah’s morning upside down. Her emotions spiral, and she bursts into angry tears.
This small exchange highlights a much larger issue: the division of household and parental responsibilities. Parents face daily challenges that can either strengthen or strain their relationships. Parenting requires a joint commitment from both partners, and as societal norms evolve, so does the concept of sharing parental responsibilities. While the ideal 50/50 split of these duties may seem fair, it often falls short in practicality.
Limitations of a 50/50 Approach to Parental Responsibilities
Dividing parenting responsibilities evenly between partners does not always align with the realities of parenting. Some days, weeks, months, and even years in a partnership may require one parent to take on more than the other. It’s a delicate, intimate balancing act unique to each family. Factors like work schedules, individual strengths, health, or a child’s individual needs can significantly impact the effectiveness of a 50/50 split. Additionally, it is crucial to consider the emotional well-being of both parents. Striving for an exact 50/50 division of parental responsibilities can create undue pressure and strain, potentially leading to burnout and resentment.
In the United States, polls show that married or partnered heterosexual couples often adhere to traditional roles when dividing household chores. Of more than 3,000 couples who responded to a 2020 Gallup poll, the woman in the relationship is primarily responsible for tasks such as doing the laundry (58%), cleaning the house (51%), and preparing meals (51%). Conversely, men take the lead in maintaining the car (69%) and handling yard work (59%). These statistics reveal a persistent division of labor based on traditional gender roles within households.1
Splitting Parental Responsibilities Can Create Stress
According to mental health counselor Dr. Wendy Whinnery, attempting to split duties down the middle can cause tension and stress for both partners.
“One parent may have to travel further for work than the other and may have less flexibility to leave to accommodate the family’s needs. This may put added stress upon the opposite parent, who may have to assume the majority of these duties during the work week,” she explains. “They may have to leave their own job in the event that the child becomes ill, or to attend appointments, resulting in a loss of income and possible tension with their employer. Some parents also have to travel for work, leaving the other parent to ‘hold down the fort’ in their absence. This can lead to discord between the parents and a strained relationship with the ‘absent’ parent.”
When people become overwhelmed, Dr. Whinnery explains that a typical response is to project negative feelings onto those closest to them.
“Disconnect within the family may lead to marital problems, issues with discipline, and mental health problems, such as shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression,” says Dr. Whinnery.
Recognizing and utilizing individual strengths can foster a more harmonious environment, allowing parents to thrive in their respective roles while supporting each other. Research indicates that successfully shared parenting responsibilities improve a child’s social and emotional development when parents focus on effort and equity, not equality. Equality means the same for everyone, whereas equity addresses imbalance by recognizing that adjustments must be made because we don’t all start in the same place. It’s about parents putting in equal effort to parent but being fair about splitting duties (who is capable and available, etc.) rather than an equal 50/50 split.2
Finding a Balance with Parenting Responsibilities
Rather than rigidly adhering to a 50/50 split, it’s healthier to establish open lines of communication and have regular discussions about parenting responsibilities. Jacqueline Olds, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, summarized the unrealistic expectations modern couples put on each other when she described it to the Harvard Gazette. She says young parents often feel pressure to raise kids perfectly, even at the risk of their relationships.
“There is too much pressure, from my point of view, on what a romantic partner should be,” she said. “They should be your best friend, they should be your lover, they should be your closest relative, they should be your work partner, they should be the co-parent, your athletic partner. There’s just so much pressure on the role of spouse that, of course, everybody isn’t able to quite live up to it.”
6 Tips for Dividing Parental Responsibilities
Here are some practical tips to consider when navigating the division of parenting responsibilities:
1. Assess Individual Strengths
Take the time to recognize each partner’s strengths and weaknesses in parenting tasks. For example, let’s say your partner hates cooking while you find it relaxing and fun. Or maybe they find cleaning therapeutic while you groan at the thought of a sink full of dishes. In that dynamic, it might not be fair or logical for one partner to expect the other to cook half of the week just because that would be the “even” way to split this task. Instead, focusing on what you each enjoy makes more sense and can alleviate frustration. Also, when one partner cooks, it might be understood that the other will clean up after a meal. Assigning responsibilities based on individual strengths can create a more efficient and supportive dynamic.
2. List and Learn
List the tasks you are responsible for and have your partner do the same, then review them when you are both in a good headspace. Maybe naptime or after the kids have gone to bed would be a better time to talk than in the car while you’re running late for soccer practice or after a terrible night of sleep when you’re overwhelmed. Seeing and reviewing a physical list of the division of parental responsibilities can create an eye-opening opportunity to reimagine roles and switch up the schedule you’ve grown accustomed to. Remember that it’s not just about the number of tasks on the list but also about the hidden things like pre-planning, time, effort, etc., it takes to complete a task.
3. Communicate and Collaborate
Regularly communicate with your partner about the challenges and triumphs of parenting. Discussing expectations, needs, and concerns can help you find a middle ground that suits both partners’ preferences. Research has shown that spouses who stay together know how to fight without being hostile, take responsibility for their actions, and respond quickly to each other’s wishes to repair the relationship.3
4. Flexibility is Key
Embrace the notion that parenting responsibilities may not always be equally divided. During certain phases of your partner’s career, their workload might be so demanding that it restricts their capacity to assume many household chores and parental responsibilities. However, there may come a time when other life circumstances pull you away, highlighting the importance of flexibility and teamwork to navigate life’s ever-changing demands. Flexibility allows for adjustments based on work schedules, personal commitments, and a child’s needs.4
5. Support Each Other
Being a parent is a demanding role, and support from your partner is invaluable. It’s not enough to want a relationship to last; you must actively engage in behaviors that support and nurture it for long-term stability. Research suggests women tend to show this engagement by taking constructive approaches to solving relationship problems, while for men, using constructive problem-solving strategies is associated with higher relationship satisfaction. In other words, actively working on solving issues can make a real difference in maintaining a satisfying and stable relationship. Celebrate each other’s achievements, offer a helping hand, and show empathy during challenging moments.5
6. Seek Outside Assistance
There may be times when additional support is needed. Hire a babysitter or ask for help from family and friends when in need. If deep cleaning is a point of contention between you and your spouse, maybe it’s time to invest in a cleaning service once a month to lighten the load. Don’t hesitate to explore external resources to alleviate stress and ensure a healthier balance for both parents.
“Overall, when parents collaborate and function well as a family, children are happier and more relaxed. They tend to have higher self-esteem, perform better in school, and enjoy healthy relationships,” explains Dr. Whinnery.
Parenting is a shared journey that requires adaptability, compromise, and understanding. It’s crucial to recognize that splitting parental responsibilities that work for one family may not be the best fit for every family. By using effective communication and individual strengths and embracing flexibility, parents can find a dynamic balance that works for them. Ultimately, the key is to create an environment where both partners can thrive as parents while creating a loving and supportive family.