The Division of Labor: Mothers Get the Dirty Work While Fathers Play on the Field

By Emma Weisberg


This image of a father and son wearing “Big Kid” and “Little Kid” T-shirts perfectly encapsulates both articles’ discussions on the division and labor of parenting.   Sometimes when a man assumes the role of “breadwinner,” while his wife stays at home with the children, he will act as a “helper”—a parent only used when he is “needed,” meaning only used when he is asked to do something. In those situations, men may do a little of the daily childcare work, but they mostly use their time at home to establish meaningful connections with their children. So “men tend to participate more in the ‘fun’ aspects of child care, aspects of domestic labor that suit their tastes and interests, and highly visible, or public, fathering activities,” such as reading bedtime stories or playing sports, while “women continue to do the more quotidian, labor-intensive tasks, such as meal preparation and bathing” (Rehel, 112). These men are picking and choosing the tasks that they want to do, which gives them an inaccurate depiction of parenting which is often very strenuous yet overlooked.

In Townsend’s article, “Marriage, Work, and Fatherhood in Men’s Lives,” he discusses his interviewee Roy, who takes pride in assuming the role of the playful and fun parent. Roy mentions how his wife will schedule individual time for him and his kids: “So each time I do something I take a different child with me…I get that one-on-one with my kids” (257). He also brings up the spontaneous day and night trips he plans for his family, adding: “Agewise, I’m probably considered an adult, but you talk to my kids and I’m probably the biggest kid around” (257). But, as Townsend points out, with one parent acting as a kid, the other parent holds onto an unequal amount of strain and unacknowledged responsibility: “gendered division of labor in parenting not only distributes work and fun differentially between fathers and mothers, it also distributes who gets taken for granted, and who gets the credit” (257). So, while Roy gets to be the “Big Kid,” his wife Sarah almost has to act as his mother as well. It’s up her to schedule his one-on-one time; it’s up to her to factor in family schedules before any trips…it’s all up to her.

So how do we break from this unequal division of parenting?  Rehel’s, “When Dad Stays Home Too: Paternity Leave, Gender, and Parenting,” offers up a new solution, explaining how men who take time off from work right after the birth of their child are more successful at equal co-parenting. As Rehel states, “when parents share parenting tasks from the beginning, men develop greater confidence and skill in their own parenting, leading to greater father involvement” (114). This research reinforces the idea that parenting is not biological, but rather a set of skills only learned from hands-on practice between a parent and his/her child. And once a parent learns the necessary skills involved, he/she can feel more at ease to serve as a greater role in his/her child’s life. I’m sure some fathers take on the “Big Kid” role in their households because of their insecurity at parenting, feeling incompetent at daily childcare skills. But if early on men discovered that they are capable of being hands-on parents, they could build a healthier co-parenting relationship with their partners.




4 thoughts on “The Division of Labor: Mothers Get the Dirty Work While Fathers Play on the Field

  1. Sophie Furman

    You’re post reminded me about the divorce rate and how for couples that don’t have kids, it’s much lower than couples with kids. I wonder if the fact that when you get married you think you fully know the person you’re marrying, but then when you have kids that person can completely change. When your husband just turns into a big kid once you have kids, that’s a change from the person you married, I’m not saying that this is within all marriages but I think it could definitely be a factor. When you have to ask your husband to help clean up your kids toys, change their diaper etc. you’re no longer just raising the kids you had together, but you can feel like you’re raising him again too I’m assuming.

  2. Jihmmy N. Sanchez

    I agree with the main ideas of your post, but I want to add that it may be difficult for new fathers to jump into parenting roles because of the way society deems those parenting roles. It may be harder for fathers to want to do the physical labor because of how they might be perceived by the outside world. In countries like Mexico, which is very machista it is assumed if not expected for the father to be the breadwinner and the mother to be the care giver. When my dad emigrated to this country and met my mother and decided to start a family he mentions to me how difficult it was for him to partake in some of the physical labor of parenting. it was not until my parents separated that my dad had no other choice but to learn to do these activities. He also tells me that it was hard at first like you mentioned, but once he got the hang of it he says it almost felt like second nature to him. He has also expressed to me the desire for things to change in Mexican society, that it is time for fathers to assume other roles other than just breadwinner.

  3. Gina Pol

    I think Rehel is correct in saying that if fathers do not take a paternity leave at birth, there is a greater chance that there will be a gendered division of labor and it will most likely stay that way. Although it is ideal if all men did take the paternity leave in order for co-parenting to occur rather than the manager-helper dynamic, there still remain a lot of constraints that come with that decision. I think one of the major constraints for these men is income because it is necessary in order to financially support their family. I think the paternity leave policies in the United States do not favor men the way that Canada and Quebec does. Men in the United States are not given paid leaves and that hinders them from choosing that option. A baby’s entrance into the family is an expense and father’s are often pressured to provide the finances. It may even be looked down upon if a father took a paternity leave, but had his wife go back to work immediately after having a child. I think a lot of what occurs have to do what people’s perceptions on what the norms are and they are afraid that if they do cross that line, they will be considered deviant.

  4. I’ve been thinking about what type of “fun” activities that fathers play with their children. It seems that the only “fun” things they do with their children are sports which are more focused at younger boys. One could call playing with dolls “fun” but when was the last time you heard of a dad playing dolly with his son or daughter? I’m seriously questioning how much “fun” heteronormative fathers can actually have with their daughters. I know I wrestled and played videogames with my dad, but I don’t remember how he had fun with my sister when we were little. Ask a guy around our age if he’d rather have male or female children. If he answers, I’d guarantee you that 9/10 times, if he has an answer, he will say a little boy. Why, you ask? because he can have fun with them and not with girls.

    Patrick Gallagher Landes

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