I was one of the lucky ones. My husband grew up in a family in which everyone had to kick in and learn to fend for themselves. When I married him, he knew how to cook, clean, and iron a mean seam in his trousers. He cleaned spit-up, changed diapers, and rocked our babies. Sometimes when I was away the kids went to school in mismatched outfits, but they didn't starve to death or feel parent-deprived.
Other women of my generation were not always so fortunate. Once, a prominent professional woman was speaking to a group of working moms. She said that the difference between herself and her equally prominent husband was that when he gave a major speech he got down from the podium and patted himself on the back. "I get down from the podium and wonder if on the way home I need to stop to pick up toilet paper."
Thankfully things are changing. The partner of one young woman I know likes to joke that in their household he does everything and she says thank you. That's hyperbole, of course, but the fact is young adults are now negotiating their tasks, not only because it's important to them (mainly the women) that they share the daily drudgery, but because for the most part they are both working outside the home and as everyone knows, we all need a good wife (and a decent secretary).
Balancing work and family has never been easy. It has been less easy for women, especially mothers, who have born the brunt of double duty. Nevertheless, men who want to participate more at home find it challenging too. A study called "The New Dad" issued by Boston College recently suggests that new dads are subjected to subtle biases in the workplace when bosses and colleagues don't cut them any slack when they have kids.
Another study by the Families and Work Institute says that fathers report being unhappier than mothers when it comes to the necessary juggling act of working and raising a family. The work-life conflict seems a greater burden to them than it does to women who, as we all know, are adept at multi-tasking.
It's great that young men want to spend more time with their families; the women who love them owe them a big kudos for that, even if no one ever thought it was special that women, too, like to spend more time with their kids. These guys are facing some of the same challenges women have confronted since the 70s. But these conflicts are new for men and they don't yet have the role models that women do.
Still, things aren't yet even-Steven. Men do more than they used to, but women still do the bulk of housework and child care. A recent New York Times article reports that according to the National Survey of Families and Households (University of Wisconsin), working women spend about 28 hours a week on housework whereas working men "can claim only about 16 hours."
Perceptions about who does what on the home front vary. A 2008 Families and Work report found that 49 percent of men said they provided most or an equal amount of child care, according to The Times article. However, only 31 percent of women gave their husbands that much credit. A similar gap exists when it comes to cooking and cleaning. More than 50 percent of men say they do most or half of the work while 70 percent of wives say they do 100 percent of that work. "Men exaggerate their conflict," one expert says.
Another expert notes that women still take on most of the psychological responsibility of keeping a family ticking. I'll vouch for that: I can't imagine my husband dealing with getting the kids to birthday parties, doctors' appointments, and music lessons when they were young while trying to meet an important deadline. More importantly, I can't quite see him picking up the subtle hints that come with bruised egos, boredom, and boyfriend crises.
So this is a good-news-but-way-to-go commentary. The good news is that men are doing more than simply chipping in these days; they are contributing in significant ways to household management and family life. At the same time, they're finding it difficult often because of lack of support - and they have a ways to go before it's a 50-50 deal. But the good news far outweighs the bad because "in for a dime, in for a dollar." Things can only change for the better as men model for each other and moms recognize that much of what dads do counts, even if it isn't as visible as cooking a meal or catching the dust balls that only women see.