Recently I wrote an article titled “Egalitarian From the Start: Practical Tips for Engagements and Weddings.” The article covered ideas like going ring shopping together, re-wording some traditional parts of the wedding ceremony, and making newlywed life decisions together. However, I did not address one of the biggest life changes and challenges for many couples: having children.
When it comes to pregnancy and the early stages of parenting, biology works against us. Try as we might, there is no way to equally share the joys and struggles of carrying a child, giving birth, and breastfeeding. When my husband and I were ready to grow our family, I wondered how we would be able to maintain our nontraditional gender roles and split work equally.
As a psychologist, I was familiar with a phenomenon called the parental imperative. According to this theory, young adults are less governed by strict gender roles, easily taking on some of the other sex’s stereotypical characteristics and responsibilities in their daily lives. Single men cook for themselves and do their own laundry; women lead teams at work and pay their own taxes. But starting slowly with marriage and increasing with the birth of children, men and women revert to traditional gender roles to meet the demanding needs of their children and household. Men tend to become more career-oriented and focused on protecting and providing for the family, while women spend more time at home and emphasize nurturing and caregiving.
And, we see evidence of this pattern in society. Mothers are more likely than fathers to cut back on their work hours after the birth of children, and women with children make significantly less money than women without. Paradoxically, men with children tend to make more money than childless men. Even in dual-earner families, mothers do a disproportionate amount of the housework and childcare compared to fathers.
How to be Egalitarian New Parents
So how can egalitarian couples avoid the parental imperative and maintain allegiance to their egalitarian beliefs and practices once they get married and add children to their family? Less than a year into being parents, my husband and I by no means have it all figured out. We are learning that being equally engaged parents requires a lot of planning, sacrifice, and mutual teamwork. Here are some suggestions that work for us, along with other ideas to help you faithfully live out your egalitarian values even after bringing baby home.
1. Both Mom and Dad Should Take Parental Leave—If Possible.
Both mom and dad should take parental leave once a baby is born. Unfortunately, very few men have the opportunity or ability to take parental leave, since the United States is so far behind when it comes to paid benefits for both moms and dads. But I have noticed that even when men do have this benefit or can afford unpaid time, they don’t take that opportunity.
My husband took advantage of his company’s amazing benefits, which included both paid and unpaid leave. We were home together for the first eight weeks of our baby’s life, which helped us both bond with our baby, establish our partnership as co-parents, and set a foundation of equal responsibilities.
Due to the timing of our child’s birth and my job as a college professor, I went back to work after those eight weeks. My husband chose to take an additional four weeks off to stay home with our daughter. This one-on-one time with her was invaluable for their bond and his confidence in his abilities as a caregiver. My transition back to work was tremendously easier because I knew she was in good hands with her father at home. While this is not feasible everyone, I encourage all couples to make sacrifices to take as much time off as possible.
2. Avoid Maternal Gatekeeping.
Women must be careful to avoid “maternal gatekeeping,” also known as “you’re-not-doing-it-right-here-just-let-me!” Maternal gatekeeping involves mothers’ beliefs and behaviors that can actually prevent or restrict fathers from co-parenting. While most complementarians believe that women are the natural caregivers and inherently more nurturing, egalitarians believe that fathers can be just as capable. Instead of “instructing” my husband on how to change our daughter, feed her, or hold her, I try to step back and allow him to create his own way of doing things. Both men and women need this freedom to figure out what works for them and their baby.
3. Build A True Partnership.
“Make your partner a real partner.” The business of caring for children and managing a household should be a true partnership. This was especially hard for us to practice in the early months of parenting. No matter how egalitarian my husband is, he can’t breastfeed our baby! But he’s quick to remind me that everything else is a shared responsibility. From arranging childcare to transporting kids to making dinner and doing yet another load of laundry, no task is “mom’s job” or “dad’s job.” In everything, we are a team and we run our home together. This is especially important if both parents plan to maintain their careers. Every couple should mutually discuss and agree on how they want to share tasks.
4. Share in the “Mental Load” of Parenting.
Mental load, emotional work, invisible labor—these all describe the tasks that typically fall to women. These tasks are often overlooked because they don’t involve physical, manual labor. Researching the best baby products, planning family gatherings, keeping up with a running to do list, making doctors’ appointments, remembering when the baby needs to be fed… Being the Chief Executive Officer of Project Baby is an exhausting task for one person to manage. As a new mother, I have had to learn to delegate certain tasks to my husband and explain how he could help share in the mental load. Husbands can take an enormous burden off their wives by stepping up in this area.
When we live out our egalitarian values in practical ways, my husband and I benefit, and so does our daughter! She gets to see both her mother and father providing for the family and taking care of the home through our dual earner-dual caregiver model. I’m proud that she can see me work hard in my career and continue to pursue opportunities while raising a family. I love that she will grow up seeing her mom succeed in dynamic, challenging professional roles while also being present and engaged at home. I hope she will grow up knowing she is just as capable. And I love that our daughter has a close bond with her father, who is not a passive, incompetent “babysitter” waiting for my lead, but an equal partner in her care.
When it comes to pregnancy and parenthood, biology necessitates that women take on some roles that men can’t. Society does not make it easy for egalitarians who strongly believe in God’s call for women and men to equally lead in the home, church, and workplace. But let’s not allow society’s outdated expectations of motherhood and fatherhood to force us into stereotypic gender roles. Let’s commit to embracing active and engaged fathers and mothers who are equal partners in the job of parenting. Let’s support all women and men who make mutual decisions that are best for their families.
This article first appeared in CBE’s blog on August 15, 2019.