If a man thinks he is “helping out”, this means he thinks he has no responsibility and that the responsibility falls on the woman. Let's change that!

Fathers are not “helpers”

black and white Star Wars toys.

I recently stopped reading a perfectly normal article when I came across this sentence: “fertility rates increased when men helped out more at home.” The article was otherwise quite interesting; it tackled the falling birth rates in China and the US, and what initiatives are helping. But I just couldn’t get past the fact that we still talk about “helping out at home” when it comes to men and fathers.

Then I came across this journalistic comic about a couple “at odds” during the pandemic and the “easy fix” they found. Keni Dobbs and her husband Max have a five-year-old son, Kaiden. During the pandemic, Max, a vice-president of sales, works from home, while Kaiden does home-schooling. Max has a good job, while Keni would love to dedicate herself more to her business ideas and passions, but she is stuck taking care of many things at home.

Their “fix” to this problem is divvying up the housework more so that Max “helps out” a bit more. “Max is making an effort to show me he wants to make life easier by taking concrete actions, such as taking the time to make breakfast for the family once in a while,” says Keni. And Max’s side of the story is this: “While Keni still pushes me to do a little more, she appreciates my efforts. She knows that I try to help.”

Oh no! The “help” word again! In the comic, the wife reacts by saying: “Thanks for cleaning that, honey!” What’s most tragic about this comic is that in many ways the actions taken by the Dobbs may seem like a step in the right direction. At least we’re talking about sharing the workload at home, right?. But no, I don’t think it’s a step in the right direction! The point is not helping. The point is to turn the ”help“ mentality onto its head, and to start again, resetting expectations and gendered roles. I talk about gendered roles because i…

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4 thoughts on “Fathers are not “helpers”

  1. My spouse and I had this gender-role expectations conversation this way: we had travelled out of town for our civil wedding ceremony (Las Vegas…very fun…I highly recommend it.) Upon our return, I took my clothes out of my suitcase, laundered them, and put them away. My new husband was confused as to why I had not cleaned all the clothes. I adopted a puzzled look on my face and asked what had changed between last Monday, when we had each been responsible for our own laundry, and this week, when I was promoted to “vice president in charge of everyone’s laundry” despite not having applied for this position. I was not sure, I said, of which of my many qualifications had allowed me to win this job, and I didn’t recall how I had aced the interview and edged him out of the opportunity and career growth potential in washing his underwear. He pointed out that it is not necessarily the case that he is most qualified to mow the lawn, capture spiders, lift the sofa and other heavy things, either. I was relieved to see he understood my point, and since then we frame conversations about “who does what” in a semi-joking way: We assemble an imaginary resume detailing how the other person has the best qualifications and resources to take on whatever work needs to be done.
    Eventually we appointed each other to the emergency task force for diaper-changing when that job was advertised… we were each overjoyed to be unemployed from that after a couple of years!

    1. Hahah What a great story and perspective, Bonnie! It reminded me of a book someone recommended to me: Fair Play by Eve Rodsky.

    2. Ah, Bonnie, this is such a great way to think about it, in terms of CVs! As long as we make space for up-and-coming talent too. Let me explain what I mean: I hate driving, I was raised by a non-driving mum and I am somewhat stuck. But I want to drive. Nacho has much more experience and I usually just let him do the driving, but I think it is important that I get an opening too for that task, even if I am learning… Thanks for sharing!

      And Marina: making a note of the book, thanks!

  2. Thanks for writing about this subject, Irene! There’s so much in this topic beyond the household work and gendered expectations… My recent biggest challenge has been to notice my own expectations regarding my role in my family and in society.

    As I earn less than my partner (since ever!) and used to spend more time at home (before pandemic), I believed that everything home related was my responsibility. There was a sense of satisfaction & control over something, which I lacked outside the house.

    As my partner started working from home, he begun to get annoyed by messy or uncleaned spots that before he wouldn’t notice. And it was curious to notice my own reaction when he decided to take charge & clean/organise the house: I’d say “Don’t worry, I’ll do it!” with a feeling of defensiveness and guilt for not having done X, Y, Z before.

    Even though I want shared responsibilities, I still wanted to have control over the house & how things are done. Only when I noticed my own feelings and behaviour towards my many invisible unpaid jobs, I allowed my partner to clean/organise the house as he pleased. On a practical level: I now set a timer of 30 minutes for cleaning/organisation each day. That’s my minimum and maximum to keep things under control. What’s left undone, my partner takes over.

    Well, that’s only 1 part of the many layers of household work… which makes me sometimes wish to live in a communal house, where the responsibilities are shared between more people. 😉

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