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Women won't achieve gender equality for their kids until they stop doing all the housework

Kids will later emulate what they see their parents doing now, no matter how few princess movies you let them see.
Illustration of a mother vacuuming as her husband eats popcorn on the couch, and her daughter looks at superhero comic depicting the mom.
An unequal distribution of household labor reinforces traditional gender role expectations, which constricts our children’s sense of possibility and self-actualization.Cornelia Li / for NBC News

Some — usually straight — women I know turn themselves inside out to set a feminist agenda for their children: They refuse to let their kids watch Disney movies and eschew all things pink and princessy for their daughters; they adopt gender neutral wardrobes for themselves and their children; they carefully purchase books starring strong female protagonists.

But then they also openly take on the lion’s share of childcare and domestic responsibilities even when they are in two-parent domestic households with straight men, undermining and confusing the feminist messages they're trying to send their children.

Don’t get me wrong: The symbolic gestures are not just superficial. They are, in fact, admirable and critically important, as studies show that young girls’ communion with the “princess industrial complex” can affect their self-esteem and body image and other research demonstrates that books that break with gender stereotypes can help liberate both girls and boys from the limitations imposed by traditional expectations about how they should behave and think. And, certainly, resisting clothing that traffics in the future objectification of young girls and women or which locks boys into traditional gender roles is an ambitious, noble and profoundly necessary project.

But, the real feminist revolution won’t begin until work in the domestic domain is evenly distributed among the sexes.

Ongoing household inequities are stymying the very evolution that some women are buying books and eschewing princesses to try to engender in our children.

Research shows that seeing an unequal distribution of household and child care labor reinforces traditional gender role expectations, which constricts rather than expands our children’s sense of possibility and self-actualization. Seeing their mothers perform the majority of household labor while their fathers barely participate means that “girls will, generally speaking, grow into women who prioritize their their family’s needs and boys will grow into men who prioritize their own needs,” said Darcy Lockman, a psychologist and. the author of "All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership."

“This leaves homes unbalanced,” she added. Beyond that, research further suggests that our existing lopsided familial configurations result in unfair dynamics between opposite-sex siblings, with boys being paid more to do fewer chores.

Even though some women have reaped the hard-fought rewards of more than a century of feminism — for instance, women as a whole earn more college degrees than men and we sit in more congressional seats than ever before in U.S. history — we can’t seem to rid our homes of the gross inequalities that persist between mothers and fathers, especially in the age of Covid-19, even though men today do more housework and child care than in previous generations.

These ongoing household inequities are stymying the very evolution that some women are buying books and eschewing princesses to try to engender in our children.

Women in relationships with men might need to get more comfortable with — and seek out opportunities to — fail to live up to gender norms in their families.

By shouldering the larger sum of (unpaid and undervalued) labor at home — even as many of them work outside of it — mothers in these households are unwittingly telling their daughters and sons that women and the work they do are of less value than men and the work they do. Furthermore, studies indicate that the vast power imbalance at home is one fundamental reason that women don’t comparably ascend the corporate ladder; they are thought to be less committed employees because of the heavier weight they carry at home, and are treated accordingly.

“Our society just does not value caregiving in any way — but then at the same time tells us it’s essential,” the eminent family historian Stephanie Coontz (who wrote the classic "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap") said. "The complete lack of social support systems for dual earner families and for male caregiving in general puts us in a terrible bind."

She pointed to cultural challenges, such as the feminization of domesticity, and structural ones, like little-to-no paid family leave, that prevent us from achieving parity in the realm of kid-and-housekeeping.

Certainly, as a society, we need to advocate for those larger changes that will create the right conditions for domestic equality, but Coontz also sees an additional, more individualistic way to materialize that end, like women actively forfeiting the primacy of our familial roles. “Women get a lot of satisfaction out of being the one their kids turn to and confide in, " she pointed out. "They might think, ‘I want my husband to do this, but I want him to understand that I’m the expert, and I’ll tell him when he’s doing it wrong.’ It’s called gatekeeping,” she added.

It’s an impulse women need to resist if they want to realize a more feminist arrangement for themselves and for their children at home.

The real feminist revolution won’t begin until work in the domestic domain is evenly distributed among the sexes.

Part of the reason that some wives might be disinclined, consciously or not, to relinquish their domestic power to their husbands is that, historically, the maintenance of the home and the loved ones who inhabit it has been seen as the quintessential expression of traditional femininity’s self-sacrificing and self-abnegating demand and thus linked to their desirability to men — but it’s a risk such women must collectively take to remap the power structure in the family. (Another reason might be that it is the only realm in which women's expertise is often acknowledged and valued without question.)

Men, after all, are unlikely to simply decide to want to do work that has been feminized, unglorified and made unlucrative in the same way, say, women have been galvanized to want to do legitimized and legitimizing work outside the home.

Women in these relationships might, in fact, need to get more and more comfortable with — and seek out opportunities to — fail to live up to gender norms in their families.

Take Mama Bear in “The Berenstain Bears: The Trouble With Chores,” by Stan and Jan Berenstain: Although it is an extremely sexist children’s book series (as Hanna Rosin once noted in Slate) this particular story does offer a roadmap to liberation. It suggests that women should just stop taking on the child and household responsibilities, even if it sinks one's family into filth and triggers feuds.

In the book, once Mama Bear decides to prioritize herself (preparing for her flower show and knitting with her friends) and retreats from housework and mommying, the whole family does pull together to get the housework done without her — even if it's not done as well as she might have done it.

“The only condition under which men seem to take on a greater proportion of the work of the home is when female partners are not physically available,” the psychologist Lockman said. She highlighted the ways that World War II forced women into the workforce and ultimately changed societal attitudes toward their capacities beyond the home front — and wondered if the pandemic will have a similar effect on fathers, pointing to research that showed fathers stepping up when mothers, who are essential workers, could not be present.

Until that verdict is in, Moms, maybe try popping open a beer, kicking your feet out on your La-Z-Boy recliner when the workday is through and make Dad take charge of the dirty dishes and diapers. It’ll change your life — and, ultimately, your kids’.