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Is Your Husband Pulling His Weight Around the Home?

Last week just about did me in. Maybe it was the mad scramble to find a size 6 jumper at the "uniform exchange event" my daughter's school was holding, or maybe it was the party we hosted, with 40 guests, for a special someone's 80th birthday. All while fielding e-mails from an editor whose demands were very particular. I was feeling the heat, from work and home. And the working-mom martyr complex was kicking in, big time.

I called up Kathleen Gerson, Ph.D., an NYU sociologist, seeking fuel for a post-Father's Day rant about how husbands still aren't pulling their weight around the home. But after talking to Dr. Gerson, I realized it's not really true. In fact, I should probably shine the light on myself.

"So, Dr. Gerson," I asked her, "how are we doing on dads and work around the house?"

"Certainly there has been a sea change in how we think about men and fathering," she says. "Men have really transformed their views of what it means to be a good father. Men today overwhelmingly say that they want to be deeply involved in their children's lives, they want to find a more integrated, rational balance between work and home, and they want to be good partners -- supportive, flexible and egalitarian partners."

"Yeah, and how's that last part working out?" I asked her sarcastically.

According to Dr. Gerson, this is not just rhetoric: "Men really do feel differently and are struggling to act differently. But just like women, they continue to face enormous obstacles to doing so. We still have this notion of the ideal worker, someone who puts in enormously long hours at work. Men are still judged by the size of their paychecks. They feel under the enormous pressure to live up to that ideal."

"So it sounds like the workplace still needs to change?" I asked her.

And here's where she surprised me. It's not just the workplace that needs to change -- it's me.

"Of course, but we also need to change our views of what it takes to rear a child," she said. "We need to move beyond the notion of one intensively involved parent who shouldn't rely on anyone else and look at it as a much more collaborative effort. Not just collaborative between parents, but collaborative in the sense of a wide array of caretakers and community support that would make it easier for mothers and fathers."

Wow. So my summer childcare hodgepodge that's part-daycare, part-babysitter, part panicked calls to my brother, the teacher who's off summers, isn't something to feel guilty about. Whew. But back to the household chores.

"Families do better when both members of a couple perceive there's a relatively fair division of labor," Dr. Gerson says. "The more men are involved, the happier everyone seems to be. How couples decide to divide it up doesn't seem to matter, as long as it works for both of them."

OK, I'll admit my husband and I have a more-than-fair division of labor. He did a gazillion errands getting ready for our big party. And let me go on record saying that if it weren't for him, the laundry king, my kids' sheets would never get changed. Still, I asked around to my friends to see if anyone's husband calls the babysitter. Just show me one dad who makes childcare arrangements so the spouses can work. Or go out to dinner. Couldn't find one.

Dr. Gerson says this may be my fault: "The executive work in a family, women still do this predominantly. Women still have this notion that a good mother does these things. I think there's a lot of compensatory behavior on the part of mothers, because you're trying to break out of this mid-twentieth century notion of intensive motherhood. The way you reassure yourself that everything is all right is to take responsibility. But you don't have to prove you're a good mother. It's OK if a father does these things."

That's a radical notion. It's not that men won't help with those jobs; it's that we do them to prove to ourselves we're good mothers. OK, then, Dr. G., what's the bottom line? "Can you give me tips for a happy home when both parents work?" I asked her.

"Remember that when each person in a couple is happy, the family is happy," she says. "And usually that means when the mother is happy, the family is happy. For fathers, it's to remember they benefit from equality as well. The more they do, the happier their partners will be, the happier their children will be, and the happier they will be.

"Two, for moms, stop feeling you have to compensate for something you're not doing. Focus on the good that you are doing. And don't hesitate to ask for help -- and not see it as help. Responsibility is shared, and the joys and burdens are as well. Your children will not just be fine, they will thrive in that situation. The most important thing a child can have is happy parents."

Amazing. Talking to a sociologist was better therapy than happy hour with my overburdened mom friends. Now, excuse me, while I get the babysitters' contact information together for my husband.

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