Last month, Sonya Bonczek, the director of publicity at The University of North Carolina Press, went on Twitter and made an observation about party planning as a parent.
“Been running into dads of my 3 [-year-old’s] classmates and asking for their emails for his birthday party,” she wrote. “So far three out of three dads have proceeded to give me their wives’ emails instead. This is now a social experiment.”
The observation spurred on some very spirited replies. Many moms weighed in or reply-tweeted about their own experiences with lopsided mom-dad email involvement.
“I’m on a text chain of all the parents for my son’s kindergarten class. The moms communicate constantly. No dad has ever commented,” said author Meghan O’Rourke.
“This is why I’m very intentional about making my husband the primary parent contact,” essayist Leta McCollough Seletzky wrote.
Dads chimed in, too, some essentially saying “do better, guys,” and some trying to rationalize the email inaction.
“My wife knows the dates and times of our plans. I tend to forget, like, all of them,” one man tweeted.
“Dads only want to be heroes to their kids. If it isn’t heroic they usually aren’t involved,” another guy explained. “They won’t plan the party, but they’ll show up dressed as Iron Man and take the moment. Most dads are mediocre. Moms are magical. I think men need to step it up a little.”
When it comes to scheduling and organizing, men actually stepped up in a big way at the beginning of the pandemic. A January 2021 study by the University of Toronto Mississauga that looked at household and childcare labor found that before the COVID pandemic, 46% of respondents said scheduling was an equally shared task or that fathers did more than mothers. After lockdown, 57% said it was an equal breakdown.
Now, it looks like we’re reverting back into traditional gender norms.
“Many dads just don’t want to be bothered ― and nearly all of them don’t have to because their wife or kids’ mother takes care of it, which unfortunately enables their behavior.”
– Family therapist Kurt Smith
Kurt Smith, a family therapist in Roseville, California, who mostly works with men, said that men frequently confess they take a backseat on kid-related planning, while women clients bemoan their husbands’ inaction.
“A common complaint I hear from dads is, ‘I didn’t know about that’ or ‘You didn’t tell me about this,’” Smith told HuffPost. “Meanwhile, I had mom tell me a couple of weeks ago that her kids’ father ― the couple are divorcing ― doesn’t know about school activities because he doesn’t bother to read the emails he gets.”
Instead, Smith said, the dad expects his ex to keep him informed.
“When she doesn’t, it’s her fault, not his,” he said. “This this is a very common thing, regardless of whether the parents are divorced or still married.”
“To put it bluntly, it’s laziness and selfishness,” the therapist said. “Many dads just don’t want to be bothered ― and nearly all of them don’t have to because their wife or kids’ mother takes care of it, which unfortunately enables their behavior.”
One party planning email may seem like small potatoes, but in the aggregate, it’s pretty energy-depleting to be the point-person for all kid-related texts and emails. It costs women in their personal and professional lives, too.
Danielle Kraydich, a mom of two kids under three years old who works in tech and lives in the metro Detroit area, knows that all too well. She had just discussed this with her husband when she came across Bonczek’s viral thread.
“We both work full time. I had told him I was mentally exhausted and how he didn’t know how many things that women have to plan and worry about outside of their everyday jobs,” Kraydich told HuffPost.
The idea that women are just innately better at Google calendars and unending group texts is silly, she said, you just learn to do it because you have to.
“There is no one there to remind women about these birthday parties, or school activities or gifts to buy,” she said. “We’re forced to do mental gymnastics to balance everything and our partners have no idea.”
Studies have found that LGBTQ+ couples tend to divide domestic duties more evenly ― some have suggested it’s because defaulting to traditional gender roles is not an option for them.
Straight couples ― even the most well-intentioned, egalitarian-minded pairs ― often fall into the same old highly gendered script because “so few of us have had an equitable division of labor modeled for us in our lives or through the media,” said Laura Danger, a Chicago-based life coach who facilitates workshops for couples seeking a more equitable division of domestic labor.
To some extent, men bowing out of email responsibilities with school and playdates feels a lot like weaponized incompetence, a term that was everywhere earlier this year.
Weaponized incompetence occurs when someone feigns incompetence at any one task (though by and large, unpleasant ones) to get out of doing it: “I’d handle all the school emails, you’re just so much better at it!” a husband might say, knowing that, historically, his wife’s response is to shoot him an icy look and huffily reply, “Fine, I’ll do it myself.”
“So many people think of domestic labor as ‘just something women are better at’ but it is absolutely a set of skills that have been taught to and disproportionately expected of women to do, from childhood,” Danger said.
Domestic labor isn’t just chores, it’s showing up for your family. All children need to be taught that, not just young girls.
“Little boys should be taught that providing for their families doesn’t end with a paycheck and that providing is also actively engaging with the mental load of caregiving,” she said. “That’s providing a safe and loving environment, too.”
It may seem like it’s “just a call from school” or “just signing them up for swim lessons,” but it’s all a labor of love that reflects your family’s needs and values, Danger said.
“Men deserve a chance to be a part of that magic,” she said.
Below, Danger and other parenting experts share how to make sure you and your partner’s inboxes and texts are as equitable as possible.
1. Teach yourself to be better at these kinds of tasks.
It’s easier to fall back on “my wife is just better at it” because it can be really painful to face the fact that this unfair dynamic is harming the person you love, Danger said.
“We are all victims of a society that undervalues domestic labor and allows it to disproportionately fall onto the shoulders of women, but we are also all responsible for actively working to redistribute that load,” she said.
She encourages partners who approach school communications and planning in such a way to ask themselves, “If my wife is so much better at these things, I wonder why,” followed up with, “What steps can I take to find more equity at home?”
It could be as simple as telling your wife, “Hey, mind adding me to that parent group chat, so I can stay up-to-date, too?”
2. Have an honest conversation about how you feel about the current division of parenting responsibilities.
Smith tells clients stuck in this rut to share how they honestly feel about how parenting responsibilities are delegated now.
“You first need to be honest with yourself, and then be strong enough to be honest with your partner,” he said. “This can be hard and scary to do, but your kids need both parents equally involved in their lives, so do it for them.”
Discuss, too, where you appear to be defaulting into traditional roles.
“Talk about all household responsibilities, not just the kids,” he said. “Share how your parents divided up responsibilities, and how you could still be influenced by what they modeled to you. We will become our parents if we’re not intentional about not doing so.”
Keep in mind, it’s perfectly fine if “organizing kids’ social lives” falls under the wife’s purview, just discuss that detail together.
3. Start explicitly discussing who will be the point person for each task.
“What traps so many folks into these unhealthy dynamics is unclear expectations,” Danger said.
Instead of casually remarking, “we should set up a playdate with Charlie’s friend!” take a moment and decide who will actually set up the playdate.
“Resentment often develops in that space where the royal ‘we’ is used and then one party feels responsible to pick up the task,” Danger said.
As parents, sit down and discuss which activities you’re going to be the primary contact for. Maybe one person is the point of contact for all school-related needs, while the other handles Girl Scouts and extracurricular sports.
“Assign one parent the teacher-contact, friend-contact or doctor-contact task and then hold firm,” she said.
4. Communicate explicitly who teachers should contact.
Ideally, your kid’s teacher doesn’t just assume mom is the go-to contact for everything. (Sometimes, the primary contact isn’t a parent at all, but a big sister or uncle.)
“Teachers should send home a form at the beginning of the school year and explicitly ask who to contact first,” Danger said. “Assuming mom is the primary contact perpetuates the social expectation that mom has it handled and undermines men as capable caregivers, which they absolutely are.”
If you’re a parent, take the time to make sure the school, doctor’s office or neighborhood friend has the correct adult’s contact information.
“The antidote to all of this is clearly defined expectations,” Danger said.