Debunking Myths About Why Your Relationship is Unequal

“When men outearn women, they use that income as an excuse to do less at home. And when women outearn men, they just outsource work to other people and the men don't actually step up.”

Debunking Myths About Why Your Relationship is Unequal
Photo by Paul Pastourmatzis / Unsplash

I’m part of a generation of women who were raised on the mantra, “girls can achieve anything they can dream of!” that blissfully ignored the asterisks of “if you aren’t buried in responsibilities at home!” Somehow that “Girl Power!” fever wasn’t met with a similar “Care Power!” initiative for boys, teaching them that the key to stronger relationships and a happier life was to do their fair share of domestic labor.

There is no doubt that work and parenting demands have continued to increase over the decades. Living far away from extended family is common and as our social and community safety nets shrink, equal partnerships when raising kids feel both mythical and essential for survival, especially in impractical nuclear family arrangements where you have only two adults to do “all the things.”

Kate Mangino’s new book Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home is an important addition to the arsenal of ideas we need to transform gender roles. As I like to say, the revolution begins at home, and meaningfully addressing these imbalances on the personal level can have a huge impact on our workplaces and society. Kate takes a nuanced look at gender beyond binary biology so her work can be applied beyond cis-hetero couples. She explains her thinking in-depth in the book, but she uses frameworks around “male roles” and “female roles” that can apply to people of either or neither sex. Kate’s book is full of bracingly clear data, practical exercises and ideas, and big picture context and solutions. Here’s an edited and condensed version of my conversation with Kate. I appreciate that she debunks some familiar tropes we hear about why women do more caregiving and domestic work, and rallies us with the belief that it’s never too late to change an unequal dynamic in your own relationship.

(If you’d like to hear the extended audio version that includes fascinating stories like how and why it took her 1.5 years to find 40 men who were actually equal partners, become a member of The Double Shift to get the audio version in your favorite player. You are also supporting the labor that goes into this newsletter and keeping this space ad-free.)

Katherine Goldstein: You identified the birth of the first child as one of the major moments partnerships are tested and are often rearranged away from more egalitarian patterns. In the book you use the example of the study where when a baby's born in opposite sex couples, each couple in the study was working approximately 40 hours a week in the paid labor force and they were both doing 15 hours a week of housework. And then after the baby was born, women still did 15 hours of housework, but they also added 22 hours of childcare. And for fathers, they averaged 14 hours of childcare and then their housework declined to 10 hours a week. Which is just really funny.

So what do you think this says about social expectations? About what it takes to be a good mother versus a good father?

Kate Mangino: I think first it says that we still define fatherhood and motherhood differently. You can be a successful father and get away with 14 hours. Whereas I think women are doing 22 hours and still getting judgment from people that they're not good enough.

I think it also shows that culturally, when kids come into the picture, we confuse biology and gender construction. And I still hear even from people who work in gender and who try to be feminist and who try to be gender aware that there's still talk about this natural connection between mother and baby. They still cite the pregnancy of nine months to build bonds with a baby that a father doesn't have. I still hear people slipping back into these more traditional thoughts around biology. And I think that we have to push through those.  There are studies that show men's testosterone levels drop when they co-sleep with a baby now that we're starting to study dads and fathers and how men's bodies change and respond to infants being in the house.

Katherine Goldstein: So what's a good way to get started in addressing some of these issues of inequality in their relationship for someone who finds themselves in a general state of overwhelm?

Kate Mangino: So I get that most parents of young children are probably not going to read this book, at least not cover to cover... maybe... just the Audible version. I think that the best time to have these conversations is when you're just meeting someone or when you're thinking about that first baby or expecting that first baby, once that kid comes, where do you find the time?

If you are in the middle of it, then I tried to narrow it down with some questions so that you could sort of flip through and target some questions you could talk about with your partner. I also think a great thing you could do is hand this book or anything else that you think looks inspiring and hand it to a grandparent and say, “could you read this for me because I am overwhelmed?  I'd love it If you read this and give me five bits of advice that you think would help me.” You know, why not? Or your sister that doesn't have kids or your neighbor that chooses not to have kids. I think we need to bring the community in on this conversation. I think we need to stop expecting nuclear families with little kids to solve the gender problem because that population is already at its maximum capacity.

Katherine Goldstein: I love this because I'm always about how we can pull community into things. And I love the idea of not just like, let's have a book club, but like you read it, give me the cliff notes because I'm overwhelmed. That also allows for some more authenticity and honesty with the people in your life about what you need when someone's like, “How can I help?”

Kate Mangino: I think we need to have things that we can ask for. We can all be a little bit more honest and more genuine like, “I'm up here and I could really use some help.”

Katherine Goldstein:  So one of the things I hear a lot from women partnered with men is this sense of resignation that they do more at home because their husband makes more money than them and their job is more “flexible.” So it's “natural” or more fair that they contribute more to home life. So what is your response to that?

Kate Mangino: If from an individual family perspective, I would never judge what another family decides to do. Broadly speaking, I think we need to be aware of the impacts that if that becomes a pattern of behavior, what that means for women in the long term. When you are the flex parent, you tend to earn less money, you work less hours, you get fewer promotions, and you have less influence in your company because you're prioritizing the home. When you prioritize work, you are going to get those raises and you're going to get those promotions. You're gonna move up the corporate ladder. And if this behavior pattern is overly widespread we're just going to see workforces become more and more masculine. We're gonna keep seeing leadership that is male or female who doesn't have a family or is able to raise her family through help of a nanny or domestic caregivers. And I think that just perpetuates itself and the people make leadership decisions based on their own experiences. So it’s a cycle of undervaluing care work and underpaying women and keeping women back from achieving their potential in the workplace. So it’s a chicken and the egg thing.

Katherine Goldstein:  I hear a lot about the woman or the person, “the female role” who is still working full time, but feels that because their work does not bring in as much money, they need to compensate with more of the household and childcare stuff. How do you think about that in terms of relationship equality?

Kate Mangino: We have brand new data that was just published in The Washington Post, that says men in different sex relationships, when men outearn women, they use that income as an excuse to do less in the home. And when women outearn men, they just outsource work to other people and the men don't actually step up. So it's a one-sided argument and it's hypocritical. If we're going to apply whoever makes more is going to do less in the home, it should be applied broadly. But that's not what's happening.

The other piece of that is we know there's a wage gap. We know that when men and women do the same amount of work in the workforce, women are paid less. So as long as we have this systemic pay gap happening in a workforce, it's even harder for women to earn level salaries with their husband because they're fighting systemic sexism that has been around for generations in the professional sense.

Katherine Goldstein: Another area that I hear about as a constant area of friction is when one partner's job is just legitimately much more time consuming and demanding that someone has a 70 hour a week in person job as a doctor or something. How do we think about egalitarianism in that kind of context?

Kate Mangino: So I had a really great interview in chapter seven with two women in a same sex relationship. One of them was going through her year of residency for medical school and she was working insane hours. And that was just demanded of her. She did not have a choice. This is what she had to do to be a physician. Her partner was not in that situation. Her partner said, “you know, I could say to her, let's be equal. But in this case, I'm more interested in equity.” And so she thought of it in terms of percentages. “If we each spend 25% of our spare time on household stuff, I'll be happy. That's more hours for me than it is my partner. But knowing what she's going through right now, I'm okay with it.” And I asked her, “would you be okay with this for 40 years?” And she said, “No. Quite frankly, I think it would get old. It's okay for us for this pocket of time.” Other couples might be okay with that for the length of their relationship but it's just another way to think about equity when one of you indeed does have a job that requires so much of you.

Katherine Goldstein: So if someone is reading this and feels like they are many years and like a couple kids down the road of an unequal partnership and they are not happy with it, do you think it's too late to make meaningful adjustments? Like what do you say to that person?

Kate Mangino: I think it's never too late. It just depends how interested you both are. Right? If you have all the interest and your partner has zero interest, that's a big challenge and your options are very limited. I totally get that. And I empathize with you. I do think that one thing I hope came out of this is that, in many areas of our life, education and income and home ownership, we always want what's better for the next generation than what we have. So if you're in an unequal partnership and you're maybe doing your best to work through things with your partner, but it's slow, at least you can work on your kids. At least you can talk about it. You can be honest about it. You can tell your sons and daughters, “you know, we don't have an equal partnership and I wish we did.” Thinking about ways to give your kids the capacity to be equal partners when they grow up, like doing the “noticing,” [of what needs to be done around the house] making sure your son has caregiving opportunities, rewarding him for those caregiving opportunities, not over rewarding him or rewarding him more than his sister, but telling him how much those caregiving jobs do for our family and how important they are. And I think that that's something we can do, even if our own partnership is kind of stagnant.

“I'm not asking men to give anything up for the benefit of women. I'm trying to illustrate and demonstrate how this is actually helping men.”

Katherine Goldstein: I think that's really great. I think that most of our audience would understand how women in hetero relationships could benefit from equal partnership. But how would you sum up the benefits to men?

Kate Mangino: Okay. That's a great question. I think that's sort of one of my main themes. “I'm not asking men to give anything up for the benefit of women. I'm trying to illustrate and demonstrate how this is actually helping men.” For the 40 men I identified as equal partners in my book, number 1, they would say they love that they can be their own authentic self in their household. They don't have to perform masculinity. They don't have to be “the big strong dad.” They don't have to make a certain amount of money. They can be vulnerable. They can be themselves. They can show fear, they can show sadness, and they like that. They don't have to posture in the household. Number 2, they like the connections. They have a great relationship with their partner. They have wonderful relationships with their kids. I interviewed a dad who had a baby who was weeks old, and I interviewed a dad who has grown children and everyone on that spectrum said, “I love having a real deep, meaningful relationship with my kids. I love that my grown kids text me every day and still ask me for advice and still plan vacations with me. I don't know if I would have that if I hadn't contributed to their upbringing, the way that I did.”

We also have data. The State of the World's Fathers Report has very concrete data that sexual, physical, and emotional health improves when men participate in caregiving roles. You could also have an income benefit. If you do more in the home, your partner can do more professionally and that allows her to bring home more money. So I think there's also an economic benefit, which is never my first choice, but a lot of people like that. So I'll mention it as well.

You can buy Equal Partners here.

Tomorrow, I’ll be asking Double Shift members in a members-only thread what their pain points around equal partnership are and how they’ve addressed them. I’m expecting a mix of venting and some solutions! If you want to be a member and can’t afford it right now, email us and we’ll hook you up, no questions asked.

What I’m reading: I loved Anne Helen Petersen’s guide to “How to Show Up For Your Friends Without Kids — and How to Show Up For Kids and Their Parents” It’s very easy for us to feel siloed in groups of kid havers vs. not havers, and this is full of great ideas for building the community across the divide.

Newsletter Rec: The First 1,000 Days is a weekly newsletter that explores the importance of early childhood and the role carers and other adults play in shaping the most important days of our lives. Irene Caselli, a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and other media in Latin America, looks at what we can learn from children's perspectives and how we can push for policies that take better into account the needs of children - but it’s not “parenting” content. It’s political and worldly. I particularly love Irene’s global perspective, it’s full of thought provoking ideas that break me out of my American-centric bubble. Like, what it’s like to give birth in a refugee camp, and lessons on abortion restrictions from Latin America. You can subscribe to the newsletter here, or become a paying member to support the work and get perks like commenting and monthly calls with Irene.

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