Other older marrieds sometimes ask me the secret to having a husband who does easily half, arguably more, of the childrearing and cleaning/cooking in our house. The secret is I married someone who is 33 years old. Good news for people like me: Millennial dudes are the most engaged, involved fathers in history. Bad news: Even they are having trouble knocking this equality thing out of the park.

Writing at the New York Times, Claire Cain Miller reports on the bummer reality that millennial fathers are giving it the old college try on the raising the kids and doing the dishes front, but finding themselves screwed when it comes to workplace policies that haven’t kept pace. Miller writes:

“The majority of young men and women say they would ideally like to equally share earning and caregiving with their spouse,” said Sarah Thébaud, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the kinds of policies and flexible work options that really facilitate egalitarian relationships.”

Work-family policies strongly affected women’s choices, but not men’s. Ms. Thébaud said that occurred because women disproportionately benefit from the policies since they are expected to be caregivers, while men are stigmatized for using them.

The word “benefit” here is dubious. It’s more complicated than this, because when women take advantage of these so-called favorable conditions designed precisely for them, yes, they are, in effect benefiting. But it’s not as if exercising the option doesn’t come with a penalty, it just kicks in before they ever get pregnant—in the form of being regarded as less reliable from the start, and therefore missing leadership roles or promotions due to the expectation they will start a family—and then they’re hit again afterward, when they find it difficult to re-enter the workforce after going part time. Meanwhile, men are viewed as more reliable after a family, not less.

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Thébaud’s work comes from a study she co-authored on workplace policies and their effect on millennial relationships, the first such large study of its kind. But Miller cites other research that found the same thing again and again: People increasingly want and expect equal relationships, only to find that the world doesn’t seem to want to yield, in part because the nature of work has become never-ending, with everyone on the digital leash 24/7, and in part because of simply what happens when children come into the picture. One Families and Work Institute study Miller cites found that 35 percent of childless millennial men thought men and women should take on traditional roles, i.e., him the breadwinner, her the caregiver, while 53 percent of those with kids thought traditional was the best arrangement.

Here’s Miller:

“They say, ‘I didn’t realize how much of a ding it would be on my career,’” said Laura Sherbin, the center’s director of research. “It’s what women have been saying for years and years.”

The research shows that when something has to give in the work-life juggle, men and women respond differently. Women are more likely to use benefits like paid leave or flexible schedules, and in the absence of those policies, they cut back on work. Men work more.

But again, let’s note that both men and women who want equal partnerships are being penalized in some way or another for having families—women are penalized for being women, i.e., caregivers, while men are being penalized for not acting like men, i.e., breadwinners. Men will at least be rewarded through work after breeding—research shows men on average score a 6% raise per child, whereas a woman’s salary will decrease by 4 percent per child.

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Other research Miller details that surveyed unmarried millennials about future work/family balance found that respondents overwhelmingly chose egalitarian arrangements (95 percent of college-educated women vs. 75 percent of college-educated men; 82 percent of women without college vs. 68 percent of men) when work policies supported them. But when they didn’t support them, things looked a little different.

64 percent of college-educated women opted for a so-called neo-traditional arrangement — the man is the primary breadwinner and the woman is the primary caregiver, though they share some of those tasks. So did 87 percent of less-educated men.

Less-educated women were more likely to choose self-reliance, or becoming the sole breadwinner. Highly educated men chose the breadwinner role and neo-traditional role in equal numbers.

Neo-traditional is a nice way of saying the woman still does more but also works.

The world is not working in our favor: We’ve got maximum idealized values. We’ve got the highest level of parental engagement ever expected. We’ve got a 24-hour work culture. And we’ve got an economic scenario that requires men and women to work full time to stay afloat.

And yet, it’s still more equal than it has ever been. Better late than never! Better something than nothing!

If all this weren’t bleak enough, here is where I will, yet again, trot out historian Stephanie Coontz’s brilliant assertion from a 2013 NYT piece about why gender equality has stalled. In it, she talks about the “values stretch” that happens when couples/families are met with such a paradox. Print it out, laminate it, tack it to the wall. Coontz writes about the toll such a values stretch can take on couples who are doing what it takes to get by and trying to put the resentment or disappointment out of their minds:

When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you. So couples often create a family myth about why they made these choices, why it has turned out for the best, and why they are still equal in their hearts even if they are not sharing the kind of life they first envisioned.

Heart equality is great and everything, but it’s not going to cut it. So what is to be done? Miller suggests paternity leave policies where men are rewarded for taking them might help. Reining in long hours can help men and woman alike, though it’s hard to imagine this ever shifting back. More inexpensive childcare will help reduce tensions on families everywhere. Another option is to consider that in same sex relationships, equality is sometimes better achieved when gender isn’t considered, but rather, personality and preference about who does what. And I think there is always room for couples to negotiate their own rules outside of those workplace policies as best they can.

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But ultimately this comes down to changing not just attitudes, but policies and legislation at the top. Feminists have long expressed that rigid gender roles such as those outlined here fuck us all over. And what’s more, that women alone can’t enact the social change necessary to ease these burdens. We need men to get pissed. Just as pissed as we are about the way the system presumes which gender roles/values we all aspire to live by.

Of course, it takes more than just being pissed. Just like it takes more than simply wanting equality to get it. Frustrating isn’t it? Welcome to our world.

Image by Tara Jacoby.