Before the baby arrived, Darcy Lockman believed that she and her husband would equally split the work of parenting. But her hopes were short-lived. It started with a fight when their daughter was not yet a month old and Lockman was on brief, unpaid maternity leave. Lockman’s husband—who imagined her leave as “downright hedonistic,” because she was occasionally able to drag herself to lunch with friends—wanted to return to his pre-baby routine of going to the gym after work.
“He had long days at the office and wanted to work out,” she writes in her new book, All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership. “I had long days at home with our newborn and wanted some relief.” They eventually agreed, after a few days of “mutual hostility,” that he would go to the gym before work, although he “seemed to hold onto the idea” that she was wrong for having such demands.
“Maybe I should just accept my role as primary parent with grace,” she thought at the time, even though she was soon going to return to work, just like her husband. “It wasn’t like he didn’t help at all.”
This dynamic continued during the first years of her daughter’s life, and then their second kid arrived. “My requests for more help were sporadically heeded, but only after some fighting and a fraught reminder or two, each one serving to reinforce the same implicit bottom line: Our children’s needs were my responsibly,” she writes. Her husband demonstrated a “striking ability to abdicate domestic burdens—to fail to even know of their existence.” Lockman writes of “small children dressed in the wrong season’s clothes, permission slips that remained in folders unsigned, the consistent failure to pack any sort of supply,” and her husband’s slightly accusatory utterance every time they got into the car, “Did you remember diapers?”
Lockman saw the same thing play out among the fathers she knew. They were “nothing like the retro stereotype of the guy who rarely left the office and refused to wipe a tiny dirty ass.” But “once they’d outpaced Don Draper in the annals of fatherhood, these men seemed content to retreat to their beds with their phones.” As a therapist, she saw this dynamic emerge as early as pregnancy—a client in maternity clothes complained that her husband had strongly held opinions about strollers but wouldn’t bother to do any research about them. What Lockman thought as she heard this client’s story was, “And so it begins.”
All the Rage is a book born from these personal and professional anecdotes, but it finds broader grounding in interviews with a sampling of 50 mothers and scads of research on household inequity. Fathers may have tripled the time spent with kids since the ’60s, but that does not translate to doing their fair share. A 2015 study found that working heterosexual couples performed 15 hours each of housework per week before having kids. After children, women did the same amount of housework while men did five hours less, and women took on eight more hours of childcare than men.
The book’s primary concern is the dynamic within heterosexual, cisgender marriages in which both parents are working, but Lockman pauses a few times to consider how things play out among same-sex parents. The answer is often: quite differently.
She investigates the reasons for these disparities, which linger despite women’s mass entry into the workforce and evolving attitudes around gender roles. This leads Lockman to explore cultural pressures around maternal perfection, tackle much of the pseudoscience around biological determinism, and review the research on gendered socialization. But it’s the anecdotes—from Lockman’s personal experiences, as well as her interviews—that summon rage. It’s all the little insults that turn out to be not so little as they stack up: the one-sided “packing of diapers, the buying of presents, the planning of meals, the searching for child care, the sorting and storage of hand-me-downs.”
Lockman acknowledges that parental inequity is in large part a structural social problem stemming from a lack of institutional support for childrearing and the unfriendliness of the American workplace toward parents (as one sociologist tells her, “workplaces still act like everyone has a wife at home”). Her proposed solutions, however, are mostly interpersonal—fathers stepping up, and mothers stepping back. “[I]f better arrangements in women’s personal lives can be achieved only through sweeping shifts in our political and economic ones, I am not, at the time of this book’s writing, optimistic for my daughters, nor for theirs,” she writes.
It feels difficult, though, to believe in sweeping shifts in our personal lives without that institutional support. That is especially so after reading about dads who fail to research strollers, pack diapers, or sign permission slips. Still, there is something to be said for naming these parental disparities, and sketching their maddening contours. All the Rage is a book I will likely pass along to expectant parents—not because it offers easy solutions, but because it makes the problem more recognizable. In many ways, it’s the couples who believe themselves egalitarian who need it most.
I spoke with Lockman about the fallacy of “maternal instinct,” nagging wife stereotypes, and her husband’s reaction to being held up as an example of inequity. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: It’s 2019. Why aren’t fathers carrying more of their fair weight in heterosexual marriages?
LOCKMAN: There was so much enthusiasm around how much more fathers were doing than in the past that a closer look at how things still hadn’t reached parity never happened. It came from this place, I believe, of celebrating fathers who—stereotypically—from the 1950s on weren’t doing the hands-on work of parenting. We kind of got stuck here with this notion of “things are so much better”—and they are so much better. But it didn’t go far enough.
How does the contemporary culture of hyper-involved motherhood influence these gender inequities at home?
One of the most interesting things that someone said to me was the point at which working mothers became the norm is the point at which “intensive mothering”—which is a term coined by a sociologist—really took off. She said to me, “Not to be paranoid, but I don’t think that’s coincidental.” There was a lot of anxiety, culturally, around mothers being less available, so the bar got raised.
The bar for mothers is so high. We strive to keep up with doing as much for our kids as everyone else seems to be doing. Men do not feel the pressure to compete at this—and lucky them, in a way. So their wives feel that pressure, and bowing to it allows men to remain even more in the backseat.
How much do early biological inequities—pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding—influence the role division that follows?
A ton. We’re so visual and as we see a woman changing during pregnancy and giving birth and breastfeeding, it’s really easy to imagine that it’s all about the mother and the baby. There are hormonal changes in men when they spend time with a pregnant partner, but they’re not visible. We don’t see that. What we see easily confirms our biases.
I love the anthropologist Sarah Hrdy. Her books are really dense, they’re probably not for the casual reader, but she talks about how early small differences pave the way for huge inequities later on. It has an impact on a million different interactions every day of the week.
You suggest in the book that there is no such thing as maternal instinct. Can you explain?
An instinct is understood in a very specific way in biology, and we use it differently colloquially. I’m talking about the way biologists would use the word—an instinct is an automatic behavior that doesn’t vary between animals in a species. We don’t have a lot of instincts, because we have a neocortex, so we have to learn in order to establish behaviors.
This whole idea of maternal instinct was about how automatically and unflaggingly devoted women were to babies. While this isn’t completely untrue, it did leave fathers out of the picture. Fathers also have a neuro-chemical process that sets them up to become attached to their babies. So if we’re gonna colloquially talk about maternal instincts, we should also colloquially talk about paternal instincts. It’s not the same, necessarily, quite in degree, but it’s also there in a large degree. This idea of maternal instinct really just serves to reinforce sexist notions of who’s going to do all the work.
Are there any significant biological differences around parenthood, aside from pregnancy and breastfeeding?
No, not after that. I love the Israeli study that I have in the book, where they look at adoptive parents raising babies without women—so, gay men. What they found was it was really caring for the baby day by day that caused changes in the brain. The hormones prime us, but our hormones, even in adoptive parents, shift. There is something in our species where adult members are attracted to caring for younger members. The biology doesn’t really in a significant way set up brain differences that make mothers mothers and fathers fathers.
You devote some time to the controversial topic of “maternal gatekeeping.” Can you give a primer for readers who aren’t familiar with the subject?
It’s the idea that mothers keep fathers away from children because they feel that their contributions are inadequate. There’s a gate and mothers close it to fathers by identifying and articulating their inadequacy. There’s research on it, and it’s not completely untrue. Sometimes mothers chase fathers away by declaring, “I’m the one who knows best and if you’re not doing it my way, you’re wrong.”
But there’s a chicken or egg question: What comes first, the mother pushing the father away or the father not being as involved as he might and then the wife in frustration says, “Well, I’m better at this. If you’re going to stick me with this, then I’m going to claim primacy?”
I spoke with one of the women who studies maternal gatekeeping and I said, “Hey, this just feels so sexist to blame women for this.” She said that she hears that a lot, but that part of the reason women gatekeep is because of the pressure on them to do everything well.
I was never a person to really care about what my kids wore to preschool but I would come home [after my husband dressed them in the morning] and find them in the craziest getups. I would be a little embarrassed that they went to school that way. The societal pressure on women is greater, so we’re maybe going to be a little more concerned about these things than our husbands. It’s hard not to feel shamed. You have more to lose socially. Mothers aren’t doing this in a vacuum.
How do women demand more from their husbands without becoming the nagging wife stereotype?
It’s such an unfair stereotype, because who is in a position to nag? Someone whose needs aren’t being met. If you would attend to the responsibilities of our household without being asked, or asked repeatedly, then no one would need to nag.
As I heard in my interviews, women have to be pretty relentless if they want this to go well. To be able to say to one’s partner in a quiet moment, “Look, we’re both a bit sexist, we can’t help it, this is the world we’ve grown up in, that accommodates men and their desires more than women. We’re both going to do this and we need to stay on top of it if we want to nurture a good relationship.” The thing one has to do from the get-go is to make this a shared objective, to know that without great attention there is not going to be parity.
My husband and I did not anticipate this at all, and a lot of couples don’t. We were both totally egalitarian. I would never stay at home. So we didn’t make it a shared goal from the start. If we had made it a shared goal, I could have said to him, when we weren’t meeting our goal, “Hey, we’re not meeting our goal, let’s sit down and talk about this.” But because we never did this, it was always me just being like WTF and him being defensive.
Is there anything that women can do in terms of their own relationship to motherhood that you think will help?
A little bit of knowledge goes a long way. To know that you’re mothering within a particular time and space, within a particular cultural context, gives you more room to decide for yourself what you want instead of automatically doing what is expected or promoted.
Some people have said, “Why aren’t you presenting solutions?” And I feel like I am, which is why that question is so frustrating to me. I think the solution is to really have a lot of knowledge about what is likely to happen so that you can think about it while it’s happening and make a conscious decision to try something different. There is no: “Here are the four steps you can take to equality.” I don’t think it’s that simple.
How has the book gone over with your husband, given that he’s held up as emblematic of a broader problem?
You’re the first person to ask me that. He was really supportive from the get-go. When I was writing the proposal, I told him, “If you don’t want me to do this, because it’s been hard on us, I will stop right now.” He was like, “No it’s a great idea.” But when he read it, it was a little harder, even though his feeling is that he agrees with what I’m saying.
In my experience, it was easy to write, because I feel like he’s just like everybody else. If I felt like he was egregious in any way it would not have been easy to write. But he isn’t, he’s just like every other dude. The stories I include about him, I heard from every woman I talked with. Still, it’s not easy to be in that position.
If we were in more politically optimistic times, what kind of impact do you think that paid parental leave and subsidized childcare would have on these inequities at home?
They have that in France. In Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, she talks about how the fathers in France are still falling behind, but the women are much less angry because they have other help. If that stuff is in place, it’s not necessarily that men start doing more, it’s that the women don’t care as much.