September 19, 2019

Having kids will throw everything out of whack, even a marriage. Bringing it back together means finding a balance.

Raising children is hard work. Couples often struggle with the transition from childlessness to parenthood largely due to increased demands on their time, attention, and energy. While there has been a shift towards more equality, in many homes there is still an imbalance between partners’ involvement with children and housework that frequently breaks down along gender lines.

In addition to housework and childcare, “emotional labor” and “mental load” are terms that refer to the awareness of family members’ emotional well-being and the many organizational tasks related to raising a family. 

Examples of this kind of labor include all the household jobs that may seem small but feel necessary, such as managing the children’s schedules, overseeing homework, remembering a dentist visit next week, checking that the diaper bag is fully packed, and calling Grandma on her birthday. 

Certainly, there are many homes where mothers and fathers both feel content with the division of these kinds of tasks (and surveys have found that same-sex couples often report higher levels of satisfaction with how these tasks are allocated). Frequently, the work falls disproportionately on women (even those working full-time), leading to frustration and resentment. 

Jancee Dunn examines this problem in great detail in her book, “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.” Dunn consults marriage therapists to find solutions for couples to successfully communicate their needs, building a healthy relationship. Some of her tips include:

Identify the problem and talk about it. Sounds obvious, but often spouses are unaware of how great the work imbalance truly is, especially the mental load/household management role. If each partner makes a list of what they do every day, with detailed specifics, that may make each person’s contribution clearer. Equitable division of labor doesn’t necessarily mean a perfect 50/50 split at all times; rather, it means what feels fair to both partners. 

Seek outside support when necessary. Couples often avoid therapy because they feel it’s only necessary for people on the brink of divorce. But a neutral third party can help sort out solutions and develop communication skills to prevent conflicts from escalating.

How you fight about this issue (and anything else) is important. Screaming, name calling, sarcasm, and contempt can be harmful to a relationship over the long haul. And adults are always role modeling for children how to handle conflict, so ask yourself what you want them to learn. While some adult issues should be negotiated behind closed doors, at times showing children what compromise and flexibility looks like can help them develop their own interpersonal skills.

Think about what you’re doing to tend to your marriage when you’re NOT in conflict. Marriage therapist John Gottman has identified habits of happily married couples, including the famous daily 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions between partners, along with frequent expressions of gratitude, affection, appreciation, and connection with one another. Remember that the small things really do matter.

Try not to let family life be entirely about children, especially as they grow older. Encourage children to contribute to household tasks beginning in the preschool years, and try to say no to too many weekend events. Don’t forget about time alone with a partner, even if that time is brief and has to be scheduled.

Parenting together has its own challenges as people bring different expectations and parenting styles to the table. But the extra effort pays off when you are able to enjoy the fruits of your shared labor — more fun with family when your children are young, and a strong relationship later in life when it’s just the two of you again.

Lisa Phillips, M.S.W., G.S.W., is a parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital, and is a contributor to the award-winning “Parenting Corner” column. She can be reached at 504.896.9591;

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